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After (A)pollonia, his two versions of Cherubini’s Médée and Verdi’s Macbeth, the Polish stage director has returned to La Monnaie with a new production of Alban Berg’s Lulu. The hidden frustrations and fears of men are expressed in their violence towards this woman, who, in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s vision, is depicted as a borderline creature whose childhood dreams are about achieving a form of infinity through the discipline of classical ballet. The work contains startling contrasts between an ideal of purity, imaginary perfection and a reality which imposes its savagery until murder is committed in the end. The exceptional work of the Viennese composer – unfinished at the time of his death in 1935 – is presented with the third act whose orchestration was completed by Friedrich Cerha.
Do you remember the first time you saw a performance of Lulu?
It was Krystian Lupa's staging of Frank Wedekind's work. In a way it became a legend because, after the successful final dress rehearsal, the premiere did not go very well and Lupa decided to cancel all of the performances.
What is your view of the two plays by Wedekind which inspired the Berg's libretto for his opera, Earth Spirit (Erdgeist) and Pandora's Box (Die Büchse der Pandora)?
I read them when I had seen the film by Pabst with Louise Brooks. The subject interested me immediately of course, but Wedekind's slightly weighty expressionist style has always bothered me. I therefore quickly gave up the idea of staging them. What Berg did is very different. In a certain way, he distances the stylisation in order to give it an existence or human truth.
In mythology, Zeus created Pandora in order to take revenge on man after Prometheus stole the fire. In addition to this legendary figure, there is Eve from the Old Testament, Lilith in the rabbinical tradition and Lulu. How do you interpret our culture's need to give evil and misfortune a woman's body and face?
At the beginning of the 20th century, when Warsaw was under Austro-Hungarian cultural influence, there was a scandal surrounding the presentation in one of the city's museums of a painting entitled Insanity by the young painter Władysław Podkowiński. It depicted a nude woman whose long hair blended with the mane of the horse she was sitting on. She appeared to be in ecstasy or having an orgasm. The reactions were extremely violent. Some people felt that it brought evil into the city and tried to destroy the painting. There are many examples of women who cause fear or murderous frenzy in bourgeois society. How can this be explained? It is hard to say. Nowadays in Poland, feminists take part in social life and intervene in a wide variety of subjects. The chauvinist conservatism of many men cannot bear the existence of women who demand rights. To them, women are also a threat. We might say that we are experiencing a new stage in the very ancient struggle of men against women, in which there is both fascination and repulsion.
What special characteristics would you like to give Lulu?
There are two main options. The first is to stay with tradition and to present the woman as a demon and society as a victim trying to rid itself of her. The second is to depict a chauvinist and vulgar society which lays into a woman who, in this case, is the victim – all the more so if she is presented in a very human way. It is obviously the second option which interests me.
You came across some information about the composer's life which has gone unnoticed for a long time: the existence of a daughter whom he had at age seventeen with a woman who was twice his age and who worked for the Berg family. What is it about this biographical information which seems so important to you?
We know that Berg never took care of her and that he only saw her a few times in his life, apparently always on request of his daughter, whose name – Albine – is a feminine form of his own name. When we think of Wozzeck and Lulu, it is interesting to know that he had a child out of wedlock. Berg could not help seeing himself in some of his characters. Perhaps he even sought this closeness with a painful personal event marked by a guilty conscience. All of this allowed him to make Lulu more human, in contrast with Wedekind. With him, she exists and is real. When he composed his second opera, he certainly had in mind a woman who was both a fallen angel, neglected and with no father, and a woman who had the power to become a demon and a threat to all men. There is an interesting anecdote told by a person who lived with the Berg couple in Vienna. One day when his wife had left the city, Alban Berg was approached in front of his home by a beautiful young woman who asked him for an autograph and permission to take a photograph of him. Berg invited her to come inside. An ambiguous situation arose – something potentially erotic. Once inside the house, the young woman revealed that she was his daughter Albine. The man was seduced by his own daughter without knowing.
