Silent Opera: Visual Recycling in Olga Neuwirth’s American Lulu

Heidi HART


Billed as a “Jazzy BlackPower BergWerk” at its 2012 premiere, Olga Neuwirth’s adaptation of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu combines jazz, soul, and sound clips of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches in close relationship with the original score. The opera also includes digital projections of Lulu’s face and body, jerkily animated, violently mutilated, or in-vaded by the singer as she walks through her own larger-than-life image. In the Berlin version, a body double dressed as a Las Vegas-style showgirl recycles these projections back into human form. American Lulu has been criticized for its sound-materials’ uneasy ft, without much comment on its visual aspects – a strange lacuna, considering Berg’s interpolation of silent flm in his instructions for the opera, which itself has a mirror-like structure. Drawing on Artaud’s “theater of cruelty,” in tandem with Derrida’s idea of the “supplement” as both excess and remedy, this article argues that the opera’s sonic fault-lines open a space for a parallel, visual opera to emerge, with multiple Lulus engaging each other onstage and informing each subsequent production. This ongoing re-adaptation of Berg’s opera allows the original to be heard less as a canonical work than as an open process in which music is an entry, not an end in itself. By recycling the objectifed female image to excess, this parallel, trans-production silent opera destabilizes its own fetish. Lulu begins to look like a subject facing down the viciously commodifying world to which she has adapted all too well.

Keywords: opera, adaptation, visuality