Ute Lemper could almost pass for just another New York City working mother bringing her son for a play date.
“It’s Presidents Day, so there’s no school. I can’t just let him stay at home,” the 46-year-old German-born singer/actress says into her cell phone as she makes sure her son is well taken care of before leaving him for a quieter corner of the play center.
But Lemper, of course, is hardly a typical mom. Boasting a wildly varied career, the striking chanteuse has made her mark both as a visionary interpretive singer, a cabaret genre-bending flashback, and as a theatrical whirlwind. From putting her own spin on the works of Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill and other artists of the Weimar Republic, to performing riveting roles in musicals on Broadway, in Paris and in London’s West End, to interpreting the songs of Marlene Dietrich and Édith Piaf, Lemper has been in the eye of an artistic hurricane for over two decades.
“I’m always opening new chapters, and things are always evolving. I’m not like a recording artists who has to produce an album every year or so, I don’t really feel any pressure,” she said.
Equally at home in the theater, concert hall or dance recital, Lemper boasts a dizzying resume of education at the Dance Academy in Cologne and the Max Reinhardt Seminary Drama School in Vienna, star-making roles as Velma Kelly in Chicago
, Lola in The Blue Angel
and Sally Bowles in a Parisian production of Cabaret
, and 22 albums to her credit.
But her admitted life’s journey has been preserving the music and art of the Weimar Republic and creating new works inspired by that art. Between the end of World War I in 1918 and Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, the arts flourished in Germany, particularly in Berlin, where playwrights and composer like Brecht and Weill broke through artistic barriers.
“This is where my artistic identity comes from. Of course, when I was 16 and going to Austria for summer art school, I was a child of the ’70s, listening to Pink Floyd and Joni Mitchell and jazz. I think that was one of the greatest periods of the last century for music,” said Lemper.
“But, as an artist, it wasn’t evident for me to go into that kind of repertoire. I felt it, but I couldn’t do it, I wasn’t born into it. But learning about the Weimar era, and the intellectuals and anarchists full of ideas, the characters described by Brecht as ‘un-normal people’ – that’s what I was looking for. I needed to break out of my German identity and I found this music to break into.
“Just the political dimension was so attractive – this was music alienated by the Nazis. It was destroyed, and its composers were either killed or chased away. It presented a whole dialogue for me with my past, full of anger and despair.”
LEMPER’S LIFELONG struggle with her German identity was part of the reason the single mother relocated to New York 13 years ago with her three children. After having spent time in London and Paris, it is there that she feels that she has adopted the status of a truly international resident.
“I certainly don’t feel very American, I feel like a European living in New York. That’s what’s wonderful about living here. You can combine your identities without giving in and being American,” she said. “Of course, New York is a different place than the rest of America.
“I guess, thanks to the American school system and American sports, my kids are more American than I am, even though only the youngest was born here, But we spend a month every year in Germany and France and get a good injection of European culture, so they’re a nice combination.”
Lemper originally landed in New York in the late 1990s for her Broadway role in Chicago, which she had been doing for the previous year in the West End in London. And she discovered that she was able to blend in with the big city tumult and allow her German past to fade into the background.
“In London, the weather was difficult and the British culture would sometimes get on my nerves. The same with Paris: it’s beautiful, but it was too French, and still regarded me very much as a German,” she said. “What I found in New York was that wherever you come from, you melt into New York’s culture.”
Despite physically distancing herself from Germany, Lemper is still emotionally entangled in the post-Holocaust generation’s efforts to reconcile with its past, something that continually fuels her work. Her current show – which she’s performing on Tuesday night in Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium – is entitled Last Tango in Berlin
REFERRED TO by one reviewer a “sassy artistic voyage that marries Berlin cabaret and the lush soulful tango of Buenos Aires,” the Last Tango
show combines everything from the Weimar songs of Brecht and Weill from the 1920s and 1930s to interpretations of French chansons by Jaacques Brel and indie rock ballads by Tom Waits – and, of course, Argentinean tangos. But it’s the German material into which she infuses the most emotional effort.
“It’s become a mission for me to keep these songs alive, and now I see it as a great responsibility in the new millenium to bring it to a new audience. I feel like the last dinosaur in the world,” said Lemper.
“The first time I performed in Israel was in 1987 at the Jerusalem Theater. It was very emotional for me, there were still a lot of Holocaust survivors and many came to the concert. It brought up all the emotions I went through dealing with the past, and it closed a circle for me. I really felt wonderful that I could give these people this music while they’re still alive.”
Lemper returned twice more to Israel, performing with the Israel Philharmonic in 2000, and again at the Eilat Jazz Festival in 2003. While those shows presented varied interpretations by Lemper, she’s still deciding the content of her Tel Aviv show, in which she’ll be backed by piano, bass, percussion and the bandoneon, an Argentinean instrument which is “instrumental” for tango music.
“I’m trying to find out what people really want,” Lemper said. “In Greece, where I’m going to afterwards, I’ll do a straight tango show, but I won’t do that in Israel. I’ll likely do a variety of things: the German repertoire, some Brel, and I’ll give a little taste of Argentinean tango too. I sing a lot of tango, but I don’t know how much I’ll do in Tel Aviv. I think they’re coming to hear me sing in German.
“And I want to do some of my own songs.”
WRITING HER own material is something relatively new for Lemper – the classic interpreter. But Punishing Kiss
her 2000 album of cover versions of edgy contemporary
singer-songwriters like Waits, Elvis Costello, Neil Hannon and Nick
Cave, prompted her to pick up the pen and begin writing her own lyrics
and melodies. Last year saw the release of Between Yesterday and Tomorrow
, her acclaimed album featuring all songs co-written by Lemper with her musical partner Todd Turkisher.
inspired me to
start writing my own songs. And now, I’ve just finished writing music
to 24 poems by the American poet Charles Bukowski, called The Bukowski Project
, which I recently performed in Spain and Italy,” said Lemper.
“I didn’t want to just sing cover songs, I wanted to start telling my own stories.”
With a life as colorful as Lemper’s has been, there’s likely to be
enough stories to fill a dozen more albums – even if she is just a New
York working mom.