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21st-Century Lulu

MARLIS PETERSEN, who sings Lulu at the Met this month, is the go-to soprano for Berg’s heroine. By Henry Stewart 

“She’s ungraspable for all the men, and this is why they get crazy.”
21st Century Lulu Portrait lg 1115
Photograph by Y. Mavropoulos
© Y. Mavropoulos
21st Century Lulu Portrait 2 sm 1115
Petersen had a leg up for Dmitri Tcherniakov’s 2015 Munich production of Lulu, her ninth.
© Wilfried Hösl

THE TITLE ROLE  of Alban Berg’s Lulu is one to own. When a great interpreter comes along, the part can be hers and almost hers alone, to sing in any house where some mad impresario has decided to stage it. Right now, that Lulu is Marlis Petersen. 

The forty-seven-year-old German coloratura, who moved to Greece six years ago for the sunshine, first sang the part in Nuremberg almost twenty years ago and has since sung it in Athens and Düsseldorf, Vienna and New York, and most recently in Munich in September. This month, she takes on Lulu again at the Met, in a new production (her tenth) by South African artist and director William Kentridge. Only a few other sopranos have made a similar impact in the role, among them Anja Silja, who sang it with frank sexuality, and Teresa Stratas, who sang it with animalistic lust. But Petersen has redefined the role for the twenty-first century. 

“The critics always say, ‘Oh, this femme fatale and man-murdering person,’ and I can’t agree,” she says during an interview in English this summer. “For me, she’s a young girl in puberty, has grown up in very dirty surroundings and can’t even define herself. She’s ungraspable for all the men, and this is why they get crazy about her. They can’t say, ‘She’s this or that’—she’s everything and nothing at the same time, and men get mad about this, because they can’t understand, you know? Their empathy doesn’t reach where she is.”

Petersen grew up in Sindelfingen, outside Stuttgart, with a mother who appreciated classical music and a father who preferred the hit parade. Their daughter was a piano prodigy who won several competitions, and she studied flute and piano before she started singing at sixteen, in the church choir. She had her come-to-Apollo moment while performing Schubert’s Mass No. 2 in G Major. The next year, the chorus master gave her a solo. “For me, it was a revelation—how easy it was to sing coloraturas and high notes without any lessons ever. Very strange.” Then she laughs, which she does easily, usually after a self-deprecating joke that punctuates a particularly insightful observation. 

Her first Lulu was early on—in 1997, her third year in Nuremberg, where her career began with roles such as the Queen of the Night and Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera. “It fell into my lap,” she says of Lulu. Each act in that production used a different soprano; Petersen performed the first. “But when I heard the other two sing the other acts, I knew immediately that I need to sing this piece complete,” she says. 

Now she has sung it every which way. The most unforgettable production for her was Peter Konwitschny’s, in Hamburg in 2003. “It was a mixture of psychological diving, sexual approach, crazy things.” she says. She adjusts her interpretation according to each production’s demands. “Directors want something very special, and I’m there to serve their ideas. Of course, I have a big range of vocabulary for Lulu now, after ten productions. But I try to come at it always like a white piece of paper, so the director can write his story on me,” she says. “I have to reinvent it always, depending on the concept the director has. Sometimes it can be very abstract, sometimes it’s very psychological. Very interesting for me is whether it’s done by a woman director or by a man, or by a gay person. Usually men have more of the observing, distant view of her. The women, they have a part of Lulu themselves inside.”

Petersen has a bit of Lulu inside herself, too, or so she thinks. “It’s always so close to me. I think I must understand her on a level that I can’t explain. Of course, there must be something in me, maybe in some moments of my life, to have been the naïve child, to walk through life very easily, so that men can easily project something onto you. I think this is an issue many women have.” There are many women of great standing and strong character, she says, “but there are very many others that are still more the victim than they are self-defined. And I think the older we get, the more mature we all become. We get more defined and shaped. But Lulu, for example, with her fifteen years—she’s just somewhere in the beginning of becoming a woman, and she has to deal with all these huge projections and temptations and demands of men.” 

Lulu isn’t the only role Petersen brings so vividly to life. She has impressed audiences in other contemporary works, such as Aribert Reimann’s Medea, as well as in Baroque music and Mozart. She sang Susanna in the production of Figaro that opened the Met’s 2014–15 season. Still, for every Susanna there is another Lulu. “I really love Lulu, and it has become my signature role,” she says. “But of course there is lots of beautiful music.” She cites Richard Strauss; her dream is to sing Salome someday. “We’ll see,” she says. “Usually the singers can’t choose” what they sing. Which is true—sometimes the roles choose them.

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