Ute Lemper is in a playful mood when she picks up the phone in her New York City apartment, and the first thing she does is initiate a little game to see who’s more of a displaced person. She wins.
Born in Germany, Lemper studied in Vienna before moving to Paris, and then spent a few years exploring what she calls “the London-Paris-Berlin triangle”. Following that, she adds, “I made my way over to New York in 1997, ’cause I was asked to perform on Broadway, and here I am, after 20 years.”
But is she truly at home? That’s a different question altogether. “I am not an American,” she says. “I still have my European passport, and even though I’ve had my green card for 20 years and live in this incredible city, I miss Europe. The more the years pass, I really would love to go back to Europe—but I’m definitely not German enough to live back in Germany, not British enough to live in England, and not French enough to live in Paris, which is actually my favourite city in Europe.
“I travel nonstop everywhere, all the time, and I don’t know where to feel at home.”
When the singer comes to Vancouver to perform as part of the inaugural Vancouver Opera Festival, though, she might just get to settle down for an hour or two. Lemper’s current touring program is called Last Tango in Berlin, and as the title indicates, it is centred around songs associated with the German capital. But it’s not quite as simple as that: it also includes francophone songs associated with Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel, a nod to Argentine tango wizard Astor Piazzolla, and Yiddish songs that somehow miraculously survived the Holocaust.
Lemper’s Berlin is ruined, cosmopolitan, vital, and sad. It also seems to exist on at least three separate temporal levels: the city of today, the wall-divided location of her artistic adolescence, and the fragile, progressive paradise that it was before Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933.
“Last Tango in Berlin is a symbolic title,” she explains. “Last tango, last freedom, last cry of Berlin, last temptation of Berlin. And obviously it all goes back to the time of the Weimar Republic that was shattered by the Nazis. It could also be about the Berlin that I experienced in the 1980s, the little scarred island in the middle of the East Bloc, on the brink of nuclear catastrophe. And it could also be a playful way to describe the tango that Berlin itself has made through many, many chapters of evolution.”
Grounding everything are the songs that Lemper is most famous for singing: the dark cabaret numbers written in the 1920s and ’30s by composer Kurt Weill and playwright Bertolt Brecht.
“Obviously, the political songs of the time of the Weimar Republic, they are kind of historical, and a little antique,” she says. “Yet there’s always a contemporary dimension to them, with our instability in these days.…These are songs of realism, of truth, songs of loss and love and war and the search for places of peace.”
Ute Lemper performs at the Orpheum next Thursday (May 4), as part of the Vancouver Opera Festival.