Classical music artists, no matter how impassioned the music they create, tend to emphasize personal restraint in their performances. Their self-possessed appearance puts the focus on the music, not the individual—or so the school of thought goes. This is music of learned authority, and the elegance of its presentation is one of many ways it differentiates itself from the look-at-me grandstanding of popular culture.
Cabaret music has evolved to embrace such sophistication, too. Young and modern singers who combine jazz and Broadway standards strive to play elegant theaters and highbrow dinner clubs. A singer like Jane Monheit, for instance, doesn’t compete for a crowd’s attention when she goes onstage. Instead, she projects the gracefully suave attitude her audience wants to see in themselves.
Then there’s Ute Lemper. The melodramatic German cabaret singer performs with such exaggerated theatrics that she makes Edith Piaf and Judy Garland seem like church singers. She lurches and drapes across a stage with over-the-top flair, flamboyantly accentuating every emotion with broad gestures and embroidered sighs.
What’s surprising, then, is that Lemper’s first appearance in Music City comes in front of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. In a season that’s included appearances by Elvis Costello and the Magic Circle Mime Company, as well as daring performances of Richard Danielpour’s “A Child’s Reliquary” and John Adams’ “Lollapalooza,” Lemper’s invitation represents the Nashville Symphony’s willingness to challenge expectations.
Despite her unrestrained stage presence, Lemper undoubtedly belongs to the world of cabaret—and not only because she’s played the Sally Bowles role in a stage production of the popular musical of that name. The composer she’s most renowned for interpreting is Kurt Weill. She’s done several albums devoted to his songs, and with the symphony she’ll perform Weill’s and Bertolt Brecht’s song cycle The Seven Deadly Sins.
It’s the perfect choice, since Lemper’s unchecked dramatics shine best when she’s working slyly decadent material. She revels in pricking at conventions, and her voice—which has more in common with a precocious pop singer like Annie Lennox than with other stage or cabaret vocalists—has a wickedly playful edge. Think Marlene Dietrich with more vocal range and training.
Lemper’s brazen style is rooted in her early years in a German rock band, Panama Drive, that mixed high-concept art and punk rock. But she’d grown up studying serious music as a pianist, and she evolved from rock into studying dance and then drama at well-regarded European arts institutes. She first drew attention in lead roles in musicals, including Cats, Peter Pan and Cabaret, where her effusive performances divided critics. She occasionally returns to the stage, such as taking a lead role in a London production of Chicago, but for the most part she now divides her time between symphonies, solo performances with bands in theaters and more pop-oriented concerts. Her most recent album, Between Yesterday and Tomorrow, is the first to feature only her own compositions, but so far it’s only available in Europe.
As her penchant for Weill suggests, Lemper tends to favor the progressive, theatrical songwriters, such as Stephen Sondheim, Jacques Brel and Friedrich Hollaender. But she’s also devoted albums to more popular writers, with such acolytes as Elvis Costello, Nick Cave and Tom Waits contributing songs to albums such as 2000’s fine Punishing Kiss.
“The Seven Deadly Sins,” which Lemper will perform with the Nashville Symphony, was Weill and Brecht’s last collaboration. Its first production starred the infamous Lotte Lenya, Weill’s wife, with whom Lemper is sometimes compared. In typical Weill fashion, his protagonist struggles between sin and morality, but often finds herself happier when indulging her temptations rather than when struggling to be more constrained. The seven-part song cycle offers just the kind of juicy role Lemper delights in bringing to life.
Nice piece, Jim.
I've been reading Chet forever, since Rolling Stone magazine days. His writing stands out for…
That's very sad to hear... I really feel like Chet was one of the rare…
The last time I saw X was at the Exit/In on the MORE FUN IN…