Stephen Holden on Ute Lemper

November 30, 2010

The NYTimes reviews the singular diva at Joe’s Pub: “As “The Bukowski Project” opens, Mr. Gierig is typing on a manual typewriter at the piano on which Ms. Lemper, in shadow, sprawls on her back, her legs extended to the ceiling. Soon his ambient keyboard music evokes a ’40s film-noir mood that is carried in many directions. Once Ms. Lemper begins singing, her mocking, haughty, Marlene Dietrich-like persona takes over. With her supple voice, she can caress you one minute, then shock you a moment later with horror-movie yowls.”

Diva 5+1: Ute Lemper

May 29, 2009


 Ute Lemper has just released her new CD, Between Yesterday and Tomorrow.  New York audiences have two upcoming opportunities to see her: Monday June 8th she’ll be doing a sing-and-sign at Barnes and Noble and Tuesday June 9th she’ll be in concert at Le Poisson Rouge.  Well-heeled Washingtonians can catch her this weekend as one of the attactions Friday, June 5th at the Washington National Opera Ball.

I first encountered Lemper’s work more than 20 years ago when Fred Lee played the Westwind track from her first Kurt Weil CD.  I remember being struck by the fascinating combination of a very modern, idiosyncratic vocal against a traditional lush track.  In a completely different side of her work, I saw her on Broadway in Chicago, playing Velma against Karen Ziemba’s Roxie.  Lemper has become one of the most fascianting concert artists, conquering a wide range of materials, styles, and venues.  (Lemper’s official bio follows at the end of the interview.)

1. Please describe a “perfect” cabaret experience that you’ve had.
I would have to describe a venue, probably. I would probably say that Joe’s Pub down here in New York is one of the most original situations to perform in. … It’s the audience that makes a cabaret experience. You have to have an audience which is ready to play, ready to go crazy with you, ready to be provoked, ready to be teased. And the Downtown New York audience at Joe’s Pub and the Public Theater is absolutely ready to do that. More than any other audiences. They’re definitely not conservative, they’re not frightened. They’re intellectuals, gays, students… Actually they’re people of all ages, but they’re very loose, very open and interested in this repertoire I’m representing – the European songbook of cabaret. So I would say Joe’s Pub is really the best of the cabaret audiences. (later) Just the whole thing that they’re there planted on these couches in front of you and putting their feet up… And it’s just like “You’re relaxed down there; I’m relaxed on stage. Let’s go for it; let’s party.”
But it doesn’t mean that it is my favorite performance situation. I actually love to be on a big stage, on a symphony stage or a large theatrical stage with at least eight hundred to a thousand people in the audience, and actually present the music in a bit more official way than in a very small cabaret situation.

2. What is a recent song you’ve been struggling with? Have you won yet?
Struggling with? Well, if I would struggle with a song, I probably wouldn’t want to perform it, because only if you really master the song, if you own it and fall into it and lose yourself, are you ready to perform it.
I don’t know. Songs that I would struggle with are probably a lot of musicals songs. Anything where you would have to project the voice and sing beautifully. I don’t know; I can’t do that. All I can do is interpret and take people on an emotional ride, I guess. Yes, I do have a voice on top of it, but it doesn’t mean it’s all about the voice. That I never like, if it’s all about the voice. It’s about the soul of it.

3. The relationship between a singer and the musical director really is a “cabaret marriage.”  What are the keys to making the marriage work? And for the times you need to work with a somebody new, what are the steps you take to get quickly on the same page?

First of all, I don’t have a “musical director.” I am the “musical director.”
But I do have a very committed band around me with a lot of creative input, of course. It’s a very collective situation in our band. Or with my pianist. But really, at the end of the day… I am guiding through the musical vision.
To answer the other question, to change musician is a very terrible thing because so many details you’re used to and you worked on over the years and years. To start working with somebody else is a super-big change, but of course it is possible.
The hardest chair to replace is the pianist chair, and then I’m torn in between choosing a jazz pianist or a classical pianist. Because my repertoire is so diverse that some music I need an open improvisatory-crafted pianist; and on other stuff I need a pianist who can really sight-read and play (these) complicated chords and has a more classical approach. But then on top of all of it they need to accompany a singer. That means go with my breathing. I don’t want to go with their (breathing)… but go with my breathing. That is a complicated chair to fill. It takes time.
So, you know, I’ve gone to many pianists and I love very much the guy I have now, Vana Gierig. I’ve worked with him about five years now, and definitely it took us about a year, more than a year, to really grow together, and we’re having a fantastic ride. Hopefully he’ll stay with me.

4. What is a particular image that you can rely on to be an effective sense memory when you’re performing?

I would say that one is lucky to be a performer with music, because the music transports you right away into it.  I think it’s harder to do it like an actor where you have to really create it out of nothing, inside yourself.  But the music is the launching pad.  You know, the chords, the glory of the melodic journey just takes you into it and helps you.  No way, it’s not a struggle at all.  You start a song and the first chord goes down and you’re already into this magical universe. 

Just forget about the technical singing, too.  You just gotta go for it. That’s why in my heart I feel I’m more a musician than I want to be an actor.  You know I did both, and I combine both, but really it’s the music that takes all the restrictions off my chest and I totally let loose through the music. 

5. What is the most pressing need the world of cabaret has today?

I would say to be a little more political and daring.  I mean it shouldn’t be just an entertainment dessert factory to sing to the people in the old-style dame/diva way.  But I think it should definitely have an edge to it, and comment and bring in what’s happening today.  Not in a specific way but in an open, political way.  It can be provocative and it can be criticizing and it can be outrageous, but yet it has to stay truthful.  I don’t like it too much if it becomes more… if it becomes a parody, farce.  For me it’s the fine line, really, between truth and play. 

(Speaking of her new CD) I’m trying to go that fine line, because it’s more a contemporary CD, but with that combination of entertainment and truth and a little bit political and at the same time open about life and love.  It’s the fine line between the seriousness and the play. Yeah.

+1 As an artist, you seem to be constantly growing and tackling new challenges. How do you decide what’s next?

Oh, I just let things come to me.  I can’t make it up myself…. There are so many things happening in my life.  It depends on the people I work with.  … I am suddenly inspired. 

Or here, I suddenly have a challenge that I have to perform in a poetry festival, you know, and that makes me study the entire poetry of Charles Bukowski and then I start.  OK, I read the books and then I suddenly feel that there could be wonderful songs made out of this.  And then I work with my partner, other musicians.  It’s the collaborations, the other people, the inspirations, the day-to-day work that opens new doors and you start to walk into new places and you catch fire.  And you want to make it great. 

I don’t really have my future much planned out, but it’s the things I’m working on right now and those I want to do over the next year, two years, and a couple of new projects possible and dreams I want to follow up.  But basically I’m living my dream, and I’m trying to stay open for… I know very well what I don’t want to do. … I don’t necessarily want to go back into a musical, a Broadway show like this.  I really want to take on the more difficult projects (and it can be very difficult to be on Broadway, I don’t want to say that).  But what I do want to say is the more uncommercial projects. 

Ute Lemper’s Bio

 Ute Lemper’s career is vast and varied. She has made her mark on the stage, in films, in concert and as a unique recording artist. She has been universally praised for her interpretations of Berlin Cabaret Songs, the works of Kurt Weill and French chanson and for her portrayals on Broadway, in Paris and in London’s West End. She will release her new album Ute Lemper: Between Yesterday and Tomorrow, May 5, 2009. The album is unique to Ute’s body of work as she composed all of the songs on the album.  She was born in Munster, Germany and completed her studies at The Dance Academy in Cologne and the Max Reinhardt Seminary Drama School in Vienna.
 Her professional debut on the musical stage was in the original Vienna production of Cats in the roles of Grizabella and Bombalurina. She went on to play Peter Pan in Peter Pan (Berlin) and Sally Bowles in Jerome Savary’s Cabaret (Paris) for which she received the Moliere Award for Best Actress in a Musical. She played Lola in The Blue Angel (Berlin) and Maurice Bejart created a ballet for her, La Mort Subite (Paris). Ute also appeared in many Weill Revues with the Pina Bausch Tanztheater, and she created the part of Velma Kelly in London’s production of CHICAGO in the West End, for which she was honored with the Laurence Olivier Award, and moved to the Broadway production after one year.
 Ute Lemper’s solo concerts, which include Kurt Weill’s Recital, Illusions, City of Strangers and Berlin Cabaret Evening have been produced in prestigious venues throughout the world. Her symphony concerts include The Seven Deadly Sins, Songs from Kurt Weill, Songbook (Michael Nyman) and Songs from Piaf and Dietrich with the symphony orchestras of London, Israel, Boston, Hollywood, San Francisco, Berlin The Paris Radio Symphony Orchestra, The Illusions Orchestra (Bruno Fontaine) and the Michael Nyman Band (Michael Nyman). She also appeared in Folksongs with the Luciano Berio Orchestra (Luciano Berio) and with The Matrix Ensemble (Robert Ziegler) performing Berlin Cabaret Songs.
 Her celebrated recordings for DECCA include Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill (Vols. I and II),Three Penny Opera, The Seven Deadly Sins, Mahogonny Songspiel, Prospero’s Books (Michael Nyman), Songbook (Michael Nyman/Paul Celan), Illusions (Piaf/Dietrich), City of Strangers (Prever/Sondheim) and Berlin Cabaret Songs (German and English versions). She was named Billboard Magazine’s Crossover Artist of the Year for 1993-1994. Her latest release on Decca are But One Day, (March, 2003), which features new arrangements of Weill, Brel, Piazolla, Heymann and Eisler songs, as well as the first recordings of her own compositions, for which she wrote both lyrics and music.
 In early 2000 Decca/Universal Music released Punishing Kiss, featuring new songs composed for her by Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Philip Glass, and Nick Cave. She has also recorded Crimes of the Heart, Life is a Cabaret and Ute Lemper Live for CBS Records and for POLYDOR, Espace Indecent, Nuits Etranges and She Has a Heart.Recently she recorded a Live album and a Live DVD at the Carlyle, one of New York’s hottest Cabaret stages. It was released worldwide on DRG/ Koch records and EDEL\records in Europe.
 All That Jazz/The Best of Ute Lemper, which features highlights from her illustrious career to date was released in 1998. It accompanied her playing Velma Kelly in the London production of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago for which she received the 1998 Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical. After nine months in London’s West End Ms. Lemper made her Broadway debut in September 1998. A major highlight of her eight months American engagement in Chicago was starring with Chita Rivera in the Las Vegas premiere in March 1999.
 In film, her many credits include L’Autrichienne (Pierre Granier-Deferre), Prospero’s Books (Peter Greenaway), Moscow Parade (Ivan Dikhovichni), Pret a Porter (Robert Altman), Bogus (Norman Jewison) and the most recent releases, Combat de Fauves (Benoit Lamy), A River Made to Drown In (James Merendino) and Appetite (George Milton). She has appeared on television in Rage/Outrage, The Dreyfus Affair (Arte), Tales from the Crypt (HBO), Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill (Bravo), Illusions (Granada), Songbook (Volker Scholendorff), The Wall (Rogers Waters) and The Look of Love (Gillina Lynn).
Ms. Lemper currently lives in New York with her three children, Max, Stella and Julian.

