A never before seen image of Lemper from her soon-to-be-released album – Photo: Guido Harari

Publication: Town and Country Magazine
Date: FEB 10, 2023

With a new book and album—both titled “Time Traveler”—the chanteuse is showing no signs of slowing down.

“This is a very big year for me,” Ute Lemper, sitting among keyboards, drums, and violin and cello cases in her Upper West Side penthouse music studio, lets slip with a sly smile, “I have a big birthday—a big round one.” Don’t let Lemper fool you: the German chanteuse, famous for her powerhouse vocals and dramatic stage presence, is proof that age, especially 60, is just a number. With an autobiography and new album set to be released later this year—both titled “Time Traveler”—Lemper shows no signs of slowing down. She just wrapped a run of weekend performances at the Neue Galerie’s Café Sabarsky, here in New York, and is in final rehearsals for tonight’s one-night-only show at the Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C. Pegged to the Valentine’s Day weekend, it’s being billed as a “Songs from the Broken Heart” program.

Though somewhat more casual than the sleek, sculptural persona who glides onto the stage with femme-fatale platinum curls in a silky, plunging black gown, she exudes a sort of incandescent aura that radiates even in rehearsal. As she practices her stage saunter (“I’ll walk slowly…slowly…slowly,” she tells the band, coordinating with cellist Matthew Parrish for when to chime in, “then I make a schwoop—a thing with my head”) and plays with pianissimos within the arrangements, she struts across the tiled floor in a fitted cardigan and pair of rumply black Lululemon pants, which, on her, look more Issey Miyake.

As the sun sets on a cold winter’s day, the midtown Manhattan skyline comes into sharp relief from the unfettered terrace views outside; the glow of illuminated buildings calls to mind the stage lights as she and her band polish the details. “I don’t think we should have the bass at the start,” she says while launching into Charles Trenet’s “Que reste-t-il de nos amours?” “Maybe fewer notes? I feel as if it’s a bit out of time.” Then follow other finesses: “Only the right symbol first on ‘de mon passé,’” she tells Todd Turkisher (her husband), on drums. “It kind of sneaks in,” she instructs. Gliding down the note on “le temps” in Leo Ferre’s “Avec Le Temps,” she turns to violinist Cyrus Beroukhim: “Didn’t you want to play this one an octave lower?” Her longstanding pianist, Vana Gierig, is so accustomed to working with her that he can pace himself by even the slightest movements of her back and breath.

Lemper, who catapulted to world fame in the ’80s with the release of a two-volume series of Kurt Weill recordings, was almost instantaneously anointed the Queen of Cabaret, just a young woman in her early 20s. Her tall, slender frame—then as now—belied a colossal voice with almost inconceivable resonance and control. She played Sally Bowles in the original Paris production of Cabaret, earning a Molière, before going on to interpret the role of Velma Kelly in London’s West End production of Chicago, earning an Olivier. Her vampy Velma replaced Bebe Neuwirth’s on Broadway, and she took home a New York Theater Award. In her over thirty-year solo career, she has cornered the market on the works of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, which is to say nothing of her scintillating takes on Édith Piaf and Jacques Brel. She moves between languages and traverses decades with uncanny ease and unnerving acumen. She can lure you in with a husky, hushed whisper or knock you to the ground when reaching into her upper registers. Her belting power, on full display a few weeks ago in the quiet, wood-paneled walls of the Sabarsky setting, felt as if it might blow the windows out of the Beaux-Arts building’s ground floor.

Lemper was invited to the Kennedy Center as part of Renée Fleming’s VOICES series, a program Fleming curates as artistic advisor-at-large to showcase the diversity and versatility of the human voice. For Fleming, Lemper embodies the essence of cabaret tradition and style. “In her performances,” Fleming tells Town & Country, “she can create the whole milieu of a Weimar cabaret or a Parisian nightclub with a look, a gesture, or a vocal inflection.” According to Fleming, Lemper deploys an instrument of unlimited expressive range: “Ute can switch from the most silken, seductive purr to a growl, or a cry of anguish, within a single bar of music—all of it evocative and vocally assured.”

That vocal confidence comes from within. She grew up in Cold War Germany, “which certainly did traumatize all of us in my generation—to be there at the seam between east and west in this country that was basically occupied by four forces.” It was like living on a mine that could go off at any minute. In the ’80s, as the political climate marched closer and closer to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall, Lemper was in her formative years, watching from the city’s west as artists on the east were trying to make sense of an unstable world.

As she was recording her now landmark Weill volumes, it was a front-row seat to history and a firsthand lesson in the power of art. Those recordings almost single-handedly revived the existence of 1920s’ cabaret with a K, or “kabarett,” in the traditional Weimar way—not our somewhat saccharine and lighthearted American-style cabaret, but the avant-garde version with “a bite to it,” as she puts it, often political in nature and dedicated to freedom of expression and sexuality. As the Nazis suppressed any form of political criticism, Berlin cabaret, and its many Jewish composers, had to flee into exile. “I was very grateful and privileged to be the protagonist of this revival only because I was chosen to do this,” she reflects. “I took this very to my heart, very seriously, to be the ambassador of this repertoire because along with it came this incredible responsibility as a young postwar German.” To this day, Lemper is a scholarly performer who reaches into history, never letting us forget it. Every year at the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, she performs multiple concerts of her “Songs For Eternity” program, which focuses uniquely on the works created between 1942 and 1944 by Jewish prisoners in the ghettos and concentration camps.

As she readies for tonight’s broken-hearts show in the Eisenhower Theater, Lemper is prepared to ramp it up with Harold Arlen’s “One for My Baby” or tug at the heart strings with some of the French classics, but she’s interested in more than just that. “History is not exactly repeating itself, but there are aspects that make you really think, don’t we ever learn? Why don’t we ever learn? How could there be a hot war, a ground war, in the Ukraine?” she asks, the passion rising in her voice. Metaphorically—and more importantly— tonight she will be singing for a broken world. “I feel, in this moment in time, that I really would like to bring a bit more of the political, the difficult, the edgy stuff—not just a song about being sad and sitting at the bar and having a whisky,” she says. “Songs from the broken heart, yes, but from the broken world—from the broken society, the broken confidence, the broken truth.”

Like her forthcoming autobiography, the show will be a sort of time-traveling retrospective of her life, including a share of her Weimar and Yiddish material as well as a section devoted to kindred spirit Marlene Dietrich, who fled Germany to support the American war effort. “This woman is such a woman of the future—she was 100 years ago as she is today,” Lemper beams. As part of her tribute to Dietrich, we’re in for a rare treat with her take on both Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, whom Dietrich happened to love herself. “You know, when I was younger, I liked the big stuff, but now I really like the little moments where the humanity shines through and you can take people on an emotional journey,” Lemper muses in a hushed, reflective tone. You can almost hear a haunting preview of her interpretation of that Seeger song: “Oh, when will we ever learn? Oh, when will we ever learn?”

Read the article online on Town and Country here.