Sasha de Suinn interviews Ute Lemper, the world-famous – and hugely LGBT friendly – jazz and chanson singer on her upcoming, sold-out show – Rendezvous, with Marlene, at London’s Arcola Theatre
What makes a killer diva? Is it surviving the frenzied, hot-pout hurricanes routinely weathered by the strutting queens in Pose?
Or – arguably better – surviving every possible shift in the facile, pop-trash demographic spoon-fed by reigning low-brow Simon Cowell?
Perhaps, but rarer still is one essential ingredient; jaw-dropping talent.
Not that England’s particularly thin on the ground in that respect; for every ridiculously over-praised whiner like Celine Dion or Madonna, we have a Shirley Bassey, a Dusty Springfield, an Adele and Amy Winehouse. Still, as shockingly good as those artists are, the most revered, rarefied divas – which must, without doubt, include opera queen supreme Maria Callas and legendary French chansonnier Edith Piaf – both transcend and encapsulate their formative cultures.
In brief, they’re shockingly, almost dangerously definitive, iconically flash-freezing the cultural mountain peaks they’ve chosen to climb and conquer.
Which brings us, quite fittingly, to the lithe, Teutonic, mistakenly supposed ice goddess Ute Lemper, a killer blonde that Alfred Hitchcock – with his infamous fetish for fair-haired females – would have cast on the spot.
Unsuprisingly, she’s left striking, indelible landmarks on the cultural landscape; some future, artistic archaeologist might unearth the riveting footage of Ute nonchalantly walking a public catwalk naked and heavily pregnant in the movie Pret-A-Porter, and regard it with the awe reserved for Cleopatra’s intimate relics.
Myself, I’m endlessly enchanted by the sulphuric glamour and corrosive aplomb of her turn as seductress Velma Kelly in the filmed musical version of Chicago, and the memories of an outstanding, intimate gig Ute gave at NYC’s hugely prestigious Carlyle jazz club.
The year? 2005, and – sitting only inches from the diva herself – I was overwhelmed by the intensity, conviction and commitment she drew from every micro-managed note, on a inflection and lyric of her chosen repertoire. And my inner tranny, of course – at that time given flaming, 24-7 expression sky-high on a teeming, non-stop horde of female hormones – was immediately transfixed by Ute’s bias-cut, black, low-cut silk dress, painstakingly highlighting her figure with the panache of some implausibly perfect glove.
Her performance, of course, was magisterial and definitive, bringing a concise nuance to Brecht and Weill that drew audible gasps of appreciation from the audience, and – en route to a punishing early, morning interview for this tranny-granny night-owl, I found myself deeply pondering Ute’s electrifying ability to deliver her material with total authority and mastery on stage.
Rushed and breathless on a frosty May morning, I arrive and meet PR guru Kevin Wilson, and ushered to meet Ute, who – quite charmingly – directs us to a quiet, discrete corner where we won’t be bothered. She’s immediately welcoming, and – like all upper-echelon film, stage and music stars – effortlessly makes me feel as ease.
The first question’s obvious; was music always a consuming passion for her? Languidly chic in black mules, loose black silk pants and matching blouse, her straw-gold hair, green eyes and pale skin intermittently lit by early morning sunlight, she instantly smiles and reminisces. “I would say all the way back, (in her life) music was always the universe I wanted to live in, I grew up with great idols we grew up with this great music, R&B and jazz, but it wasn’t my culture, it wasn’t British culture either, the great rock bands, Al Jarreau and George Benson, Joni Mitchell all this fantastic music, to the extent it was hard for me to see who am I in this music world. And then I encountered the music of Brecht and Weill, and it was really incredible to find this music full of spirit and intellect written in German, it was poetic and theatrical; and written for the young people of that time of course, and it had already been written a long time ago when I discovered it, so it gave me a certain artistic identity to perform it, and I went to study in Vienna and found it was one job after another…”
Ute’s speaking voice – crystal-clear as a verbal river, and addictively garnished with precise, German vowels in her otherwise faultless English – is also intensely descriptive, her shifts of pitch and emphasis immediately painting compelling sonic portraits. But – mindful of the incendiary, religious politics castigating sexual diversity worldwide – could parts of her repertoire offend intolerant regimes? Rightly or wrongly, the songs of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht has become indelibly symbolic of the sexual and theatrical excesses of the Weimar era republic, that fabulous demi-mondaine of transvestites, dominatrixes, gay men and lesbians so beguilingly portrayed in the movie Cabaret. And that positive visibility has been paralleled by the rise of the feminist MeToo movement; indeed, Brecht and Weill’s songs of self-determination and sexual liberation almost wrote a compelling rulebook for feminist activists decades ago.
Do you find the pro-LGBT viewpoints and sympathies of Weimar cabaret present a problem when performing to audiences religiously and socially opposed to LGBT rights, especially in Israel and the Middle East?
“Well, not in Israel” Ute continues, “You can do what you want, it’s quite fabulously liberated, but in the Islamic countries, I’ve been told not to reveal too much, not to go too far, not to provoke their notions of a woman’s status, and not to go too much into diversity details, I don’t mind, I do what I do, it is part of my range and image as a provocateur to present the material in the persona of a provocateur, so they know what they’re getting, but I wouldn’t do something from the film Cabaret in the Lebanon, I would do something more musical that doesn’t cause heart palpitations!!”
Unlike other high-profile musicians – quite notoriously and notably the ex-Pink Floyd powerhouse Roger Waters, aggressively pro-Palestinian and anti-Semitic – Ute prefers to charm and persuade, not alienate.
On a related note, the MeToo movement has become incredibly important in exposing, resisting and highlighting the despicable sexual predation that’s been routinely practiced by influential males across the performing arts, particularly the utterly repellent Harvey Weinstein. But the arts, arguably, have always been nuanced and aware than everyday life – more ‘woke’ in the current parlance – and strong women, like countless divas from Maria Callas, Dietrich, Madonna and Gaga have fearlessly rewritten the rule-book for female engagements with audiences and theatrical performance itself. Dietrich, of course – the incandescent focus of Ute’s show – enjoys constant mythic status in the LGBT world, and it’s fascinating that the now-legendary, three-hour phone call Dietrich made to Ute in New York from her apartment in Berlin – formed the basis, thirty years later, of Ute’s current magnum opus, Rendezvous with Marlene.
Ute chuckles. “Well, it’s taken 30 years to illuminate the whole context of Marlene’s journey. It was clear to me when I spoke to her when she went back to Germany after fifteen years and people in the 1960s were saying, ‘Go home, we don’t want you Marlene you’re a traitor to the fatherland.’ You see, the shadows the Nazis had cast was very long, and it was an unbelievable way she was treated in her own country, seen as a traitor because she’d sung for the American soldiers in World War Two, and it was an incredibly painful experience for her; she did only one more tour and a UNICEF gala, and I remember she said to me she would only go back one time in a coffin – dead.
“She wanted to be buried next to her mother in a cemetery in Berlin. What was clear, what was the most striking thing in her conversation, was her melancholy, her anger, her bitterness, her desperation about having lost that piece of her life which was her home, her childhood, the German language that she loved, the poets, her favourite poet Heine Maria Rilke, she quoted him constantly on the phone call, and of course I was completely in awe when Marlene called me, it was a very long phone call too, I didn’t quite know where to put it emotionally, when I told other people they would say, ‘You’re kidding me’, but I was young, I was busy, it was a time when I wasn’t ready to explore the emotional complexities of Marlene in my work but it is time for me now to refer to her life, and tell her story the way it was…the time of the phone call, thirty years ago now, was a time when I first thoroughly broke through, and there was a lot of media attention, I had to stand up and be very big and be something I didn’t feel I was, I didn’t feel I could quite fill out the role of a celebrity; really, I just wanted to relax and be who I was, so I just put the conversation with Marlene away and later, I was given a script, I was supposed to play Marlene in a play and I didn’t like it at all, I felt there hadn’t been enough research, she was a human person, not a stereotype or caricature, so I sent the writer a lot of research, and it’s time for me now to tell her story truthfully.”
Exactly; there’s far more to Dietrich than endless, bad drag parodies attempting – and mostly failing – to sing ‘Falling in Love Again’ in a floor-scraping baritone. And – unlike fellow divas Garbo, Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth, Dietrich always remained thoroughly grounded, down to earth and grateful for her (hard-won) success. Still, perhaps some nagging, internal sense of fair play compelled her to fanatically scrub and clean every dressing room she ever used; and as the actress Sian Phillips told me when she was preparing her own, West End take on Marlene in 1996, “She called herself the ‘Ajax Lady’ – she liked nothing better than a good scrub.” And what cosseted, snowflake divas today – much less in the 1940s – would risk their lives on the front line in wartime for the adopted home – the USA – that she loved?
Forget the yo-yo popularity of current ‘celebutantes’ who live and die by their latest Instagrams and Tweets – hello, Trashdashians – Marlene built an enduring loyalty in her fan-base that lasted decades. And I remain completely awed by a Marlene anecdote told to me by a dear, American friend whose father fought the Nazis in Europe; Marlene, oblivious to the whistling bullets blazing past her, turned her back to the incoming gunfire and sang to the US troops in front of her. Now, that’s panache!
Still, despite her regard for Marlene, it’d be a mistake to assume that Ute’s artistic focus is entirely confined to vintage divas and songs; in 2000, she released her acclaimed, millennial album Punishing Kiss, a title teasingly suggestive of the dominatrix/willing slave narrative of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus In Furs, the contents of which sharply divided her critics, her most arguably her ‘Marmite’ album to date; listeners either loved or loathed what they heard. Still, ironically, that’s a truism more accurately applied to the hordes of Neo-cabaret and burlesque wannabees currently infesting London, somehow deluding themselves they’re conjuring the urbane, chansonnier glamour epitomised by Ute, an artist who effortlessly quantum-leaps far beyond talentless clones – and clowns.
And it’s that lack of artistic substance which, arguably, fatally cripples London’s booming but facile neo-cabaret scene. At best, the work of uninspired copyists like Dusty Limits and Bernie Dieter is merely a caricature of a caricature, glitzily superficial with no depth, a cartoon take on Joel Gray and Liza Minelli’s showcase turns in Cabaret. But, how does that misguided, artistic strategy – modern performers tackling vintage sophistication – work turned on its’ head? How does Ute –the consummate mistress of the Weimar songbook – feel tackling the art of modern rock songwriters like Nick Cave and Elvis Costello on her Punishing Kiss album? And how does she feel their lyricism compared to Brecht and Weill?
“Well, this was an interesting album, and I was quite intrigued to work with these writers – Tom Waits, Scott Walker, Neil Hanlon of the Divine Comedy, Elvis Costello – I enjoyed it, of course, but what I didn’t enjoy, quite, was being made to sing a song – something didn’t feel quite right about it, it was actually a spur for me to go and start writing myself, I thought, if I’m doing that album, and I’m singing a contemporary rock persons’ material, then why not write it myself? So, I started writing, then I did my Charles Bukowski project in NYC, with avantgarde music, and through that project I developed the courage to write myself with pretty accomplished music, and since then I have done plenty of my own creations, poems…”
She’s being unnecessarily modest. One often overlooked aspect of Ute’s polymathic creativity is her painting, her love of committing her more elusive inspirations to canvas.
“I began exploring painting in the 80s, I mean as a singer, you always have to look after your voice, but I’m always creative, and so when I wanted to create in silence, painting seemed the perfect answer, and at the time I was inspired by the whole, Cold War environment, the whole culture of West Berlin…I was inspired by this painter, Audrey Flack, she paints very fast with this very aggressive brushstroke, a whole painting is finished in just three hours, and it’s not abstract, but nudity and pieces of life that she throws into the canvas, so messing around with paint and oils, I’m autodidactic you know, self-taught, and being a dancer, I know the anatomy of men and women, so I thought it was great to explore this and just create in the silence and isolation and not be around people all the time… I lived in a loft in Berlin, and I painted with oils and I used turpentine to dilute, and it’s very toxic, and my brain was going on fire those years because I slept in that room where I painted, and with the smell of the turpentine sometimes, I dreamt that the whole world was a painting, they do this in movies these days, animated craziness…it was great!!”
Ute laughs, and continues. “It was, oooh wow wow! You don’t have to smoke anything! Living in a room with the smell of oil paint and turpentine did it for me! It was like a drug!”
