During summer’s dog days this past August, the normally empty orchestra seats of New York’s Metropolitan Opera were draped with computers and cables attended by a host of projection and lighting technicians. They were working with South African director and filmmaker William Kentridge, who conceived a complex and highly technical production for the fall 2015 season. Onstage, a group of “light walkers” (akin to movie stand-ins) moved across the stage at his direction as dozens of lights were spotted, set and programmed.
Even by the grand standards of the Met, this ambitious production of Alban Berg’s 20th century opera masterpiece Lulu presents formidable challenges. Incorporating more than 200 still and video projections, this American iteration of the 2015 Dutch National Opera production was a labyrinthine undertaking.
In a brief video, Kentridge explains how he created the visual frame for the opera. This includes shots from the Dutch production:
The seductress Lulu is played in New York by soprano Marlis Petersen. The role of her would-be lesbian lover, Countess Geschwitz, is performed by beloved American mezzo Susan Graham.
Here is a rehearsal-room clip showing Kentridge directing Petersen and Martin Winkler in a scene from Act Three.
Lulu is not the Met’s first multimedia venture with Kentridge. Three years ago, the artist created a mesmerizing production of Shostakovich’s surreal opera The Nose from a Gogol story; it employed Soviet Constructivist graphics, period-cinema clips and film-animation sequences created by Kentridge. (I wrote about it here.)
Although Kentridge enjoys a foray into the madness of grand opera every five years or so, he is best known as a printmaker and film-animation artist.
He describes Lulu as an “opera of cruelty.” But Lulu’s pain is also one of empathy, a pervasive theme in Kentridge’s animated films. His characteristic harnessed-but-intense emotion is on full display in this clip from History of the Main Complaint. If you don’t already know Kentridge’s film work, this is a moving introduction.
In the half-hour video How We Make Sense of the World, Kentridge freely discusses his creative process, both the conception and his highly unique execution of classic hand-drawn animation, a technique increasingly rare in an age of computer graphics. We see him in encounters with his Doppelgänger and in earnest monologue, always tinged with humor, about his great theme of the uncertainty of certainty and its crucial bearing on creativity.
It’s logical to ask why an artist like Kentridge, who so often works alone, would want to subject himself to the rigors, mad egos and vicissitudes that are the hallmarks of international grand opera. For Kentridge, the challenge is only partly technical. For all the dynamic staging with smoke and mirrors that live theater can project, it is the deeply dramatic exploration of the most urgent of human passions cloaked in ravishing music that attracts him — and that is something only opera can project.
The libretto of Lulu derives from Frank Wedekind’s late 19th century dramas Earth Spirit (Erdgeist) and Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora); the libretto is an adaptation by the composer. Wedekind’s plays are also the source of G.W Pabst’s 1929 film Pandora’s Box, a hallmark of late German Expressionist cinema. It is the role with which Louise Brooks is forever identified.
The term Gesammtkunstwerk was first used by German philosopher Trahndorff, but Richard Wagner adopted it several decades later to explain the aesthetic ideals for his future operas — excuse me, “music dramas” (his preferred designation). Wagner foresaw the production of his music as a “total art work,” and to that end he had an opera house at Bayreuth built for his 15-plus-hour four-opera masterpiece, The Ring of the Nibelungen. Wagner’s musical and production revolution was so widespread by the end of the 19th century that it even influenced the late operas of the traditionalist, Giuseppe Verdi, a lyrical aria genius who adopted in his late operas Otello and Falstaff Wagner's preferred uninterrupted musical and vocal lines.
Opera began employing multimedia effects shortly after it was born in the early 17th century. The integration of design, dance, costumes, lighting and sound effects (including lightning and pyrotechnics) distinguished opera from mere theater very early on. Wagner’s last work, Parsifal, debuted little more than a decade before the Lumières created public motion-picture exhibition, shortly after Christmas in 1895. Had Wagner lived longer, is there any doubt he would have added photographic and motion-picture projection to the rich stew of his music dramas?
The first performance of Lulu, two years after Berg’s death in 1935, took place in Zurich. Midway through the opera, there is a scripted palindromic film sequence mandated by the composer — a film buried inside a play, a device also used by the young Orson Welles in his Mercury Theatre production Too Much Johnson, which was staged at about the same time.
The cast-specific film for Lulu is called for in every production, though it is often not done today. Berg’s unfinished two-act version of Lulu was the one performed until 1976. For decades, the composer’s widow, Helene, refused any attempt to fully score Berg’s third-act sketches, but shortly after her death, the third act was completed by Austrian composer Friederich Cerha. A staging of the “complete” Lulu made its U.S. debut in Santa Fe on July 28, 1979.
Lulu is a popular production at the Met despite its challenging score, a venture into the 12-tone row system that Berg adopted from his teacher and surrogate father Arnold Schönberg. The new Kentridge production is the Met’s third mounting of this now universally acknowledged masterpiece. Following the design and staging mode of The Nose, it will embody the full resources of a post-Wagnerian Gesammtkunstwerk. But unlike Wagner’s sometimes-bloated epics of ethnic, national and racial identity, Lulu is a tightly focused, intimate drama, the tale of a desirable young woman’s struggle for selfhood in a male-dominated culture intent on exploiting her sexual allure. For both Wedekind and Berg (and, for that matter, Pabst), Lulu is no mere victim. She is single-minded, ambitious, fully cognizant of her allure and willing to use it to achieve her ends — qualities that make her certifiably contemporary.
