Ute Lemper Sings It All
The German-born singer Ute Lemper is making one of her frequent jaunts to Washington, this time at the Sixth and I Street Synagogue, courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society May 18. Even though I’d never seen or heard her, the reputation, the name, and the marketing always struck me as resonant—she’s the siren singer of Brecht and Weill, wearing the black-strap, blonde mantle of Marlene Dietrich and Lotte Lenya.
And then again, not. Cabaret singers are members of a large and funky tribe to begin with. It’s a tribe of originals, some of them out and out jazz or blues singers, others the men and women who keep the Great American Songbook alive in hotel bars and sometimes lesser or bigger venues. They present themselves not only as singers but actors, shamen and wizards and late night witches, not necessarily of the Glinda type. They’re personas, actors as much as singers.
She is all that and then again not and so much more. Trying to catch up with her on the Internet can make you dizzy. Her biographical material makes her seem like an urban legend after a while. You would think that nobody does this much and is still looking for mountains to climb, not the next thing, or the new thing, but the thing she hasn’t done before.
Here’s a list: Munster, Germany, where she grew up, mother of four, Bambalurina, Charles Bukowski, Lily Marlene, Pigalle, Edith Piaf, Sally Bowles, Kurt Weill, Pablo Neruda, Lola, Peter Pan, Jacques Brel, the Carlysle Hotel and Joe’s Pub, Mackie Messer, the Panama Drive Band, Weimar and New York, Vera Kelly and a poodle.
The only common thread among all of these references is Ute Lemper, it’s all part of her life, the persona, the woman on stage and off.
“I like what I’m doing, “ she said in a telephone interview. “I can look back on it and think, ‘Well, maybe I haven’t had what you could call a huge, or big career’, but on the other hand, I’ve done and I’m doing what I want, I have the freedom to that, to try new things, to keep learning, and I have a rich life.”
If you define big by household name, the roaring of celebrity, drowning in the click of cameras, money that you couldn’t possibly spend, then maybe she can say she hasn’t had a big career. If you define big by the quality and size of density and variety, she has had a huge and heady career.
“I think, everything else being said, it was Weimar and Brecht and Weill that really influenced my choices,” she said. Lemper, was born in Munster, in the northern part of Germany, and she’s keenly aware of German history, angry about it, with the word “rage” coming up in some of her interviews. She is not a sleepwalker when it comes to context. “Brecht and Weill, they were perfect for each other when they worked together—not necessarily as friends, but the music match to the words, and the kind of words and characters were dark, the songs were dark but they had a jaunty edge to them as well, they engaged the audience in uncomfortable ways.”
If you go to Lemper’s website, you’re greeted by the covers of six of her albums—“Pablo Neruda, a song cycle of love poems”, “Last Tango in Berlin” (a kind of compendium which will be part of her concert), “Ultimate Tango”, “Berlin Nights, Paris Days”, “The Bukowski Project”, “Ute Lemper Sings Brecht and Weill”. Taken together, they’re a summation of her concert performance, career and persona. You’ll find Yiddish songs here, Brecht’s brittle and merciless political songs which haunt us still, the Tango, the music of Paris and Weimar Berlin, compositions by Lemper on the theme of the elegant Chilean poet Neruda and the not so elegant poet of one-step-from-the-gutter and protagonist of the movie “Barfly”, the growly, jazzy and late Charles Bukowski.
“I don’t lead a dramatic personal life,” she says. “I am dramatic on stage, I suppose, that’s like acting, you put on the glamorous dresses, the hair, it’s a persona for the music. I have four children—two grown and two at home, two and seven. My husband is a musician himself so we have a language for that and we understand each other.”
Watch her videos on YouTube. Watch her do a full-blown number on “All That Jazz”, all blonde, voice going over a cliff, flying, it’s a new razzle dazzle, complete with showgirls, she’s all arms and legs. In another concert, she’s doing “Mack the Knife”, German and English, and she asks the crowd to whistle with her. She’s a good whistler.
“I don’t know what it is,” she says, “people don’t whistle anymore. When I was a girl—I always wanted to sing, I’d bicycle to school singing, or whistling. You don’t see that any more—people are all hooked up on the phone.”
She is a true citizen of the world in the sense of having lived in Germany, Vienna, Paris, and now in New York. Vienna is where she was part of the “Cats” phenomena, playing Bombalurina, the redheaded cat.. “I hated “Cats”,” she said. “Every day, singing the same song, and it was very physical, exhausting, really.”
She was also Sally Bowles in “Cabaret”, which was more to her liking, and Velma Kelly in “Chicago” (for which she won the Laurence Olivier Award for lead performance in a musical in 2009). But she is most at home with her concerts, which has led her to become a singer-songwriter, into a partnership with the Vogler string quartet, and with Stefan Malzew, a versatile musican—he plays piano, clarinet and accordion, which allow all sorts of sounds to emerge during the course of a concert.
Lemper has a certain fearless quality to her—on the phone she’s conversational, but in her music, and with her rangy voice, she startles and surprises you, you don’t know whether she’s going to run right over the audience or if she’ll need to be rescued, she’s a growler, her melancholy tones are modulated by whether she’s singing French or German, or English, she can scream and move around with a kind of triumphant elation.
Her music is intense, which you don’t always get in conversation. Talking about Bukowski, and his dark soul, you hear a poodle in the background of her home, or a brief break to change an appointment with the dentist, the reassuring sounds and rhythm of domestic, daily life. And all that jazz.
Ute Lemper will be performing at the Sixth & I Historic Synogogue on Saturday, May 18 at 8 p.m.