Coincidentally, we discover we’d both lived in West Berlin during the Cold War before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and for those too young to have lived it, imagine a city-sized, walled-in paradise and playground, an explosively productive collision of unrestrained, peak-era Shoreditch gene-spliced with the raw gay hedonism of NYC’s infamous 1980’s saunas. Unbelievable? Well, you had to be there – like a hugely decadent, inverted mirror-image of the Gaza Strip, West Berlin was surrounded by the Russians behind the Iron Curtain, and thronged with actors, singers, dancers, film-makers and draft-dodgers all living like there was no tomorrow 24/7!
Ute remembers it well. “If anyone had pushed that nuclear button we would get it first, West Berlin was a tiny little island in the DDR (Deutsche Demokratik Republik) block, and it was a whole different story, no west Berliner would identify himself as a West German, it was just different…a different universe, almost…I was the first West German to perform in the Berliner ensemble in January 1991, so yes, the reunification of Germany with the East was a political facelift, but it couldn’t immediately heal the psychological scars…the rise of neo-Nazi and right-wing movements since then is tragic, really tragic, I do a lot of concerts in East Berlin and they always enjoy the Marlene programme, it brings back a lot of their history, and it’s funny that when Marlene Marlene finally went back to Germany, she was only welcome in East Berlin, they loved her, the wall was not built yet, but it was still separated psychologically and politically – an interesting discrepancy there…”
Our conversation turns to the peculiarities of performance venues; how does she feel about the Arcola as an artistic space?
“Well, it’s very small – a little too small, perhaps – I like it a little bigger, but it’s very authentic, whatever is gonna happen there will be very, very real, of course it can’t be like a Broadway performance, that would be ridiculous, but I like the Arcola’s dimension of reality, the exposed brick walls, it reminded me of a venue in Paris, and it almost had a Berlin character, a little run-down, it doesn’t have a glamorous atmosphere at all, although there will be glamour in the show because Dietrich was glamorous, so we’ll have to work on the lighting and staging, but once the lights go out the magic begins, I’ve done it on big stages and symphony stages and in different languages, but it’s the kind of show that can work anywhere.”
How do you feel the show’s been perceived in previous productions?
“Very well. It’s very authentic–you cannot not like it, it’s a piece of history, it’s very seriously acted and told, and a lot of the musicians are very good, when we do it in Germany it just takes wings into the hearts and history of the audience, it’s almost heart-breaking, people go out with tears in their eyes, it’s a very moving show.”
I tell her that every time I’ve seen her perform, I’ve been simply entranced, because like all the stone cold killer icons – Shirley Bassey comes strongly to mind – she has the strength to be emotionally vulnerable on stage, to be open to the audience and forge an immediate, empathic connection, not the tedious schmaltz and mock-sincerity routinely peddled by plodding tunesmiths One Direction and their mass-produced ilk.
“Yes, perhaps” she reflects, “that ability to evoke the transparency of the heart and soul becomes easier when you’re older, and when I was younger, I always felt it, but I was not always conscious of capacity, because when you’re younger, other things matter, all that energy and power, all of that, and it’s a distraction, but when you’re a little older, you can peel all that off, and the craft will come back…”
Most definitely. I tell her, quite truthfully, that I’m pig-sick of vapid musicals and the empty-headed excursions in egotism so-called ‘star’ performers inflict on the West End, and that – by merciful contrast – she offers work far more intense and worthwhile than Broadway’s fluffy feel-good indulgences. She laughs, appreciating the compliment.
“But then, there are different kind of shows; some can be most intense in the silence not the action, but we’re used to a certain type of unsubtle production nowadays, so it’s good that we still have theatre, and shows that don’t have to obey the rules or commercial restraints, that experimental that theatre can still happen in a different way.”
Speaking of commercial theatre, did she find the physical demands of playing Velma Kelly in Chicago a stretch? The simultaneous acting, singing and dancing?
“Yeah that was difficult, but I didn’t mind so much the slapstick, and there was not much depth to the part (laughs) and I almost wanted to jump off the boat with it, I didn’t like being trapped in it- well, but I was stuck with it…Sure, I enjoyed certain aspects of it, it was great exposure, but it just wasn’t a work of my heart…”
And Rendezvous With Marlene is? “Well of course – Marlene’s my baby!!!”
Indeed. Let’s wish Marlene a happy delivery – every night!
Ute Lemper: A Rendezvous With Marlene runs 14th-19th May @ Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, Dalston E8 3DL.
Dalston Kingsland Station. Tickets: 02075031646 or firstname.lastname@example.org