The New Ute Lemper

May 20, 2009

Between Yesterday and Tomorrow

With Ute Lemper, more than almost any other artist I can name, you never know what you’re going to get.  She burst onto the scene with stunning interpretations of the Kurt Weill songbook.  She was London’s first Velma (Wilma?) Kelly in the Chicago revival (which she subsequently played in New York and Las Vegas).  She’s can be a stunning cabaret diva in a post-modern Dietriech way.  Or she can be a Euro-pop diva. 

Her formidable talent as an artist is very clear.  She obviously works from a place of passion, supported by dexterous vocals and a supple intelligence. 

The current incarnation has Lemper playing singer/songwriter – kind of Lotte Lenya crossed with Joan Baez.  in her new CD Between Yesterday and Tomorrow, the music feels Euro-pop and the lyrics have a nice agit-prop feel.  Of course she explores larger issues – nuclear testing, nationalism, the Berlin Wall, and September 11th. The things most of us think about in the shower.

This is not easy listening, although I’ve found it pleasant music to cook to.  For Lemper’s many talents, she is not the most obvious performer, so the material takes a little getting at.  And the lyrics are by someone who is obviously not a native speaker of English, so certain lyrics inspire “That’s an interesting way of putting it” or “What”?  (Of course, let’s not forget that Irving Berlin wasn’t a native speaker of English.)  In addition, there are songs with lyrics in French and Japanese, an accomplishment I would deem taihen formidable!

Here’s the track list:

1. Greatest Ride Listen
2. Stranger Friend Listen
3. Blood and Feathers Listen
4. Luna – Ute Lemper, Listen
5. Ghosts of Berlin Listen
6. Mémoire et La Mer  
7. Wings of Desire Listen
8. Nomad Listen
9. Here Is Love Listen
10. Nevada Listen
11. September Mourn Listen

Playbill on Ute

November 7, 2008

The Playbill Diva Talk column has an interview with one of the most distinct presences in cabaret today: “I  enjoy very much the audience. It’s like being in your living room, basically. And most of the crowd, I probably would invite them for dinner at home because the crowd is great there! People of my spirit — free thinkers and paradise birds and people who just want to have a good time, interested. They all have the foundation to understand the German and the French. They know the European chanson is what they’re going to get from me, with a little bit of a take into different areas. The people who come there, they know it’s not going to be a Cole Porter evening, but it will be a more edgy, European chanson evening. Most of the audience is super-educated. Plus, half of them are very crazy. Half of the audience is crazy, and they are out there to play, so they just want me to go down there and please them until they get mad and wild and come with me on this funny journey!”

Ute Lemper in New York

November 7, 2007

A couple of interesting things about the Times write-up of the Ute Lemper show — it’s not by Stephen Holden, it’s at a venue not traditionally associated with cabaret, and the writer doesn’t credit the musicians (hate that!).

Also notice — Lemper seems to be the only singer of her generation who has made peace with the cabaret boa.