The Animal Tamer invites the audience to visit his menagerie—featuring “the serpent Lulu.”
Lulu is sitting for her portrait, observed by Dr. Schön, a wealthy newspaper publisher and her long-time lover. Alone with Lulu, the Painter tries to seduce her. Just then her husband, the Physician, forces his way into the room and collapses in shock from a heart attack. Lulu, seemingly unmoved, realizes she is now a rich widow, while the Painter wonders what will happen to her.
Lulu and the Painter have married. She is surprised to learn that Dr. Schön—who years earlier had found her on the streets, given her an education, and then made her his mistress—has become engaged. Schigolch, an old man and friend of Lulu’s who may be her father or a former lover, pays her a visit and she gives him money. Schön now wants Lulu out of his life so that he can marry. He reveals the story of her past to the Painter, who is so horrified by it that he cuts his throat. Schön is shocked by Lulu’s cold reaction to his death. Lulu dismisses his protests, and replies that he will eventually marry her anyway.
Weeks later, Lulu is appearing in a ballet composed by Schön’s son, Alwa. In her dressing room, she tells Alwa of her latest admirer, the Prince. Whilst she is on stage, the Prince talks to Alwa of his love for Lulu. Suddenly she storms back in: she has seen Schön in the audience with his fiancée and refuses to dance in her presence. Schön soon follows Lulu into the dressing roon and demands to be left alone with her. He pleads with her not to stop his marriage, but when she mentions her plans to marry the Prince, he realizes that he is incapable of letting her go. At Lulu’s dictation, he writes a letter to his fiancée to break off the engagement.
Schön and Lulu are now married and living in a luxurious home. Lulu continues to attract a range of admirers, among them the lesbian Countess Geschwitz. Schön is distraught that such people are now part of his life.
The Countess, Schigolch, an Acrobat, and a Schoolboy gather at the Schön house and the three men declare their love for Lulu. Schön’s son Alwa then arrives at the house and, thinking himself alone with Lulu, also declares his love. Schön, who has observed the scene, orders his son to leave, then hands Lulu a revolver, demanding that she shoot herself to protect his reputation. Lulu protests, stating that she has never pretended to be anything but what she is. Schön forces her to her knees but is distracted by the Schoolboy’s cries for help. With his attention diverted, Lulu fires five shots into her husband’s back and begs the returning Alwa not to turn her over to the police.
An orchestral interlude depicts Lulu’s arrest, murder trial, imprisonment, illness with cholera, commitment to the hospital, and the plans for her escape: the Countess, who has allowed herself to be infected with the same disease, is to take Lulu’s place in the hospital.
In Schön’s former apartment, Alwa, the Countess and the Acrobat, awaits Lulu’s return. When she arrives on Schigolch’s arm, the Acrobat is appalled by her wasted appearance and leaves, threatening to betray her to the police. Alone with Lulu, Alwa again declares his love for her and agrees to accompany her to Paris.
A crowd has assembled in Alwa’s Paris mansion in honor of Lulu’s birthday. A number of the company have invested in a new cable railway and question the Banker about their prospects. The Marquis, threatening to reveal Lulu to the police as Schön’s murderer, attempts to blackmail her into working in a brothel, but she defies him. The Acrobat also tries to blackmail Lulu, then Schigolch appears, asking her for money. Lulu breaks into tears. Together with Schigolch, she plots to dispose of the Acrobat by having him killed. There is uproar as the news spreads that the railway shares have collapsed – everyone is ruined. In the confusion that follows Lulu escapes, just as the Marquis arrives with the police.
In a shabby garret in London, Schigolch and Alwa, now syphilitic and a derelict, await Lulu’s return from her first night as a prostitute. She arrives with a client, the Professor, who remains silent throughout the proceedings. As he leaves, the now destitute Countess appears, bringing with her Lulu’s portrait. Lulu and her three admirers contemplate its beauty and how their fate has been bound up with it. Lulu goes into the street again, followed by the Countess, while Alwa reflects on the mess he has made of his life. Lulu returns with another client, an African Prince. In a clumsy attempt to protect her, Alwa attacks him and is killed by him. In despair, Lulu rushes out into the street again. Schigolch drags Alwa’s body away and disappears. The Countess returns. Gazing at the portrait, she considers suicide when Lulu arrives with yet another customer, Jack the Ripper. They argue about money, then go into her room. Suddenly Lulu is heard screaming – Jack has killed her. The Countess tries to help but in the struggle that follows Jack stabs her as well. He leaves as the dying Countess cries out for Lulu.
Reprinted courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera