The Lore of Desire

Everybody loves Lulu - the woman and the opera. But what is the strange secret that draws us back to Berg's masterpiece? Philip Hensher unravels one of music's great mysteries
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In a way, the story of Lulu, the tragic heroine of Frank Wedekind's two-part play, is rather a dangerous one for an opera. The fact that Alban Berg's Lulu – the opera he began in 1929 and left unfinished at his death in 1935 – works at all is a testament to the composer's mastery. It could so easily be completely ludicrous. It all stands or falls on a single convention: that Lulu herself is a woman of almost unbounded sexual desirability. Almost every character in the opera, staged in a new production by ENO this week, is prepared to destroy his or her own life in exchange for going to bed with her.

When this conceit is put in a novel, in Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson (1911), for instance, we accept it as a convention. But on the operatic stage? Everyone knows what sopranos are like, and if we've seen some Lulus of unforgettable sexual allure, like the tantalizingly remote caryatid of Christine Schaefer at Glyndebourne in 1996, we've also seen some where a certain suspension of disbelief has been necessary – better not to name names. The fact remains that Lulu always works, if the orchestra can play most of the notes – not something to be taken for granted in this terrifying score – and the singer playing Geschwitz can reliably hit the top A flat at the end. The reason that the gigantic, inhuman mechanism of the Berg Lulu is such an unforgettably convincing statement of obsession is that it exerts much the same power as it claims its heroine does over the other characters. Berg, here, put all his faith in his own powers of mesmerism, and brought off a gamble with what increasingly looks like the greatest opera of the 20th century. The characters are obsessed with Lulu: we are obsessed with Lulu: we know exactly what it feels like.

Arnold Bennett said that a great work of art has to contain at least one sympathetic character. He would scratch his head over the hold of Lulu and its unmitigatedly loathsome or contemptible cast of characters. The action, too, is gleefully preposterous and, in summary, appears like the cheapest and most sensational Victorian melodrama. A woman of low and mysterious origins marries well, on the basis of an overwhelming sexual presence. When her husband dies upon discovering her seducing a painter, she marries the painter. When the painter discovers that his sudden huge success was entirely due to the subsidy and influence of her oldest lover, Schoen, he cuts his throat. When Schoen discovers her entertaining an entire menage of new lovers, including his own son, he tries to force her to shoot herself, but she kills him instead. Fleeing to Paris with Schoen's son, her identity as a murderess is discovered and she escapes to London where, reduced to prostitution, she is finally murdered by Jack the Ripper. What possible merit, the audience may ask, can be found in so wild and implausible a farrago, where no possibility is ever acknowledged that a human being can be anything but a fool or a knave?

My first opportunity to get to know Lulu as a whole was foiled by a burst appendix. In 1979, 44 years after Berg's death, the complete opera was given its premiere by the Paris Opera under Pierre Boulez. For decades, the third act had been withheld by the composer's widow, Helene Berg; only with her death was it possible for Friedrich Cerha to realize the extremely full manuscript, and bring it to performance. It was probably the most important operatic premiere of the century, and the BBC announced a broadcast from Paris. I had other things on my mind; a badly burst appendix had led to a dangerous case of peritonitis, and after three weeks in a hospital bed, I shivered and trembled with emaciated delirium. The night of the Lulu premiere, so long anticipated, I marked with hours of babbling hallucinations. Lulu is all about the power of the body, and the attempts to discover the distinction between the body as an object, and as a container of the self. In my own way, just as painfully, I was learning those same lessons in an NHS ward in Sheffield. Circumstances had contrived to separate me from the beloved object, and would continue to do so. I wouldn't see the opera on stage for another 15 years.

But circumstances had always done that, come between the world and its Lulu. Wedekind's original plays, completed in 1902, are more or less unperformable; at full length, they would exceed Gotterdammerung by at least an hour or two. Modern performances, such as the Almeida's rendering starring Anna Friel last year, are invariably savagely cut texts. And the history of the opera, too, served to place it behind a veil of impossibility, and for years it simply could not be done. Why Helene Berg, following her husband's death, suppressed the great third act when it was all but complete, is a considerable mystery. Arnold Schoenberg, Berg's teacher, refused to do the necessary work, and Helene concluded that it therefore could not properly be done. It may be that Schoenberg took offence at some anti-Semitic expressions, used by unsympathetic characters. It may be, too, that in the second scene, in which Dr Schoen drives a painter to suicide, he found an unbearable reminder of one of the most painful episodes in his own life, when in 1908 he persuaded his then wife to abandon her lover, the painter Richard Gerstl, who then killed himself. For whatever reason, Schoenberg's refusal had the effect of turning Lulu into a tantalizing curiosity for over 40 years, and the magnificent third act into the stuff of rumour. Lulu disappeared from music history until 1979, and when it reappeared and the full implications of its architecture became apparent, it began to influence art music as if it had been written yesterday. The combination of intricate, ludic structures such as the inexorable symmetries and reversals of the second half with high expressivity became very 1980s. The sound of the orchestra, all alto saxophone and vibraphone, began to ring in composers' ears. The dazzling multiplicities, the layers and streaming references of the party scene in the third act, which for me is the most remarkable stretch of the whole opera, were heard for the first time, and composers started to learn from the opera, and become themselves.

For a mere novelist, Lulu could not teach in such a direct way. What fascinated me, and went on fascinating me, was the prophylaxis between Lulu and its besotted admirers; the barriers erected by time and chance between its music and its waiting audience. History provided such a barrier, and, even once it was performed, the slips and failures of instruments and voices went on providing another. I started to be haunted by the idea that art, at its greatest, existed in some ideal realm where nothing could provide an embodiment. Before 1979, one dreamt of Lulu; afterwards, there would never be a Lulu to match the one in your head.

I started to think that only at some moments of blazing force did one glimpse that ideal opera – they were strange, unpredictable moments, often of no great significance. But what placed the beauty of this opera in a league of its own were that tantalizing sense of unattainability, the sense that you will never quite hear Lulu whole. And now, I see that sense of reaching desire has dominated everything serious I've ever written. When I came to write my first novel, Other Lulus, it was, inevitably, about the fact of this opera itself, and about more music which would never be heard, and if heard, never understood. The opera I wrote with Thomas Ades, Powder Her Face was, too, about an ageing Lulu, a woman who at some level wanted to be an operatic heroine and unable to hear the music all around her. But bigger subjects, too, appeared to me matter of unfulfilled, unfulfillable desire even in the act of possession. In my novel The Mulberry Empire, I found myself unable to think of the British Empire as anything but an enterprise in search of its own ideal empire, only able to see the tormenting gap between what it had and what it wanted to achieve; the audience at the opera house, drenched in the sound of Berg's opera, and still wanting more, a lover of Lulu, holding her tight and knowing that even this could never be enough.

Lulu was completed in 1979, but in another way, it will never be completed; you will never get to the bottom of it, not through its intricacy and complexity, but because the single mystery at its heart is beyond all words. The cruellest, strangest mystery of the opera is that Lulu herself knows what she can do, but has no idea how, or why; she herself is as helpless before her sexual appeal as the least of her lovers. And there is an increasing sense that the opera, too, is appalled at its own power; has, as it starts to run backwards, decided to stop any complicity in its own allure and violence, to join its audience in their sense of an occult, unspeakable mystery unfolding, unstoppably, unendingly.

'Lulu', English National Opera, Coliseum, London WC2 (020 7632 8300) from Wednesday to 30 May