Each time Ute Lemper commands the stage, she unleashes ghosts of the past. Her distinctive contralto voice resurrects an era long past as her poetic repertoire recounts tales of lost loves, survival and passionate dreams. Her concert, titled "Last Tango in Berlin," revisits the German cabaret songs of Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht, the French chansons of Edith Piaf and Belgian Jacques Brel and the tango-infused melodies of Argentine Astor Piazzolla. She is accompanied by a piano and bandoneon.
"Weill and Brecht are embedded in my history," Lemper said. "Growing up in Germany in the '60s and '70s, I attended theaters featuring Weill's 'Three Penny Opera,' and during a summer break in Salzburg, [Austria,] while in high school, I took a theater drama course about them. Brecht was celebrated as a great poet on a par with Tennessee Williams in this country. The style he created in the '20s was not too subtle and suggests that he almost had to be an activist to represent his philosophies. He was a philosophical thinker, while Weill was a composer.
"Brecht's arc of compositions went into the history of his life. I became hooked on it and took on the task of celebrating his life. He had a complicated German past, and his music was born in a revolutionary and political era. There's always a little piece of Berlin in me, which is why their music is my root repertoire, along with the cabaret songs.
"Finding some of the cabaret songs was quite a project. With the help of a musicologist in London, I was able to record an entire generation of them. I had a great 10 years in the '90s when I recorded three volumes."
|» Where: Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW|
|» When: 8 p.m. Saturday|
|» Info: $40; 202-785-9727; wpas.org|
After studying dance in Cologne, Germany, and drama at the Max Reinhardt Seminary Drama School in Vienna, Lemper launched her musical theater career playing the roles of Grizabella and Bombalurina in the original Vienna production of "Cats."
"I studied French in school, and when I joined the cast of 'Cats,' directed by Trevor Nunn, my English was almost nonexistent," she said. "Once I started working with the British and American cast members, my English got better. I went on to the title role in 'Peter Pan' at age 23, which was like putting a childhood into your pocket. I especially enjoyed portraying Sally Bowles in 'Cabaret' because the role has great depth and tragedy."
For her role in the French production of "Cabaret," Lemper received the Moliere Award for Best Actress in a Musical. And a year after receiving the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical as Velma Kelly in the London production of "Chicago," she took that role to Broadway.
Along the way, she nourished her love of Kurt Weill in revues, symphony concerts and recordings of his music for Decca. Her recording last year of "Paris Days, Berlin Nights" with the Vogler Quartet and accordionist/clarinetist/pianist Stefan Malzew sets her apart.
"It was a special project because I love the unbelievable sound of a string quartet," she said. "The members grew up in East Germany and only got together after the fall. We recorded it in two days in a church with no dubbings, so it's a very organic album. I love this repertoire for its heart and soul that's the essence of literature from Shakespeare to the present and music from Mozart to Ravel. You see life through important moments of pain and deal with common-ground issues."
Onstage she utilizes her dance and drama background to mesmerize the audience. "There's always an element of movement in my work," she said. "I like to let it flow and keep everything open so that when I'm singing a Piazzolla piece, for instance, my body becomes an instrument of dance and morphs into a tango movement.
"I understand that this Washington concert will be in a synagogue, so I'm taking out my Yiddish songbook."