Singer, actress, dancer, performance artist
Performer Ute Lemper has refused to pigeonhole herself into one realm of entertainment. Whether dancing, singing, or acting, Lemper has learned to command the stage and her audience. Consistently compared to actress and cabaret singer Marlene Dietrich, Lemper doesn’t just sing; she grabs the audience’s attention and leads them into the emotion of the music with her body language and vocal fluctuations.
Lemper was born to an opera singer mother and banker father in Muenster, Germany. Influenced by music at a young age, she studied piano, voice, and ballet. She grew up listening to American jazz and pop music. Her mother hoped that Lemper would decide on a career as a ballerina. “I was too crazy for that,” Lemper told the London Sunday Times. “I have too much crazy passion to be disciplined as you have to be as a classical dancer. I was more interested in performing, entertainment, acting. If a song was acted, it was fine; if a song was just sung, I wasn’t very good, because my voice wasn’t extraordinary.”
As she grew up, Lemper started getting up onstage, dancing, singing, and acting children’s parts in operettas and plays at the theater where her mother worked. At age 15, Lemper kicked off her career performing in jazz and piano bars. From there, she continued her studies in acting at the Staatstheater Stuttgart. She went on to study classical theater at the prestigious Max Reinhardt Seminar in Vienna. Her first significant stage production came in two roles in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats when she was 21. She alternated between the parts of Grizabella and Bombalurina. She also performed in other stage productions like Peter Pan, in which she played the title role, and in Cabaret as Sally Bowles.
While she performed in Peter Pan, Lemper also appeared in a Berlin revue of Kurt Weill’s music. Once the revue ended, the State Theatre in Stuttgart offered her an engagement to perform classical and contemporary drama. Starting with the music she learned and listened to in Berlin, Lemper wrote the script for a musical biography of Weill, from his early collaborations with playwright Bertolt Brecht and his flight from Nazi Germany in 1915, to his American citizenship and his American musicals. The news of her production spread throughout Europe.
“I am very curious about the period between the two world wars,” Lemper told the Sunday Times. “Everyone who was important in the 1930s had to emigrate because
For the Record…
Born in Muenster, Germany, in 1963. Daughter of a banker and an opera singer. Education: Studied theater at the Staatstheater Stuttgart and Max Reinhart Seminar.
Began performing as a child at a municipal theater in Germany; sang in jazz and piano bars when she was 15 years old; received roles in Cats at age 21; signed with London Records and released debut album, Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill, 1989; performed in several theater productions, films, and a ballet.
Addresses: Record company —London Records, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019.
their art was revolutionary and anti-convention. The artists who stayed worked later for the Nazis.” Lemper’s curiosity and background led her to infuse her work with political passion. She wanted to revive interest in this era’s music and theater, which the Nazis had eliminated. In 1989 Lemper released her first album on London Records, called Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill. She made a strong impression in America, and the LP reached Number One on Billboard’s classical crossover chart. The following year, she earned a nomination for the Laurence Olivier award for her Weill recital in London. Her second Weill performance, Three Penny Opera, was released the same year.
Lemper made her mother’s dreams come true when she performed as a principal dancer in a ballet Maurice Bejart created specifically for her. The ballet, La Morte Subite, premiered in Paris in 1991 and continued on to Germany. By this time, Lemper’s popularity in Germany had grown to such an intensity that she decided to move to London. “In Germany, I cannot live a free life anymore,” she told the Sunday Times. “I’m watched in the streets. Everything about my private life—whenever I go out with someone—is reported in the newspapers. I can’t go to the supermarket because everybody knows my face. I did too many television shows…. And I want to live in a city which is culturally interesting. London is the Mecca at the moment, more interesting than New York.”
Lemper’s third album for London Records, Seven Deadly Sins, made a splash on the music scene, and she also released Crimes of the Hearton CBS Records that year. She made her film debut as the haughty Queen Marie-Antoinette in the French production of L’Austrichienne. Later, Lemper worked on two other French films—Pierre Qui Biule, a contemporary political film, and Jean Gal-mot, a nineteenth-century adventure.
In 1992 Lemper collaborated with Michael Nyman to record Songbook. The two artists created music to accompany lyrics based on classic verse by such famous poets as Paul Celan, Arthur Rimbaud, and William Shakespeare. Lemper also performed the role of Lola in Berlin’s five-month run of The Blue Angel in 1992. After her performance, she moved back to Berlin and recorded Kurt Weill Songs, Volume II, on London Records. Later in the year, she released another LP, Illusions—her personal interpretation of Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich songs.
Illusions spent more than 15 weeks in the Number One slot of Billboard’s crossover charts, and became the best-selling crossover album of the year. Billboard named Ute Lemper the Number One classical crossover artist of 1993. “Lemper… can best be described as a very tasteful cabaret artist,” wrote Susan Elliot in Billboard, “one with a good deal more emotional authenticity than, say, Barbra Streisand or Liza Minnelli, both of whom she has been compared to.”
Though critics have praised her glamorous image, Lemper has attributed that characteristic to her portrayal of emotion. “The glamorous part of the image is not really me,” she said in the Los Angeles Times. “I am not at all glamorous, and it’s really contrary to what I want to do on stage. I prefer to think I am very straightforward … although maybe still with a secret. Glamour is not what I’m looking for in my performance. I’m looking for emotional expression, not in a sentimental or stylized way, but with complete honesty and directness.” Lemper sings mostly in German and French, and uses visual enhancement as much as her vocals to enliven her performances.
