The Modern Opera ‘Lulu’ Rocks Eastern’s Theatre, Brings Diversity to the Stage


By Annika

Natalie Ann Yepez’s stage name is Maluca Mala. The name Maluca in Spanish is a derivative of Mala which means bad or mean girl. In Portuguese, Maluca means a crazy or mischievous girl. So when Yepez was approached to do a modern opera based on a character who describes herself as “the true animal, the wild, beautiful animal” and the “primal form of a woman”, well … Yepez knew it was fate. 

Joseph Budenholzer (composer/librettist) had known Yepez for some time and knew she would be perfect for the part. On saying yes to the role, Yepez says, “Joe approached me and was like, ‘Listen, I’m a white guy, I’m not a rapper, I’m not a badass brown woman, and this is a role for a badass brown woman.’ And so we worked on it together. I had never worked in theatre before and it sounded like a great opportunity and I just thought the story was so relevant in context to where we are cultural. And I love the character … surprisingly we have a lot of similarities. I grew up in New York in the 90s, there was a lot of grittiness, we were young, and latchkey kids. New York kids are tough, they grow up fast. And this was post the crack epidemic so New York was like this apocalyptic town. But there was also a lot going on, there was a lot of art, a lot of culture, a lot of character.”

Yepez’s character’s name is Lulu—which is also the name of this modern opera, which in turn is based on the tragic masterpiece “Earth Spirit” by Frank Wedekind. Lulu is a homeless child living in Vienna at the end of the 19th century. As a vulnerable child, she is groomed by a predatory father figure, resulting in pain, suffering and childhood trauma that shapes her as an adult. Lulu grows up to be a fierce survivalist, a seducer and predator herself, who rips through the lives of all who love her. It’s a story of struggle, strength, and despair.  

“It is crazy how similar my life is to Lulu’s,” admits Yepez. “People are like, ‘How long have you been prepping for this character?’ And I’m like, ‘My whole life.’”

Natalie Ann Yepez, Artist

Yepez says that just like in her life, there is a lot of tragedy in “Lulu”; the character deals with a lot of hardships. “And I’ve had a fair amount of hardships,” explains Yepez. “Family stuff and partying when I was younger. I’m sober now, but it can get rough when you’re partying and you’re young and you’re in New York City, you know. You have shitty relationships … that’s something else Lulu and I share. And traveling and having the queer friends. There is so much I could relate with in this character, and all the different aspects of life … it’s like potpourri of all the best stuff.”

Lulu presented this potpourri of life in opera form at Eastern Connecticut State University, in collaboration with the New York City-based theater/opera company Ridge Theater last month. Kristen Morgan, associate professor of theatre and director of the New Media Studies program at Eastern, says, “‘Lulu’ was a big success; not only did audiences see something completely unique, but the students and faculty learned so much from creating the production alongside professional artists. …The most memorable part of ‘Lulu’ was seeing our students rise to meet the level of the professional performers; I was so proud of all of them, both onstage and backstage.”

Morgan arranged for the partnership with the award-winning Ridge Theater company. She says Bob McGrath (director/librettist and artistic director of Ridge Theater), had been a colleague of hers for many years. She remembers, “I first encountered his work when I moved to NYC in the 90s, and then we taught together at Virginia Tech. He’s been a part-time professor at Eastern for the past couple of years, and I’ve been wanting to have Ridge Theater come up to work with our students for a while now.”

She said the production is an example of the University’s commitment to bringing diverse voices to the stage at Eastern, featuring artists and performers who have traditionally been underrepresented.

“A big part of our mission here at Eastern Theatre is featuring diverse voices on our stages,” Morgan goes on to explain. “Theatre is an ancient form of storytelling, and it belongs to everyone. When people in the audience see someone who looks like them represented on stage, it reinforces their feelings of belonging. Professional theatre is moving away from ‘colorblind’ casting to producing work that is created by and for people of color, and we believe that is important at the university level as well.”

Yepez says she was honored to be a part of bringing diversity to the stage because “diversity enriches your life,” she says. “It makes anything and everything so dynamic, fuller and richer. It gives other marginalized people the opportunity to see their reflection. And to know what’s possible for them.”

Besides the message of diversity, there are many messages in this multimedia, experimental opera. Yepez says the libretto is political: “We touch on diversity, we touch on queerness, on browness, the rights of sex workers, we talk about drama and what that can do to a person, and mental illness and how everyone has a story. So there are many many different messages and discourses we are tapping into. And I am hoping that people have an opportunity to hear Lulu’s story and all the characters’ stories and take it into their own life and maybe be more loving and kinder and compassionate towards another human because you never know what people are going through. Even though she is on stage and she is a badass force, almost goddess-like, behind the scenes she is struggling she is coping with trauma, she is a drug addict and she is in pain. But she still has moments of laughter and fun, and fantasy and love. She is the full spectrum.”

Yepez hopes Lulu will go next to New York City and to Broadway and even, hopefully, overseas. “I hope Lin-Manuel Miranda sees this,” she says. “I hope everyone sees it.” 

“After its run at Eastern, the production will continue to be refined by Ridge Theater back in New York and be presented at a professional venue such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music,” said Morgan. “Student performers and designers from Eastern may have a chance to participate in a New York run of the show, and the design of Eastern faculty and students will be featured on a New York stage. It doesn’t get any better than that for our students and faculty!”

Morgan said the partnership with Ridge Theater is the kick-off of what “will be an annual tradition of inviting professionals from around the world to share knowledge with Eastern students, use Eastern’s world-class facilities, collaborate with faculty and inspire audiences with challenging new works.”

Morgan says she hopes to continue the Artist-in-Residency Initiative to bring diverse artists to campus. This spring, she informs that Eastern’s faculty member, Dr. DeRon Williams, will be directing a production of “The Brothers Size,” and they are also beginning work on a large, community-based decided production called “Cultivating Dignity,” which will explore the lives of people who have worked in the Connecticut tobacco fields, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They will be producing this in partnership with Moral Monday CT, NAACP Windham Chapter, and the Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum.