Interview with stage and song diva Ute Lemper

Ian CollinsBerlin, Paris, New York and now Norwich. Ute Lemper is coming to our fine city and Ian Collins, a long-time fan, can't wait. Meanwhile, he's been catching up with the diva at her home in the Big Apple...Ian Collins

Don't let me get too carried away here, but Ute Lemper is gorgeous, and it's a brilliant coup for the Norfolk and Norwich Festival that hers will be the final, show-stopping act on this year's bill.

She puts it differently - telling me on the phone from New York: 'It's a great festival and I'm so honoured to be part of it.'

Then again, besides the drop-dead gorgeousness and swoon-inducing sweetness, she knows her musical history - the many traditions dating back way before the night 11 years ago, when I attended the press view for Chicago's West End revival and she knocked us all senseless.

After all, the German-raised singer, actress, dancer and artist had spent time in 1970s and '80s Berlin - before the Wall came down - where she somehow merged the voice of Lotte Lenya with the lithe looks and magnetism of Marlene Dietrich to revisit the dramatic world of the Weimar Republic ('the anarchy and the lust' as she puts it) smashed by Hitler. She made a particularly powerful and poignant cabaret album celebrating artists censored or murdered by the Nazis.

Liza Minnelli may have been fabulous in the film Cabaret, but Ute made the stage show - based loosely on the Christopher Isherwood book Goodbye to Berlin - her own.

She secured the Dietrich crown by playing Lola in The Blue Angel and most of all made her name by recording the Kurt Weill songbook as well as via new tributes to Berthold Brecht.

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Hard to believe at times that she was born during the Berlin Airlift rather than maturing well before the last war. She's 45 now and striding on those incredibly long legs towards her prime (possibly reaching it, like Dietrich, in her 60s or 70s).

For several years she was based in Paris - where she added the works of Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf to her repertoire - before moving to London. Then her volcanic and inevitably-Olivier-award-winning performance as Velma Kelly in Chicago took her to Broadway, and she has been living happily in the Big Apple ever since.

Her husband Todd Turkisker - also her producer and percussionist - is a New Yorker and their three children Max, 14, Stella, 12, and Julian, three, are all now 'little New Yorkers'.

'Then again I was a German when I lived in Paris and a German living in London, but here I'm a New Yorker too,' says Ute. 'I couldn't live in the suburbs or the country - I can't identify with mainstream America - but this city has such all-embracing energy and openness. It gives me such freedom. I love it.'

She has regular eight-shows-a-week residences at the swankiest cabaret venue in town - the Upper East's Carlyle Hotel, where performer Elaine Strich felt so at home she actually moved in.

Given Ute's rather edgy and decidedly political material - and a voice that can rise from a panther's growl to a wild cat's howl - she luckily brings an earthier Down Town audience with her when she isn't actually popping up in the people's palace of Joe's Bar or else the Lincoln Center.

Actually she and Todd and the kids spend much of their time together in Central Park - one of the wonders of the world - when not travelling as a family for her brief concert tours.

They've just had a ball in Mexico, but Ute will undertake a short pending European tour - to Holland, Germany and Turkey as well as to Norwich - on her own, winding up in Paris to record a documentary on the French songwriter Boris Vian and make an art movie in which she plays an old chanteuse drowning in alcohol.

'Playing that part will be harder than you might think,' she laughs with a glorious cackle. 'She has lost her voice to the bottle.

'I'll have to work myself into that with a couple of nights of swigging whisky and smoking cigarettes so that I lose my voice.

'I just hope I'll get it back again…'

That would indeed be a terrible loss, for this is the woman whose back catalogue includes Michael Nyman's score for Prospero's Books (she also appeared in the Peter Greenaway movie), and whose crossover plan to record a pop album prompted offerings of songs by the likes of Nick Cave, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and - the star of this year's Norfolk and Norwich Festival on Friday - Philip Glass.

But after all this top-class collaboration she is also emerging as a composer in her own write. The latest Lemper album - Between Yesterday and Tomorrow - is her first release consisting of self-penned songs.

She says: 'The journey between yesterday and tomorrow, through time and places in the world, is also a journey through my heart.

'It is a collection of memories, impressions, moments of joy, but also vulnerable moments of doubt and outrage.

'It moves between clearness and painful confusion, hope and despair about world issues but always wants to stay poetic in its thought and language.

'I could have told a hundred different stories, yet at the moment in time, it was an impulsive, intuitive decision to focus on this selection.

'The songs felt like a medication, which searches and finds various inflammation in the body of the world and in the body of life, trying to treat them poetically and positively.

'But the wheel of our histories keeps spinning and some events make us strong, some make us weaker on our journeys between yesterday and tomorrow.'

Phew. Ute Lemper is a phenomenon - and a whirlwind. And that's not even all.

The cover art on the new album is based on her own paintings, though Ute hasn't found the time to pick up a paintbrush since the birth of her youngest child.

'It has been such a joy having Julian so long after Max and Stella and I want to savour his growing up as much as I possibly can,' she says.

'It is very hard to juggle limited amounts of time. In free moments, rather than painting I prefer to go to the piano and play and compose.'

When I ask her about the show she is bringing to Norwich - Angels over Berlin and the World - she is momentarily baffled. For it seems that I have misquoted the title in my question

'Angels over Britain?' she says. 'I don't know too much about them.'

'Sorry, sorry,' I reply. 'And actually we don't have any.'

Quick as a flash she says: 'Oh, I heard you did, and that they were naughty and drunk!'

It's Ute who is more than slightly naughty I reckon - hers is after all one of the wickedest stage winks in the business and who could forget her naked-when-pregnant scene in Robert Altman's savage Pre-a-Porter satire on the fashion industry?

But back to my script. What's with the festival show?

'Ah yes, well it's a journey through the last century of the European songbook - taking me through my life in Cold War Berlin and the nostalgic looking back at the Weimar Republic. It's about a German trying to make sense of the country she grew up in and felt so uneasy about.

'And then it's about the moves to Paris and London and finally to New York where a few years ago I was asked to sing in a tribute concert to Joni Mitchell. I liked her songs so much that I have carried on singing them.'

She also weaves traditional Yiddish songs (in the lost language of German Jewry), and Romany folk tunes too, into the ongoing travelogue.

Finally there is Ute, the adopted New Yorker, finding her own voice as a songwriter - and, on first, second and third hearings, this is the part of the programme which for me is the work in progress as opposed to the polished perfection. Some Lemper fans will already love this section, others will need some convincing.

For here we have one of the greatest living singers of torch songs - anthems which she then makes her own. But the material should be of the best before the best in the business tackles it.

And for all her easy and winning manner - I call her Upper West Side apartment where an unmistakeable answerphone voice says 'Hi! This is Ute!' purely because she hasn't heard the phone - she is the true diva, the consummate chanteuse.

I'd expected to be directed to a publicist's office, with a fixed interview time-slot and then to be received with a certain star's hauteur a la Dietrich. But none of that. Ute apologises for delaying me for a minute or two.

She's up for a long and sparky chat and there seems to be no side to her whatsoever - especially as she complains in passing that her adoration of Joni Mitchell has just been dented by the egotism revealed in a recent biography.

A New York Times review of a recent hard-hitting and barn-storming Lemper show at the Carlyle Hotel had the delicious Weill-nodding title: 'Oh, the economic downturn has pearly teeth, dear!'

The news these days may be beyond satire but, in the worst global financial crisis since the 1930s, a tuneful echo of Weimar Berlin sounds all too timely.

So, cheer up. And come to the cabaret, old chums.

t Ute Lemper's Angels over Berlin and the World flies into Norwich Theatre Royal on Saturday, May 16. Tickets: �6 to �30. Box office - 01603 766400.