Constantly expanding her credits, Lemper performed at La Scala in Milan in an homage to opera singer Cathy Berberian. She also made her debut with the London Symphony Orchestra with conductor Kent Nagano. She took her talents into yet another area with an exhibition in Paris of her oil paintings, which received a warm reception from the press.
In 1994 Lemper began working with acclaimed director Robert Altman on his film Ready to Wear, which depicts the inner workings of the fashion industry. Lemper played the role of an eight-months-pregnant model named Albertine. Continuing her trend of nonstop work, Lemper released City of Strangers on London Records in 1995, which included songs by American composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim.
Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill, London, 1989.
Three Penny Opera, London, 1990.
Seven Deadly Sins, London, 1991.
Crimes of the Heart, CBS, 1991.
Songbook, London, 1992.
Kurt Weill Songs, Volume II, London, 1993.
Illusions, London, 1993.
City of Strangers, London, 1995.
Billboard, April 29, 1989; July 3, 1993.
High Fidelity, May 1989.
Los Angeles Times, January 16, 1993; January 29, 1993.
New York Times, February 4, 1993.
Stereo Review, July 1990; September 1991; November 1993.
Sunday Times (London), March 17, 1991.
Variety, March 22, 1989.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from London Records press material, 1994.
Born: Munster, Germany, 4 July 1963
Best-selling album since 1990: Punishing Kiss (2000)
Ute Lemper is a Bavarian-voiced cabaret stylist whose work, despite an edgy defiance of the mainstream, has somehow trickled into the pop music scene. Never one to follow the pack, the statuesque singer evolved from a theater background, is proficient in a variety of art forms, and renowned for her bold one-person shows. Lemper is the foremost living performer of German composer Kurt Weill's music.
While growing up in Munster, Germany, Ute (pronounced Oo'-tah) Lemper's parents sent her to classical singing, ballet, and piano training at an early age and she worked professionally in jazz bars and nightclubs by age fifteen. Shortly after, she joined a punk rock band but left to study classical and musical theater at the Max Reinhardt Seminary in Vienna. Andrew Lloyd Webber placed Lemper in his 1983 Viennese production of Cats and she played the characters Grizabella and Bombalurina over the course of that year. In 1986, her career quickly picked up momentum as the European theater world took notice of her portrayal of Sally Bowles in the European tour of Cabaret. She won the Moliere Award for best actress in a musical during the Paris leg of the tour. New York City audiences were introduced to Lemper in 1987 when she performed a musical repertoire of Weill in a one-person show. A subsequent world tour and an album, Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill (1989), were widely acclaimed. Lemper also began working extensively as a film actress and portrayed Lola in the German film, Blue Angel. Continually at odds with her German heritage, she left her native country in the early 1990s and began living in Paris, London, and New York where she centered her eclectic interest in a variety of art forms. Lemper wrote political articles for European publications, published two books, displayed her paintings in Paris exhibits and danced as a principal in the ballet, La Mort Subite.
Often compared to Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich from her already extensive recording career, Lemper made a first foray into popular music with Crimes of the Heart (1991). The album contains songs in English, French, and German and only hints at mainstream pop, as Lemper's flexible soprano possesses a rich, timeless quality that recurrently conjures up smoky German nightclubs. The album's title song is a ballad laced with Lemper's trademark irony. In 1995, she recorded City of Strangers (1995) and lent her breathy interpretations to the works of Stephen Sondheim and popular French poet/songwriter, Jacques Prevert. One of the highlights from City of Strangers is the silky, aching "Losing My Mind."
Lemper stepped into the world of Bob Fosse in 1998 when she joined the Broadway cast of the already-running hit show, Chicago, to play one of the leads, Velma Kelly. More accustomed to the flexibility of one-person shows and other self-created projects, Lemper found performing in Chicago somewhat stifling. Her stylized performance confounded critics, but the notoriety gained from the show in addition to a recording, All That Jazz: The Best of Ute Lemper, whose title song came from Chicago, expanded her cult following. She built on that by releasing Punishing Kiss (2000), a collection of songs written by notable artists such as Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Philip Glass, and many others. Songs from Punishing Kiss began to overcome reluctant radio airplay and its sales increased.
Never one to stray far from the music of despair, Lemper's But One Day (2002) revisits the work of Weill and other cabaret/art songs, including Jacques Brel's musically gorgeous but forlorn tale, "Amsterdam." It also features five songs written by Lemper. A concert tour of But One Day kicked off in Germany following the album's release and she continues to perform concerts and one-woman shows all around the world. Lemper is married to American comedian/actor David Tabatsky and they reside in New York City.
Lemper is a maverick who possesses diverse talents, a fearless heart, and a true artist's soul. Strikingly beautiful, her astonishing insistence to pursue only projects that stir her passion has kept her from becoming a more mainstream star.
Life Is a Cabaret (CBS, 1987); Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill (Decca, 1988); I Dreamed a Dream (CBS, 1988); Crimes of the Heart (Polygram, 1991); Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill, Vol. 2 (Decca, 1993); Espace Indecent (Polydor, 1993); City of Strangers (Decca, 1995); Berlin Cabaret Songs (Decca, 1997); All That Jazz: The Best of Ute Lemper (Decca, 1998); Punishing Kiss (Decca, 2000); But One Day (Decca, 2003).