Looking back at the long career of Ute Lemper, the question that arises is how to define her. Singer? Dancer? Writer? Or perhaps successful painter? In a phone conversation from her home in New York last week, the German diva has no unequivocal answer to the question.
"Hmmm. You know, by now it's best to say singer, but I am also a painter and I used to be a dancer. It's a long journey of a career, with many chapters and encompassing many different forms of art," she says.
At 46, Lemper - a femme fatale, if you will - can pass for 20. She is beautiful, shapely, vigorous, energetic and known for her ready smile. Next week (February 23) she will give a concert at the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv, featuring the best of her repertoire, drawn from almost 30 years as a performer. Even though she is appearing in a new musical show ("Last Tango in Berlin"), she promises not to forgo the old, familiar hits which made her famous at the outset of her professional path - in particular, the immortal cabaret songs by the German titans Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. "They are my roots," she explains.
In fact, Lemper uprooted herself from her hometown of Muenster, Germany, at the age of 18. Subsequently she lived in Cologne, Vienna, Berlin, Paris, London and finally New York.
In contrast to Weill and Brecht, who were forced to flee Germany when the Nazis ascended to power, you left of your own volition. Why?
Lemper: "I didn't like to be a German. It was such a terrible feeling: not only the stigma, but mainly because of Hitler and the Holocaust - organized crime on that scale. Just to imagine what those people did ... When I understood the nature of the German people - the blind obedience to orders, the uncompromising carrying out of orders, the meticulousness - I became angry and despairing. I looked at my parents' generation with disgust and I wanted to liberate myself from being a German. It was terrible to live with that feeling."
But the war ended 65 years ago and since then Germany has changed unrecognizably.
"Germany now has wonderful social-welfare and justice systems. The people support equality and justice. But you cannot wipe out the past. It seems that, for me, it is easier to live abroad and be a citizen of the world. I lived in Berlin, in Paris, in London, but I was always a German in those places. New York is the place where I feel most comfortable. There is a large diversity of people here - many Israelis, Europeans, Asians, South Americans - and all of them are considered New Yorkers. It's a true melting pot."
But Berlin too is considered an international city today, just like New York - "multikulti," as they say in Germany.
"Berlin is my favorite city in Germany, and if I ever move back it will be to Berlin. It is the place to be in Germany, a city of unbelievable change, an international city with good vibes, progressive and liberal, in the heart of a conservative country - just like New York. But still, it is only here, in New York, that I can have a normal life and raise my children in a tranquil spirit."
A quick glance at Lemper's repertoire is all that is needed to grasp that she is a unique, once-in-a-generation phenomenon. There was good reason for her being chosen to step into the giant shoes of Marlene Dietrich, as Lola in "The Blue Angel," which was staged in Berlin in 1992. She has also appeared in numerous famous musicals, among them the Austrian version of "Cats," "Peter Pan," "Cabaret" under the French director Jerome Savary, and the London and American versions of "Chicago," in addition to screen roles. She has recorded 22 albums to date, covering almost every possible musical style in three languages: English, German and French. Nick Cave, Elvis Costello and Tom Waits have written songs for her; Roger Waters from Pink Floyd hosted her in a special concert of his work "The Wall"; and she also sings Joni Mitchell and Billie Holiday, plus Israel's own Chava Alberstein and Nahum Heyman. Nevertheless, Lemper still owes her success in the main to the gay '20s and the massive creativity that characterized the Weimar Republic in Germany.
How did your love affair with Weimar begin? What drew you so powerfully to the music of that period?
"As an adolescent, I listened to all the singers from America and England: Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, Stevie Wonder. But it was hard to find myself an identity as a musician. I was a rebellious teenager and despised the conformity of my parents and the authority of the Catholic Church. At the age of 16 I had a jazz group. A year later, I was sent to a six-week summer school in Salzburg, Austria. There I got to know the work of Weill and Brecht. It was so refreshing, so revolutionary, provocative, bursting with strength and aggressiveness. It is an art that does not obey rules, but allows you to rebel, as an artist, and to clear the mind."
