Lulu is back on stage at Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, until May 30.

Artist and director William Kentridge’s staging of Alban Berg’s Lulu premiered in 2015. A co-production of the Dutch National Opera, The Metropolitan Opera, the English National Opera, and Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, the production is now back on stage in Rome.

We have spoken to the set designer, Sabine Theunissen, to get to know the set in better detail.

Revealing, unrevealing: the set

For Lulu, Theunissen conceived the stage as a single architectural interior. Two sliding panels that function as both stage frame and video projections screen partially or completely reveal a rear space, once in full width, more often only on one side of the stage. During the interludes, the panels slide to the center and are used as a projection screen for the transition videos.

Sabine Theunissen, Lulu | Staging William Kentridge | Photo Yasuko Kageyama
Sabine Theunissen, Lulu | Staging William Kentridge | Photo Yasuko Kageyama

“From the very beginning, the videos and the set have been composed together to achieve a total interaction and complementarity,” Sabine Theunissen told Scenography Today. “I think fragmentation was an important keyword.”

Sabine Theunissen, Lulu | Act 1 Scene 2, plan | Courtesy of S. Theunissen

“I also like to regard the panels not only for what they reveal but also for the part that they cover and keep secret. They suggest an intriguing, unseen, dark space behind them that the spectator can eventually imagine, just like the unrevealed dark corner in Lulu’s story and mind, referring to early psychoanalysis, questioning fear and desire. Two states that are probably the core of the story. Attraction and fascination for a mysterious force.”

To understand the opera, Theunissen also resorted to the movie “Loulou” by Georg Wilhelm Pabst: “I could measure the impact of the close-ups and the central role of the set in the credibility of the characters,” she said. “But Pabst didn’t have to deal with stage requirements, so from that point my main task was to achieve on stage the same intensity of the cinema close-up, not only counting on the projected, big scale drawings but dealing with the stage itself, with the realism of details of the interiors, the intimate scale, along with Alban Berg’s music and William Kentridge’s artistic language.”

The language

Sabine Theunissen, Lulu
Sabine Theunissen, Lulu | On stage | Courtesy of S. Theunissen

As for the language, Theunissen found the key in what she defines a process of combination, as a counterpart to fragmentation. An exact transposition to the full scale of the 1:10 draft model – in which she recycled book covers, coffee containers, tape, sandpaper, etc.- combined with a naturalistic and detailed make of the other items.

“Those props and furniture were vital to set the human scale and speed on stage and to anchor the singers in an oversized room,” Theunissen said. “The angled walls, the profiled ceiling, the leveled floor, the crossed staircases, all of them referring to an art deco style, help to build a large but dynamic interior that the singers can entirely occupy without being lost or looking small or slow.”

Sabine Theunissen, Lulu | Staging William Kentridge | Photo Clärchen & Matthias Baus, courtesy of The Dutch National Opera
Sabine Theunissen, Lulu | Staging William Kentridge | Photo Clärchen & Matthias Baus, courtesy of The Dutch National Opera

The transitions

The next challenge Theunissen reports in designing the stage was Alban Berg’s serial music, especially when a scene transitions into another. “Lulu’s music sounds like a long breathing to me, requiring smooth space transformations rather than clear visual breaks like in the case of a classical curtain.”

“Therefore, all transitions have been conceived to fold and unfold a scene magically, using the sliding panels simultaneously. These work like big erasers, turning and rolling furniture, opening doors and blowing video images away. This has led us to mechanize a lot of the objects on stage requiring endless sessions of technical training to get the rhythm of the movements right.”

Sabine Theunissen, Lulu | Staging William Kentridge | Photo Clärchen & Matthias Baus, courtesy of The Dutch National Opera

The role of videos

“The interaction between the video and the set is always important in our collaboration,” Theunissen said, “the set can be regarded as a very elaborate background, having its own identity, its color, its materiality, its relief, its fractures, transforming itself, moving, sliding, offering infinite combinations in the merging with the black and white video. It is astonishing how the brain responds to those combinations. We do not know what is in the movie and what is a real object on the stage.”

Sabine Theunissen – Lulu (A.Berg) – 2015
DirectorWilliam Kentridge
Co-directorLuc De Wit
Set designerSabine Theunissen
Projection designerCatherine Meyburgh
Costume designerGreta Goiris
Light designerUrs Schönebaum
Video controllerKim Gunning
Photo creditsYasuko Kageyama / TOR, Hermann & Clärchen Baus, courtesy of The Dutch National Opera