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  • An Incomplete Life:Lulu and the Performance of Unfinishedness
  • Axel Englund (bio)

What does unfinishedness mean to opera criticism in the wake of the performative turn? One familiar answer suggests that it means everything. Toward the end of the millennium, as live performance became a central focus of opera studies, the idea of a definitive version of an operatic text came to seem less and less appealing, as did the very notion of an operatic "work."1 Instead, scholars valorized the elusive, mutable, or open-ended, and opera itself was imagined as an unfinished business, its ontology anchored in the moment of performance. But if the performative turn celebrated "unfinishedness," it also rendered the concept oddly void of meaning. Strictly speaking, the finishedness of an opera can only be measured against one version or another of the work concept. Once the composer's intention has lost its authority and the essence of an opera is situated less in its script than in its live instantiation, what does it mean to speak of an unfinished opera? If the locus of opera is the performance rather than the score, can Turandot be said to be any less complete than Tosca just because Alfano or Berio wrote the notes for the final scene? If the work is recast as a unique event that concludes every time the curtain falls, what space is left for the inconclusive?

Although these questions have a bearing on opera criticism in general, they derive from my engagement with one particular opera, and in this article I will reroute them back into it: Alban Berg's Lulu, which the composer struggled with from the late 1920s until his death in 1935.2 In November of that year, Berg suffered an unfortunate insect bite that would lead to his death by blood poisoning on Christmas Eve. At that point, the two first acts and 268 of the 1326 measures in the third had been fully orchestrated, while the rest was notated only in short score, of which 87 measures were also left incomplete.3 This state of affairs famously arose because Berg had been deflected from his opera by the commission of a violin concerto, which he dedicated to the memory of Manon Gropius (Alma Mahler's daughter, who had died at the age of eighteen the same year). Berg's homage to a life that ended too soon, only months before his own, condemned his operatic chef d'oeuvre to a life without an ending. [End Page 20]

In his book Remaking the Song, Roger Parker describes unfinished works in terms of two competing allegories of temporality, one artistic and the other biographical: "On the one hand is a work whose temporal span is unnaturally foreshortened, whose lack of an ending marks it as forever imperfect. On the other hand, though, this very lack necessarily engages a further, equally exigent allegory of temporality, that of the composer's life history, which completes itself in the act of leaving the work unfinished."4 Parker's precise formulation seems to resonate particularly strongly in Lulu, and not only because Berg's operatic self-portrait, Alwa, presages the composer's fate by dying before the completion of the final act. For several reasons, the fact of this opera being marked as "forever imperfect" is extra frustrating. It is typically regarded as the crowning achievement of Berg's artistic life, and its status as one of the few modernist masterworks to enter the repertoire aligns the end of that life with the purported death of the genre itself in the twentieth century (thus adding a third, more expansive temporality to those noted by Parker). Beyond this, however, the modernist ethos has woven the fantasy of complete structural perfection into every fiber of its composition. Before turning my attention to a noteworthy recent performance of Lulu at the Staatsoper Hamburg, I will elaborate on this last point and its significance for the reception history of Berg's singularly engaging and uncomfortable opera.

Stages of Loss: Toward an Acceptance of the Unfinished

From the basic dodecaphonic impulse to systematically exhaust the chromatic scale, to the overarching chiasmus of the three...


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