The making of Scottish Opera’s American Lulu
Jazz singer Jacqui Dankworth tries her hand at opera, joining US soprano Angel Blue in a radical reworking of Alban Berg’s enigmatic masterpiece, American Lulu. They explain it all to Susan Mansfield
JACQUI Dankworth remembers the day she listened to a recording of American Lulu for the first time. An actress and award-winning jazz singer, the daughter of Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine has plenty of strings to her bow, but so far they have not included opera. The reworking of Alban Berg’s unfinished masterpiece by contemporary composer Olga Neuwirth was a challenge of a different magnitude.
Neuwirth has transplanted Berg’s opera from decadent 1920s Europe to New Orleans in the 1950s, at the heart of the civil rights struggle. Incorporating elements of Berg’s score, as well as writing new music, she has used an emphasis on wind instruments to create a more jazz-age sound. Dankworth will play Eleanor, a reworking of Berg’s character Countess Geschwitz, Lulu’s erstwhile lover and a jazz singer.
But many elements of the job are still operatic. “When I first heard it, I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, how on earth am I going to be able to do this?’” says Dankworth. “But as you start studying it and practising it, it comes.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, American soprano Angel Blue was having very similar thoughts. The rising opera star is delighted to have the opportunity to sing the part of Lulu, considered one of the great roles in modern opera, but also one of the most demanding. Neuwirth’s adaptation, which has Lulu on stage throughout, has only added to that. “I knew it was a very difficult piece of music and that it was going to take me some time to learn it. I’m glad I started when I did! But I do really love the music. It’s been a great challenge for me, but actually I’m a better musician because of it.”
Blue and Dankworth head up the cast for the UK premiere of American Lulu, created by Scottish Opera under the direction of John Fulljames. Fulljames says that relocating Berg’s headstrong, tragic femme fatale to the Deep South in the 1950s gives the story a fresh urgency. “It was written as a piece about oppression and freedom in relationship to gender. What Olga has done is add a parallel debate about freedom and oppression in relation to race, which somehow gives the piece a fresh charge. It feels uncomfortable, I think, in the way that it did when it was new.”
Berg based his opera on two plays written by the German playwright Frank Wedekind in the 1890s, Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) and Die Buchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box). These caused controversy at the time with their open references to sex and lesbian love, as Berg’s work did in 1937. It was premiered in Zurich, as nowhere else in the German-speaking world could stage a work so “degenerate”.
Lulu is seen as one of the great enigmas of opera. She is sometimes described as a symbol as much as a person, a vacuum at the heart of her own story. Beautiful, alluring and dangerous, she drives men to suicide and despair, but as her star falls she ends up working as a prostitute and, in Berg’s version, is murdered by Jack the Ripper. According to one writer: “She is all things to all men. She is a snare and the one who sets you free, the hunter and the hunted… She is a contradiction. She is a blank. She is what you want her to be.”
Perhaps the most radical element of Neuwirth’s reworking is her decision to tell the story from Lulu’s own perspective. She has said she wanted “to reconsider this mystical female figure from the perspective of a woman, a composer of my generation”.
When I meet Dankworth and Blue, in the early weeks of rehearsals, they are gradually learning about these complex characters. Blue says she sees Lulu as a damaged woman who in turn manipulates and damages others. “I see her as a vain person, someone who is only interested in their wellbeing and what benefits them. She reminds me of the Joker in Batman, who has this smile on his face but is incredibly evil.”
“She is quite a difficult character to like,” says Dankworth. “She’s obviously got charisma, people are totally drawn to her, but she’s just so nasty to people. She’s nasty to Eleanor. Eleanor is someone who sees herself as quite a strong person, but she gets completely destroyed by this love, this obsession. Her story is pretty harrowing. All the characters seem to go through the mill, I’m not sure any of them come out unscathed.”
Snatches of speeches by Martin Luther King and poems by June Jordan are woven into the story, adding a new set of pressures on the characters: as Black Americans, they must rise to Martin Luther King’s challenge to be “people of goodwill”. Fulljames says: “In a way, I think instead of being a vacuum, Lulu becomes defined as a freedom fighter. She is a participant in the civil rights struggle, and the only canvas which she has to play out that struggle is the canvas of her own life.”
Blue, who is sunny, sweet and unfailingly polite (she apologises when she uses the word “bitch”) says she is trying to spend as long out of character as possible “just to keep my own sanity about me,” but she is excited by the way the opera touches on the civil rights struggle. “As an African American, it reminds me of all the things I learned in elementary school. I think every person on earth has experienced racism of some kind, people making assumptions about who they are. I feel like it’s a sort of retelling of a person’s story. It doesn’t just have to be a black American or a woman. I think it’s many people’s stories.”
Blue fell in love with singing at the age of five when her father, a classically trained singer who made his living singing Gospel, got her a cassette by Leontyne Price. She helped pay her way through college by entering beauty pageants (she was Miss Hollywood 2005), invariably winning the talent section with her singing. After training at LA Opera and UCLA, she made her professional debut in 2008 as Clara in Porgy and Bess. “My mother was a pianist and violinst. I grew up hearing all kinds of music in the house, but I just loved opera. It’s the only thing I really wanted to do.”
Dankworth was eight when she realised she wanted to be on stage. “We went to the RSC at Stratford-upon-Avon, a production of Comedy of Errors which had music in it. It was a stellar cast – I think Judi Dench was in it – I remember I wanted to fly down to the stage and join them.” Dankworth trained in acting at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and went on to work at the RSC and National Theatre.
Perhaps, she says, her decision to go for acting was a way of finding her own path, having grown up in the shadow of two musical legends. But soon her singing voice was noticed and she was cast as Cinderella in Sondheim’s Into The Woods. She later formed a band, Fields of Blue, with her (now ex-) husband Harvey Brough, and moved into writing her own songs. Now with a stack of albums to her name, she has worked with an impressive range of collaborators, including Bjork, Sting, Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet. “I just did my own thing, have always done my own thing. I was never under pressure from my parents, I think the pressures mainly come from other people. I’ve just thrown myself into everything I do.”
But one of the particular attractions of American Lulu is a chance to bring acting and music together. “Because I come from a musical background and I also studied acting, marrying the two is a thing I love to do. Opera is for me a challenge. To be a great actor and a great singer in an opera context is really, really hard. But when there is great music and great acting, when the two are put together, it’s very powerful.”
MORE INFO: American Lulu is at the King’s Theatre, 30 and 31 August, 7:15pm. www.eif.co.uk