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She Begs for the Questions

German-born Ute Lemper Is a Singer With a Subversive Streak: 'It's Never About Heroes and Happy Endings'

February 05, 2001|LOUISE ROUG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

German chanteuse Ute Lemper--whose performances as comedian, cabaret artist and singer have drawn comparisons to such diverse figures as Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf--takes the stage with an evening of cabaret songs Saturday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

The 37-year-old singer, who may be best-known to American audiences for her performances in the musicals "Cabaret" and "Chicago," has achieved critical acclaim as one of the foremost interpreters of the music of Kurt Weill and others in the European cabaret tradition.

Lemper became infatuated with Weill's universe in her early 20s while living in Berlin. A mentor introduced her to his lesser-known songs and symphonies--still among her chief passions.

"When art became political, it became political in Berlin. Not in Paris. Not in London. But in Berlin. That's interesting to me," Lemper said, referring to the art of Germany's Weimar Republic in the 1920s.

"It's just this outrageous combination: the hard-boiled lyrics, spiced up with politics [and] the music inspired by Schoenberg and Mahler."

Much of the art and music of the period was later banned by Third Reich leaders who considered it degenerate.

"It was all about reality. It was about ugliness. It's an inspiration and that's why I do feel connected to this period," she said. "There's a lot of stuff that's kind of disturbing--full of blood."

Lemper was born in Munster, which she calls a rather dull town. She left when she was 20. "I had to go fishing for more experience," she said.

Today, she lives in New York with her husband and two children. During a phone interview between recording sessions for a new album, she preferred to speak English, acknowledging a certain ambivalence about Germany.

"Sometimes, I'm treated like a German ambassador for [the cabaret tradition]," Lemper said. "But there's nothing really German going on in my life."

*

Still, Lemper has brought Weimar Republic music and theater traditions into American mainstream culture.

Highlighting the satirical elements of the material, Lemper does decadence decidedly tongue-in-cheek. It's a subversive streak that runs through her work.

"I am a vamp/half woman, half beast/I bite men and suck them dry/and then I bake them in a pie," she croons with glee on one of her many recordings.

Weimar and Weltschmerz (sentimental pessimism or melancholy over the state of the world) may go together but Lemper draws out the humor.

She "is a first-rate clown, if not a three-ring circus," wrote Paul Festa in the San Francisco-based webzine Salon.com.

But if Lemper is an unlikely clown in a leather cat suit, her act is balancing melancholy and mirth in a theater that's far from absurd.

"The physicality makes it alive and dangerous because theater is really an unpredictable medium. Anything can happen," Lemper said.

*

A classically trained musician, Lemper attended the famed Max Reinhardt drama seminary in Vienna. Andrew Lloyd Webber offered her a part in the Viennese production of "Cats," and by the mid-1980s she was playing Sally Bowles in a European tour of "Cabaret."

Michael Nyman wrote music for her, which was recorded on the album "Songbook." Maurice Bejart choreographed a ballet for her, titled, "La Mort Subite" (Sudden Death).

She has performed at La Scala in Milan, and at the Mandalay Bay resort in Las Vegas. She's appeared in art-house movies, including Peter Greenaway's "Prospero's Books" and Robert Altman's "Pret-a-Porter" (Ready to Wear). She paints in her free time, and has exhibited her works in Paris and Hamburg, Germany. Fluent in three languages, she has written for Liberation, Die Welt and the Guardian. Her first book, "Unzensiert" (Non-Censure), was just released.

Lemper said she's given up television, parties and small talk.

"You have to pick, make a choice," she said. "And sometimes, if you don't sleep, that's fine."

In recent years, Lemper has starred as the homicidal Velma Kelly in London and New York productions of "Chicago." But while she grants such Broadway musicals their place in 20th century pop culture, she still rails against the commercial format, preferring the cabaret's intimacy and freedom.

"Broadway is like Disneyland. The political satire is lost," Lemper said. "And it's not only the humor but also the really disturbing areas of humanity and the questions that lie there."

*

On her new album, "Punishing Kiss," she asks those questions with help from Nick Cave, Elvis Costello and Tom Waits, who wrote songs especially for her.

"It's a world that starts past midnight--those moments when you start asking questions," she said. "It's never about heroes and happy endings. It is life how it is: the conflicts, the open door to loneliness. And failure. And disappointment. You open these doors and see what's in there--true passion, which includes pain. It's picking these dark areas of life and making them poetic."

SHOW TIME

Ute Lemper, Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. Saturday, 8 p.m. Tickets: $30, $35, $40. (Tickets for Lemper's previously postponed Dec. 1 show will be honored at this performance.) Information: (949) 854-4646.

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