This is a Dutch TV video of Ute Lemper.
From British daily The Guardian:
Touching the void
* Ed Pilkington
* Friday 15 May 2009
For Ute Lemper, the smoky-voiced chanteuse who has turned the German songbook of the 1920s into the core of a global theatrical presence, music is not a passion or a skill or a vocation. It is far more visceral than that. For her, music was a means of escaping the suffocating small-mindedness of her Catholic German upbringing. It was the way she discovered she could unleash her inner demons. “I was able to express in art a lot more than in life, as everything was so tight around me,” she says.
Specifically, it was in the anything-goes culture of Weimar Berlin that she found her salvation. Every summer as a child, she would go to Salzburg to study dance and music, and one year, aged 16, she sat in on a seminar on the collaboration of playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill.
It was a revelation, and it changed her life. “The work was fresh, young – nothing romantic, full of odd characters – there was no normality there. It was anti-religious, anti-oppression, anti-moralistic.” It was everything, in fact, for which she had been yearning and the antithesis of everything she was desperate to escape.
Lemper grew up in the then West German city of Münster, a city she describes first with the German word “bieder” (conventional) and then the French “petit-bourgeois”. Then, for good measure, she throws out a stream of English words: “Conservative, judgmental, normality, Catholic, no paradise birds, no people of other minds, other thoughts. I wanted to be crazy, to get out there.” And get out there she did. That initial jolt of Weill-Brecht helped to propel her into an international career that has won her the accolades of chanson diva, award-winning musicals actor and recording artist.
She is as much at home singing the French tradition – Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Léo Ferré, Boris Vian – as she is with the world of musicals. She has appeared as Sally Bowles in Cabaret and in the famous Marlene Dietrich role, Lola, from The Blue Angel. She has worked with Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Nick Cave; they all wrote songs expressly for her, which became the 2000 album Punishing Kiss. More recently, she has begun to pursue an interest in Middle Eastern music, both Arabic and Yiddish. And she has started to write her own songs, with a new album called Between Yesterday and Tomorrow.
Throughout, however, she has clung to her one great and enduring mission, as she calls it – the championing of the work of Brecht-Weill. “It all starts for me with the German dialogue,” she says. “That’s the root of my desire to be on stage and sing these songs.”
Her use of the word “dialogue” is telling, because language is one reason she is so strongly drawn to the German repertoire. When she was starting out as a singer in the late 70s and early 80s, she was struck by the paucity of contemporary choices in her native German. “There was nothing. It was a cultural vacuum.”
She was also oppressed by the silence from her parents’ generation that surrounded the war and the Holocaust. “I didn’t sense that anyone felt any grief.” She pauses. “Grief!” she says again, this time with deep emphasis. “Sadness, madness, anger. How could that happen? How could such organised crime have happened, this imperial Caesar who felt he could take over the world, and the crime of the killing of all the Jewish people. I was numbed with pain – I couldn’t breathe for years.”
Brecht-Weill filled both the cultural vacuum and the political silence. Politically, Brecht‘s poetry supplied the anger and indignation that she craved. She devoured the history of how Weill, as a German Jew, became a target of the Nazis and was forced to leave the country in March 1933. Five years later, his compositions were paraded in the Düsseldorf exhibition of “degenerate music”.
Artistically, too, the compositions suited her temperament and gave free rein to Lemper’s extraordinary voice, which is capable of delivering not only the most silken flourishes but also the serrated edges that Weill’s atonality demands. When Lemper sings Die Moritat von Mackie Messer (The Ballad of Mack the Knife), she spits out every consonant and rolls her Rs with the menace of an alley cat. “It was expressionistic but at the same time very melodic, very juicy,” she says. “I just like to sing the words about the whorehouses and the sailors and the gangsters and the criminals and theft and rape; everything that puts the whole society in question marks. Who is the hero and who is the antihero, the winner and the loser? It was wonderful to sing these words.”
In her shows, Lemper likes to track Weill on from his German days, through the brief period he spent in Paris producing melancholic music in the style of chansons françaises, and then into the American years. Weill lived in the US from 1935 until his death in 1950, immersing himself in the American musical scene; he collaborated with Ira Gershwin, and worked for a time spell in Hollywood alongside fellow European exiles Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky.
Lemper has followed in Weill’s footsteps. Ten years ago, she moved to New York and now lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which is where we meet, aptly in an art deco cafe near Central Park. I ask her whether the move across the Atlantic was inspired by Weill.
“I’m not exiled,” she says. “Yes, I ran away, but it was for personal reasons – to see the world.”
There is another difference between Lemper and her musical idol. Unlike Weill, she has not embraced the American way, clinging instead to the European songbook. She is scathing about the commercial bent of pop music. “It has become a form of furniture, an element of contemporary fashion. Like body culture.”
She has maintained, she professes, total artistic freedom, producing Between Yesterday and Tomorrow herself and dictating her own touring regime. “I have no barriers whatsoever.”
That goes some way to explain how she has kept the fire that was lit in that Salzburg seminar in 1979 still burning strong. The political edge that she craved as a young singer has lost none of its sharpness. The brutal, corrupt world that Brecht and Weill captured in Weimar Germany is alive and well, she insists, and every bit as relevant today as it was then.
• Between Yesterday and Tomorrow is out now on Edel.
Kurt Weill once said: “Seventy-five years from now, Street Scene will be remembered as my major work”: here.
Solidarity Song by Bertolt Brecht: here.