‘There are terrible questions stuck on the horizon of German history’
Born: 4 July, 1963, in West Germany
Studies: Dance Academy in Cologne and the Max Reinhardt Seminary Drama School in Vienna
Stage credits: breakthrough role in the Viennese cast of Cats, Sally Bowles in Jerome Savary’s Cabaret (Paris),Velma Kelly in Chicago, both in London and NY. Maurice Bejart created a ballet for her, La Mort Subite (Paris)
Awards: Moliere Award, Laurence Olivier Award
She rose to world fame with her Kurt Weil repertoire, but the list of credits to Ute Lemper’s name could stretch for miles. She’s done Weimar Republic songs, French chanson, jazz, tango, literary song cycles . Lemper never shied away from criticizing Germany for its murky postwar stance and to this day vows to carry on her Kurt Weil “lifelong mission.” Before coming to Buenos Aires for a concert at the ND Teatro on September 26, Ute Lemper talked to the Herald from her home in New York.
You’ve been coming to BA about every few years. What draws you here?
There’s an evolution to my concerts because there’s always inspiration and new projects and priorities every year. This year, I will definitely give a little bit of an overview of my work. First of all, this is a special year, commemorating 70 years after the WW2, so there will be some special songs dedicated to the liberation of the concentration camps. These songs were written in the camps from Auschwitz to Theresienstadt, so I have a moment of reflection in the concert that is dedicated to this issue.
How did that come about?
It started in January, when I was invited to a big commemoration of the Holocaust in Rome and I started to study these songs and it’s just an unbelievable experience to sing them. I was obviously very touched to be asked to sing these songs as a German.
What other projects are you including in your BA programme?
Two years ago I did the Song Cycle on the poetry of Pablo Neruda and I will do a little bit of that in Buenos Aires. It is also the 100th birthday of Edith Piaf, so I will also dedicate a bit of the show to the Piaf repertoire. My previous poetry project that was Charles Bukowski will also be included in the part of the show dedicated to poetry.
What about the Paulo Coehlo project, are you planning on offering a glimpse?
Yes, that’s my latest project. I wrote it this year and the CD will come out in the fall. It’s to the words of Paulo Coelho and his book Manuscript Found in Accra, it’s a philosophical book and I’ve created a song cycle to those words.
How did you go from Neruda to Coehlo?
This Coelho project really came out of the blue. I was just reading his book and speaking to a Brazilian journalist about it and he said, ‘Oh, I know him so well, I’ve interviewed him 20 times already, let me tell him that you love his book.’ And the next day I received an email from Paolo Coelho, ‘Oh, my god, Ute, I love your music, I’m so happy you liked my book.’ And then we started a conversation by email where I slowly suggested to create a musical project based on his book and he encouraged me and approved the text selection. He was so enthusiastic about it, I realized at one point, ‘Ok, now I’ve got to do it!’
What was the feedback you’ve had doing the Holocaust tribute?
People are very touched. I sing it everywhere, also in Germany. It’s a very delicate moment because these songs were written in the camps and have heartbreaking lyrics about the situation in the camps. I tell the story of this woman who created this music and sang it to the children of Theresienstadt. She was a children’s nurse there and in 1942 she was deported to Auschwitz with all the children from the hospital and everyone was killed. I can tell you that I’m the only German who will do this — because the Germans escape from their past.
Has enough time passed for people to process the grief legacy of the war? Because you also say that Germany hasn’t processed it yet.
After the war, Germany moved forward so quickly. I never understood how people could not be grieving more after what happened but they had to move on with the economic growth and the rebuilding of the country, only looking forward and never looking back. And now it’s definitely old history. The new history is what happened after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The new guilty people were those who worked for the Stasi, the secret police of East Germany. Saving the East from bankruptcy became the new quest of rebuilding.
So the new history pushes the old one further back?
Yes, with the fall of the Berlin Wall the Holocaust was put even more into the past, further away from looking back. Politically, of course everything has been done for compensation and reparations, but you can’t compensate or repair what has been done. There are so many terrible questions that are still stuck there on the horizon of German history. I don’t believe a lot of people touch on this issue because Germans are still uncomfortable about their past. So I’m the one who’s doing it (laughs).
You’ve often said you made Kurt Weil your life mission, to bring it to different generations that might miss out on a great treasure. Do you think you succeeded?
Well it certainly is a lifelong mission which has looked differently throughout the decades. When I started, in the 1980s, it was still the Cold War, it was a time when the German language was still stigmatized. And I remember my first Kurt Weil record, it came out in 1987, still on vinyl at the time, and it sold incredibly well worldwide, especially in the US. And the record was 80 percent in German. With this incredible cosmic coincidence, I became the protagonist of this project to bring back to life the music of the Weimar Republic, which is actually very interesting and this was a historical album which was studied at universities here, in the US.
What is it about a literary piece that inspires you to the point of wanting to work on it?
In the beginning, I wrote my own lyrics, I did two albums with my own stories and lyrics and then I just said, ‘That’s enough, I don’t want to get stuck in my own life.’ And I wanted to be a little more elevated in importance and so I looked into the poets who marked key moments in history like Paul Celan, the poet who wrote with the experience of the Holocaust, Jacques Prevert, the French existentialist poet, and then Bukowski, a very destroyed man who often reminded me a little bit of Brecht in his cruel, crude way of writing. But I just like the craziness of his mind. And Neruda was a political poet who spread throughout the world his message of liberation from fascism.
You’ve many times called these projects your ‘labours of love.’ Why?
Oh, because these albums have not been produced by record labels (laughs). I created them and produced them. There’s no financial interest in them, it’s all just about creating something great. Later on I do some concerts to make a little bit of money back from all that I spent on everything. Thank God there’s an audience who wants to hear them! (laughs)
In terms of recording and making your work available, what does today’s world of streaming and digital albums look like?
I don’t make money out of album sales at all. As soon as a CD is out, it’s available on Apple Music and Spotify and although I know there is no income out of that, I don’t worry about it at all. Let them do it, for me the purpose is that a lot of people hear my music and hopefully like it. The idea is to spread the project, I cannot even start worrying about money. At the end of the day, I want people to hear it and if they hear it for free, then it’s fine with me.