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  • How Many Voices Can She Have?Destabilizing Desire and Identification in American Lulu
  • Clara Hunter Latham (bio)

Olga Neuwirth's American Lulu reinterprets Alban Berg's Lulu against the backdrop of the American civil rights movement. White European characters are recast as African Americans, and the drama is interspersed with spoken excerpts from the writings of Martin Luther King. Even more radical, perhaps, are the gender politics of Neuwirth's revision—and, specifically, its approach to the character of Countess Geschwitz, Lulu's steadfast companion and would-be lesbian lover. In Berg's opera, Geschwitz's unrequited love can easily seem peripheral to the larger plot. Neuwirth, however, seizes on this relationship. Geschwitz—now "Eleanor," a Blues singer—emerges as the hero, choosing a path of moral good (and evading her original fate at the hands of Jack the Ripper), while Lulu herself remains mired in a sexualized subservience to men. American Lulu premiered at Berlin's Komische Oper in 2012, where it was dubbed a "Jazzy BlackPower Bergwerk." Subsequent performances have taken place at the Bregenz Festival, Edinburgh International Festival, and London's Young Vic, yet it has also been met with mixed reviews, leaving some listeners baffled by the meaning of its transformations.1

In her own writing on the opera, Neuwirth claims that she intended to revise the characters of Lulu and Geschwitz from a model in which women are victims of their inherently evil natures to one that grants the protagonists autonomy over their actions. Her decision to locate this drama of female agency in the context of American racial politics may be part of what makes her opera compelling, but it also makes it problematic, particularly from a position of intersectionality. Neuwirth's success in liberating the character of Eleanor challenges us to confront how we listen to and understand the different characters' vocal interactions and the operatic world they inhabit.

This article approaches the challenges posed by the opera in general, and the character of Eleanor specifically, through several different angles. First, a character-ological analysis considers the implications of Eleanor's escape. Employing Diana Fuss's reconfiguration of Freud's notion of homosexuality, I explore the ways in which articulations of female subjectivity play out on the operatic stage, discussing the contemporary consequences of both Freudian psychoanalysis and early [End Page 303] twentieth-century feminism. Second, I analyze how Eleanor's independence is musically signaled in her voice, paying particular attention to the climactic scene in act 3, in which Eleanor turns away from Lulu. Last, through an intersectional analysis, I examine how race acts as a vector of power that interacts with sex and sexual orientation. Neuwirth's choices reveal a conjoining of politico-historical and aesthetic impressions of the 1960s, which act in service of her particular expression of female agency in a racialized and sexualized context. The revisions of both the cultural setting and the Eleanor character epitomize a myth of American self-determinism cast with a racialized lens.

Opera and Freud: A Marriage of Convenience

Invoking Freud in the context of opera is a hardly a new move: in doing so here, I am revisiting familiar territory. A recent double issue of Opera Quarterly devoted to "Opera after Freud" argues that the cultural formation of fin-de-siècle opera and psychoanalysis are cut from the same cloth. On the face of it, this claim is tough to dispute. The issue's exploration of a handful of prominent turn-of-the-century operas through a Freudian lens is, however, more conceptual than historical. Indeed, "Opera after Freud" often seems to mean "listening to opera after reading Freud";2 yet to trace correlations between Freud's own words and familiar operatic narratives is by and large to ignore the century-long project of reading psychoanalysis against itself, dismantling its racist and sexist language. Given the well-established feminist critiques of psychoanalysis that read Freud against his own gender essentialisms, it would seem possible to read operas truly after Freud. To do so would mean to read operas written after Freudian psychoanalysis had established itself on the European and American cultural imaginaries, and thus participate in a...


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