Future past

Ute Lemper, Berklee Performance Center, March 10, 2007
By MICHAEL FREEDBERG  |  March 12, 2007

Watching Ute Lemper at the Berklee Performance Center last Saturday sing the music of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill with a gritty, almost mannish power — think Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo — I imagined myself the dada-minded Count Harry Kessler strolling down the Ku’damm in 1920s Berlin and enjoying the “lust and anarchy of Weimar,” as Lemper puts it. If Lemper’s guttural outcries draw deeply from the work of Edith Piaf, who made her mark during the succeeding generation, so that her performances sound like redesigns rather than re-creations of those cabaret songs, that too appealed to the Kessler in me: why not sing the past as if it were the future and not the past?

Blonde and fair-skinned, slender as a fawn, Lemper seemed to draw her steamhammer contralto from elsewhere, as if she were a ventriloquist’s dummy. And yet she conquered whatever strings were being pulled, with potent extended notes, high trills, loud insatiable screams, and a broad brush of burlesque. She not only sang but also made bawdy, endearing fun of what she sang. Being bawdy with what one truly loves was an emblem of Kessler’s Berlin, of its bourgeois madness, its kink. Lemper introduced several songs by reminding the audience of those kinky figures: Dietrich as Lola at the Blue Angel in the film of the same name, the professor (Emil Jannings) “obsessed with German women,” as she put it, Brecht “the successful Marxist,” Weill the “German Jewish composer.”

She also talked of her days in 1980s Berlin rehearsing near the Wall and of enduring the “10,260 days and 10,260 nights of the Wall” with only her 60-year-old music to sustain her. Many in her audience, middle-aged to elderly, could identify with all those decades, and, in her reinvention of Weimar music (and of Jacques Brel and also the 1940 hit song “Lili Marleen”), could imagine how it all might have been had the Kesslers of Europe ruled destiny rather than the killers.

Related: What's new, 2009: The year in theater, First-rate fare, More more >
  Topics: Live Reviews , Kurt Weill, Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf,  More more >
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