In December 1935, when Berg died of septicaemia at age 50, Lulu remained unfinished. He had put an enormous amount of effort into this work for several years. Would you go as far as to say that, given the autobiographical nature of his opera which was completely unknown at the time, he would not have known where to end the work anyway?
There is something which seems to have been unresolved in his life and which certainly made his work difficult between 1930 and 1935, when he tried to write an innovative opera due to its subject and structure, at a time when history was undergoing a metamorphosis following the Nazi rise to power.
Before Lulu, you staged Wozzeck at the Warsaw Opera. Do you feel close to Berg's musical universe?
Yes, absolutely. I feel that he is the opera composer with the keenest sense of theatre. At the world premiere of George Benjamin's Written on Skin the other evening, I was struck by how much this 2012 opera is indebted to Berg. With him, I have the feeling that theatre and opera have never been so close. In Lulu, this theatrical potential is fascinating and brilliant.
For this new production of Lulu, you wished to have young adolescents on stage as you did in your productions of Wozzeck and Macbeth. What is your reason for wanting children on stage in an opera?
Firstly, I feel that as a literary figure, Lulu precedes Nabokov's Lolita, with the idea that an adolescent girl has an erotic potential which can drive a man to madness. In his prologue, Berg – through the intermediary of the animal tamer – presents Lulu as a great danger, more threatening than a wild animal. He says that she was created to attract, seduce and poison. There is therefore the idea that an adolescent girl belongs to the world of the irrational, instinctive urges and Dionysus, as opposed to that of reason, sun and Apollo, and therefore as opposed to a world which tries to control reality with laws and conventions. Hence the metaphor of Pandora's box, which a beautiful young woman opens, changing the face of the universe. Secondly, I like to have children on stage because in opera, they are the heroes without a voice. There has always been the rule in theatre and opera that young-looking adults must play the roles of adolescents. In Shakespeare's time, women were not allowed to be actors, and were therefore played by men. We are still at the same point with respect to children in opera. The fragility of children contrasts with this still so conservative world. The strength of fragility appeals to me. In Wozzeck, the character which affects me most is the child. He interests me. He is the main victim.
At the end of the first act of Lulu, there is a scene in a box at a theatre. We find out that Lulu performed as a dancer in a production staged by Alwa. In your new production, you place great importance on dance and classical ballet. What led you to make this choice?
In order to answer that question, I would first like to mention Berg's biography and his daughter Albine. We know that until the age of four, she lived in an orphanage until her mother Marie (the same name which Berg later gave to the mother of Wozzeck's child) got married to a relatively poor man who raised her. Albine got married at age twenty to the son of a woman writer who was quite well known for her popular and folk novels. Since adolescence, Albine was passionate about literature, music and painting. This marriage allowed her to access a world which had been closed to her during her life in poverty with her mother and step-father. She found a job as a secretary for a woman writer in Vienna. She painted watercolours and posed for artists. I imagine that Albine's interest in art increased tenfold when she found out that she was the daughter of a composer. A natural father who was absent and invisible; both an idol and a devil who did not want to see her. It was this fantasy figure who probably pushed this adolescent in the direction of art. She probably dreamt of becoming an artist in order to be something in the eyes of her father. And it was probably not a coincidence that Berg's Lulu is a young woman without parents who dreams of becoming a dancer. Based on this information, I imagined a girl who had a terrible childhood in strict orphanages where she met the wrong people, and who, at the same time, never stopped dreaming of something pure and virginal, such as classical ballet – a universe in which the greatest dancers are adulated. A universe in which women have always been stronger than men, at least until Noureev. During her sad adolescence, Lulu probably fantasised about being admired for her talent and beauty. Since the release of Aronofsky's The Black Swan, a large number of young girls have joined dance schools because they saw the film and dream of becoming ‘prima ballerinas’. Swan Lake has become a pop phenomenon. It is fascinating to see thousands of adolescent girls adopt such a strict and disciplined lifestyle because they dream of the absolute.
Interview by Christian Longchamp