In The Dyer’s Hand (1962), W. H. Auden noted that implausibility is the stuff of opera. Librettists revel in shopworn stage conventions—selected villains and nobles, cross-dressers and crossed identities, fluently managed hide-and-seek, violence and the rough stuff just at the right moment. Few operas take this to the extreme of Alban Berg’s Lulu. It stretches plausibility and even melodrama to the breaking point. But Lulu is more than just an expressionist experiment; it is also a commentary on opera’s melodramatic clichés, ironically gesturing toward many an opera past. In a very low bow to Da Ponte and Hoffmansthal, for example, Lulu features a “trouser” role.

The libretto was drawn from two dramas by Frank Wedekind. Lulu is a young low life from some German city, without genealogy or credentials. She is called Lulu most of the time, but is also known variously as Eve,...


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