The design frame of this production is visually rooted in Germany’s late Weimar Republic, a chaotic decade that many feel has parallels in Western societies today. It is this relevance as contemporary metaphor that fuels the new Met production.
On a purely visual level, Kentridge looks like an unlikely prophet of today’s hipness. A bit stout, a bit balding, and always wearing a long-sleeved (often ink-splattered) white shirt, he resembles more a bourgeois businessman, even a 21st century door-to-door Willy Loman.
Don’t be fooled! Supremely in command of his craft, and just as articulate in talking about it, Kentridge is a kind of visionary, as you can see by viewing his deeply introspective animation studies of existential angst. Both The Nose and Lulu are perfect vehicles for the super-heated, internal musings of his often-troubled characters. Here is his animated short Felix in Exile:
I just found an engrossing hour-long video of Kentridge discussing Lulu with Pierre Audi, director of the Dutch National Opera, the company that developed this production. Audi was recently named artistic director of the Park Ave. Armory, a Manhattan site known for ambitious and avant-garde staging of oft-neglected works of theater and music. Audi and Kentridge’s discussion is framed by extensive clips of important German and expressionist silent films of the 1920s, with musical accompaniment by Michael Moore (clarinet), Marta Warelis (piano) and Clemens van der Feen (bass). Included are scenes from Walter Ruttman’s great street documentary of 1927, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City; Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, with Marlene Dietrich as Lola; Pabst’s Pandora’s Box; Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, and Paul Leni’s Waxworks. Each of these films reflects the often-paranoid Zeitgeist of Lulu’s social milieu.
Kentridge and Audi’s absorbing conversation took place at Amsterdam’s museum of film, the Eye, which at the time was hosting an exhibition and retrospective of Kentridge’s work.
Now in its 135th season, the Metropolitan Opera is also celebrating the 10th anniversary of its wildly successful Live in HD program, which transmits each season 10-12 Saturday-matinee performances via satellite into movie theaters around the world. The Kentridge production of Lulu, which has received a rave review in the New York Times, will be shown on Nov. 21. In Southern California alone, three-dozen theaters will screen it. To find a theater near you, check the website.
Since Live in HD was inaugurated in 2006, its venues have expanded to 2,000 screens in 66 countries. On Nov. 21, I’ll be watching Lulu from Cineplex's Scotiabank Theatre in Vancouver.
These Met Opera screenings are unlike anything you’ve seen in proscenium-bound, Great Performances-style videos. For Live in HD, nearly a dozen extreme-long-lens cameras are placed in the orchestra seating. At least one, often two, cameras on Technocranes, positioned stage right of the orchestra pit, capture high angles and sweeping moves. The “secret weapon” camera is a low-angle, silent, robotic rig on a rail placed between the back of the pit and the prompter’s box. Its dramatic position and proximity to the action creates an immersive experience, not unlike that in an Orson Welles movie. Before each live transmission, there is usually a single full rehearsal with cast for the cameras. The video director plans the angles that are called live to the headset-rigged camera operators, similar to the multi-screen monitor board in a rock-concert film.
Here is a trailer for the 2015-16 season:
One of the masters of the intricate choreography these transmissions require is video director Gary Halvorson, who, along with his crew, was featured in an intermission video during the Oct. 17 Live in HD broadcast of Verdi’s Otello. Halvorson has so far directed 48 Live in HD transmissions, including the 2013 production of The Nose. But Halvorson, who studied piano at Juilliard, is no highbrow. He directed 55 episodes of the sitcom Friends and continues to direct numerous other television shows and music specials. The Met’s video shows him walking toward the venue’s main entrance, pausing at the Revson Fountain to reflect on his lifetime dream to work at the world’s greatest opera house.
During intermissions, frequent onscreen host Renee Fleming interviews the principal cast as they come offstage, even before they head to their dressing rooms. Especially interesting to watch are the two Steadicam cameras that often follow the IATSE Local 1 stagehands as they change the sets; this usually requires nearly a hundred stagehands to move and position huge set pieces in the interval's 20 plus minutes. The intermission clock ticks away in the corner of the theater screen, and this countdown sometimes provides its own drama as you hear the stagehands struggling to lock in place staircases, floating walls, chandeliers and even flowing streams that are soon to create the stunning visual legerdemain for hundreds of thousands of opera lovers.
As a filmmaker who is used to creating a movie in small pieces, with repeated takes to perfect every actor and camera gesture and move, I have boundless respect for the organizational skills required for any complex live performance, and there is nothing as intricate and demanding as these stagings of the Met Opera. To see a live production on a large cinema screen (along with those intermission glances into the backstage clockworks) is an experience to be repeated often.
See you at the opera on Nov. 21. And as they say before the curtain rises, “Toi, toi, toi!”