A Very New ‘Lulu’


an opera by Alban Berg, produced by William Kentridge
Metropolitan Opera, November 5–December 3, 2015
Marlis Petersen as Lulu and Johan Reuter as Dr. Schön in William Kentridge’s production of Lulu, 2015
Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Marlis Petersen as Lulu and Johan Reuter as Dr. Schön in William Kentridge’s production of Lulu, 2015

And all the rest of her a shifting change,
A broken bundle of mirrors…!

—Ezra Pound, “Near Perigord”

A sketch of a standing woman, half-naked, bending to the side as if posing on demand, the eyes downcast and the lips frowning, brushed in black ink by William Kentridge, is hoisted in front of the Met to announce Kentridge’s new production of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu. It is not a solidly imposing image, not a by now familiar memento of a historic era (like, say, a blow-up of Louise Brooks playing Lulu in G.W. Pabst’s 1929 film Pandora’s Box), but rather something that as light passes through it seems to go in and out of visibility: an immense transparency, wraith as pin-up, never quite here, never quite gone.

It is Kentridge’s second round at the Met. His production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose five years ago was an extravagant debut, using the spaces of the Met stage with freewheeling invention and bombarding the audience with visual stimuli at a pace almost impossible to consciously track, as if we were being given not merely an interpretation of The Nose but a palimpsest of myriad interpretations unfolding simultaneously. The youthful bravado of Shostakovich’s work clearly lent itself to such an approach. Some wondered in advance if Kentridge’s characteristically overflowing style might not risk getting in the way of the compressed complexities of Berg’s Lulu.

Overflow is an unavoidable image in thinking about Kentridge. Where to begin with him? Or does it matter? Over and again the work seems to suggest otherwise. Anywhere we dip in we find ourselves amid “a cacophony of information always rebeginning,” to borrow a phrase from the first of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures that he delivered at Harvard in 2012.1 With Kentridge the rebeginning is indeed perpetual. No sooner does he give a shape to something than it generates further evolutions and spinoffs, whether in the form of drawings or animations or live-action films or operas or books or lectures, the Norton Lectures themselves spilling well beyond the ordinary limits of the genre, making free use of image and gesture and sound and silence. Kentridge’s works, in all their varieties, exist not separately but in lively communication, or perhaps mutual infiltration, with one another. Securely walled-off borders are not to be found.

This fall, during the lead-up to Lulu, Kentridge’s work seemed to be everywhere around New York. We have had elaborate volumes surveying two of his long-term projects: a series of drawings executed on the pages of the 1906 account book of a South African gold mine and the cycle of animated films charting the imagined life of a…

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