If you've been keeping a finger on the cultural barometer lately, you may have noticed the continuing triumph of every sort of musical retro trend imaginable, and a few that are probably made up. The idea of the musical archeologists, or at least of the articles documenting their gravedigging trends, seems to be that this new Alternative Nation of ours is growing bored with its same-old guitar clangs and angst outpourings, and so is turning to the past in search of emotional sophistication (trust me: the past was very sophisticated) and musical complexity, or at the very least, novelty.
How else to explain the recent resurrection of Martin Denny's long-buried lounge star and the chart-topping Gregorian antics of Chant?
Ute Lemper, the trilingual German-born chanteuse with the pure-as-crystal voice and the flawlessly applied eyeliner, hasn't been hurt by the renewed American interest in all things once-but-no-more vital. Perhaps she even had a hand in starting it. Back in 1989, Lemper's Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill hit number one on Billboard's crossover charts and hung on for weeks, resuscitating Weill's reputation yet again and establishing her own as a master interpreter of traditional cabaret repertoire.
But if Lemper is to be lumped in with revivalists and novelty acts (which wouldn't really be fair, since the audience at her upcoming performance is likely to be populated with connoisseurs and season ticket holders with nary a youth in sight), it's worth pointing out that she's no mere imitator with antique tastes. She's a thoroughly modern woman who stumbled upon the cabaret format in her search for an outlet that would best allow her a full spectrum of personal expression. Having found it, she's made it her own.
She explains over the phone from Paris, during what she says with a sultry laugh is her first ever interview with a Texan:
"In my heart, I like to play theater -- however, be a dancer, singer or an actor -- but looking for an expression which includes all facets of your instrument, which is your body, and your mind. So of course in the beginning I was very much into musicals, because they seemed to be the only form and genre of music theater which was available in our times. But then pretty soon I was a little bit bored by the stereotype which is very often used in musicals, and also the stories which were told. They just weren't ... weird enough.
"I was looking for something much more beyond the commercial aspects, and then I really discovered the music of Kurt Weill and I thought this was very strong, even though it's written in the '20s. It's so sharp and strong still today. It has a lot of meaning and a lot of truth. You can take out of that and totally transplant it into today's times.
"And then I really felt more and more at home in this material, because you had to think at the same time you were singing, and there were no laws of performance. Musicals have a certain style, you've got to perform it that way, in this voice. This material ... you really can sing it the way you want, and I wasn't obliged to have any kind of style, just my own creativity and my own fantasy, and maybe at the end my own style. That was really a total way of expressing myself. I could do it with gesture, with words, you could slip into the speaking and back into the singing, and you can break all laws of music with this repertoire. That's what I really liked."
Of course, Lemper likes a lot of things, and her resume turns out to be the kind of thing that inspires fear and loathing in less productive mortals.
She made her film debut in 1991 playing Marie Antoinette in L'Autrichiennes, and landed parts in two French films that same year. She performed in and sang on the soundtrack of Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books. She's one of the few good things about Robert Altman's recent bomb Ready to Wear (Pret-A-Porter). She's exhibited her paintings in France and Germany, published her journalism in Die Welt and The Guardian, and completed a forthcoming book of fiction. When she sings, she does so fluently in German, French and English. She's an overachiever and a suave bombshell, which would be terminally annoying in an American, but you sort of expect it from one so Continental.
With all the sidelines, you might reasonably expect Lemper to be stretched a bit thin, but the evidence of her albums shows her delving deep into her chosen genre. She's recorded seven CDs for the London label, including two volumes of the work of Weill, one collaboration with Michael Nyman featuring texts from Paul Celan, Shakespeare, Mozart and Rimbaud (take that, Diamanda Galas...), Illusions -- Songs of Dietrich and Piaf and the most recent offering, City of Strangers -- Songs by Sondheim, Prevert....
With a trilingual fluency and a knack for nuanced phrasing bordering on the uncanny, she subtly vamps and sexily slinks her way into and through a smoky, charged atmosphere that never was on these shores, and hasn't really existed in Europe since Weimar Republic-era Germany succumbed to Hitler's Wagner fixation. But for all the sexy cocktail nostalgia Lemper's repertoire evokes, what attracts her most is the political freedom of the form.
"Cabaret," she says, pronouncing the et, "was in the times of the '20s clubs, where it was a kind of variety. They had their musicians and comedians, also satire, most of all political things. Some artistic things like juggling maybe -- it was a whole art form which was created in that time, which was also going along with the new kind of performance which was developing through Kurt Weill and Brecht. The actors on stage were representing a certain politics and a certain message, and they were not simply just actors or interpreters. They were people with their own minds, standing there and giving a certain opinion about things that were happening. At the time, the critics, the authors who wrote also for papers, they wrote also for theater and everything was a political buzz, and of course more or less a left-wing buzz, an anarchic buzz. I think that's really the root of it. And Berlin is, I guess, where it all happened."
Cabaret peaked in Berlin, and if its foremost contemporary practitioner is now playing concert halls across the globe, that indicates both how far the form has traveled from its roots and the presence of a renewed interest in the genre.
"There are here in Paris a few really beautiful clubs where you can do these things. A theater of 500 to 800 people, I would say, is ideal for this. These clubs where it's kind of a club and kind of a theater, but it has much history, and everybody performed in it here in the '30s and '40s. Also in Berlin now, they are really growing out of the earth, these new cabaret clubs which never happened there throughout the whole time of the Cold War. People want to relive these kind of Weimar time places. It's not what it was before, because people are very young, and it's a whole genre, a whole art form which was totally neglected for so many years, and the performers don't know necessarily what to do. A lot of young people are trying out these things now, and it's very funny to see that happen, but it doesn't yet have the bite and the satirical input like what it had in the '20s."
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Even that redevelopment, though, is pretty well restricted to Europe, with the closest American counterpart being the ubiquitous one-woman show. But, Lemper says, "I think American people are very interested in this kind of European form of cabaret, that's what I've found through many years I've performed there, and I've been coming over every year for twice or three times. I see that there is really a big audience and really a revival also of Kurt Weill's music. I was very surprised that my first Weill album that came out in '88 was so successful in the States, even though it wasn't that successful here. People were ready to relive these songs again, and that as very nice to see."
To help people relive those songs, the Society for the Performing Arts -- which is bringing Lemper and longtime piano accompanist Bruno Fontaine to town for a first-ever Texas performance -- has promised to transform Jones Hall into an "intimate cabaret setting," with Lemper singing upstage and the audience seated on-stage at small cafe tables. If we can order drinks and smoke cigars at these small cafe tables, and if political fights break out among the patrons between songs, then the cabaret experience will be complete.
And if not, at least the music will be right.
Ute Lemper and Bruno Fontaine perform two shows, at 8 and 10:30 p.m., Friday, February 17 at Jones Hall. The first show is sold out. Tickets cost $30. Call 629-3700 for info.