You are referring to art suffused with great passion, sexuality and seduction - but, no less, with sadness, melancholy, loneliness, alienation and depression?
"That is very true. Most of these songs are very sad: songs about life, about lost love, about neglect and difficult times. I am one of the last ambassadors of these songs, of nostalgia and the yearning for human contact through the music."
In 1994, when you appeared in Israel with the Israel Philharmonic, you told critic Michael Handelzalts from Haaretz: "In the past, when I was alone, I lived the sadness and the depression and also confronted them onstage. Now motherhood fills me and the sadness and depression exist only on the stage." So in everyday life, you seem to be quite a happy person.
"I have been happy for a long time. I have had the good fortune to enjoy an international career, I have three beautiful, healthy children and I live with the man I love [the musician Todd Turkisher]. I am constantly working on new projects and it is wonderful to see at my concerts a veteran audience alongside a new, young audience - whether in New Zealand, Brazil or elsewhere in South America. I am very happy and I try to preserve my 'instrument' and go on being creative."
You are booked solid until March 2011. How do you manage to integrate your international career with a career as the mother of three children?
"It's always a big conflict to combine motherhood and work. Luckily, I don't go to the office at 8 A.M. and come back at 7 P.M., so I have far more time for my children than the average mother. I make them breakfast, pick them up from school and try to involve them in my life. During summer vacations the children come with us on the concert tour and they love the beaches and the restaurants around the world. They adore it and they admire their mother."
Do you also allow yourself time to rest and have time for yourself?
"When I was young, I worked rock around the clock, through the night. I was crazy about music and nothing else interested me. These days I have other responsibilities. I am not in a rush, I take my time. I work on new projects and I am always hungry for more and more, but each thing in its time. A little every time: There is time for everything. I always make sure to take breaks and to spend time with my children. I am not in the least a multitask person. There is time to be on Broadway, time to record in the studio and time to paint."
Audience of yekkes
Ute Lemper will be making her fifth appearance in Israel next week; she has previously given concerts in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Eilat. On one occasion she shared the stage with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra under maestro Zubin Mehta. On every visit to the Holy Land, she says, she is charmed anew by the German-speaking audience that fills the hall for her concerts - the generation of the yekkes (Jews from German-speaking countries) and their offspring, who delight in the old-time German melodies.
You are coming to Israel at a complicated time: intimations of war with Syria, the tension over Iran's nuclear project and the stalled peace process with the Palestinians. As a singer who performs highly political texts, what are your feelings in this regard?
"I do not understand why the peace process is stuck and who is responsible for the absence of negotiations. At the end of the day, I would say: Give them a state and you will have quiet, you will live next to each other. But I know that it is not so simple. There is so much hostility that I do not really see how people who are so extreme can live as neighbors ... The past, the religious roots, the emotions, the anger are all elements that make a solution difficult. People behave like children. It is impossible to make progress like that.
"I am afraid that people do not really want peace, but actually enjoy continuing to live in conditions of confrontation. How is it possible to make people stop blowing themselves up if their life mission is to hate? Is healing actually possible?"
Time is a great healer. Take your homeland, Germany, for example. Who would have believed that a murderous totalitarian regime would be transformed within a few decades into a liberal, democratic, progressive state?
"But Germany did not accomplish this alone. The change was forced on it by the international community. The political change was not fomented by Germany, but by others. Even after the defeat of the Nazis, there was - and there still is - anti-Semitism. But today it is silenced from above."
Let's try to end on an optimistic note. The Weimar way of life influences your personal life, too. You once said in an interview that your motto in life is: "Take this ride now, before you're old and decrepit, and go and have fun. Do whatever you need to do. If that means taking 10 lovers in a week, do it. Just go out there and make yourself happy." Do you still believe in that approach?
"As a philosophy, yes, though the part about the lovers is no longer relevant. I believe that if you do not choose now, tomorrow it will be too late. Many people suffer from multiple emotional problems. I say: Get liberated. If that means making new choices, then make them. Switch jobs, get divorced, move to another city. People live only once. Liberate your soul and reorganize your life." W
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