"Everything’s good here," gushes
the ebullient voice at the other end of the phone.
Ute Lemper, the naughty goddess of European cabaret, the German ex-pat Manhattanite who has forged a career carrying the torch songs of her native country and neighboring France (think Weimar era, think Edith Piaf) forward into the 21st century, sounds positively girlish. Not what one would expect from the almost menacing sexuality of her publicity photographs, typified by a withering, Dietrich-like, eyebrow-arching glare that contains an implicit challenge: "I dare you to break my heart - just try it."
Lemper is preparing for the next in a series of Brooklyn Philharmonic 50th anniversary shows, "Weill Goes Brooklyn" (March 26 at 8 pm in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House), where she will bring her sensual theatrical persona to bear on a concert version of Kurt Weill’s ballet chanté, "The Seven Deadly Sins."
But this woman on the phone, this other Ute, is an Upper West Side mother of two - a girl and boy, 8 and 10, respectively - with workaday New York concerns ranging from the cost of the city’s private education system to the cost of its real estate.
"I think those two personalities - it’s an opposition that needs to exist for me," says Lemper. "There’s this very extravagant, sexual performance identity and the intelligence and provocation that goes with it. And in order to let this live, I need to have this center in my life, which is the complete down-to-earth life with the real worries."
That’s how Ute the enthusiastic, girlish mom, can cross the park to the Cafe Carlyle and slip so easily into the skin of the other Ute, whose jaded sexuality and knowing world-weariness is so perfectly attuned to the European cabaret repertoire she’s known for celebrating on the world stage. Lemper’s BAM performance later this month will require a similar juggling act as she takes on the role of Anna of "Seven Deadly Sins," whose opposing halves were represented by Weill and his librettist Bertold Brecht as Anna I (a singer) and Anna II (a dancer).
"It’s so special to be doing this in Brooklyn with the Philharmonic," says Lemper. "The story is a bit dated, the whole psychological split between the two Annas - the whole super-ego of Anna I imposing the laws of capitalist society on her under-ego, Anna II, who is subject to temptation. It’s dated, but it’s still funny, and it captures the revolutionary spirit of the time."
Musically, Weill’s superb, lively score has a way of counteracting the mustiness of Brecht’s textual polemic. The BAM lineup will include Hudson Shad, an internationally renowned vocal ensemble that will interpret Anna’s "family," and conductor Carl St. Clair, currently in his 14th season as music director of Orange County’s Pacific Symphony.
The concert represents Lemper’s BAM debut and is yet another door opening for this Euro-chanteuse whose busy international touring-schedule did not initially translate to her New York reality (she first moved here in 1998 to play the vixen Velma Kelly in the long-running Broadway revival of "Chicago").
"This whole New York experience has finally kicked in for me," she says. "I was actually waiting for this to happen thinking, ’OK, here I am touring. I’m in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, Boston, all over Europe, in Australia - what’s up with New York?’"
Lots, if the past year is any indication. In addition to her evolving recording career and the upcoming BAM performance, recent Gotham gigs include a show at Central Park SummerStage last summer, a performance with Orpheus Orchestra at Carnegie hall last December, a two-month run at the venerable Cafe Carlyle, a one-week run at Neue Gallery, and a two-week stint at Joe’s Pub.
Back in ’98, of course, it was "Chicago" - which she also performed on London’s West End, winning the 1998 Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical - for eight shows a week.
"After ’Chicago,’ I went straight back on the road with my own stuff and got back to my own recordings," she says.
Currently, Lemper’s in the studio working on her first album of self-penned songs. She’s also preparing for the June release of a live album recorded during her recent run at the Carlyle; it will be her first live release since 1987.
"This schedule is so rewarding," says Lemper, "because it offers such a larger variety for a performer than just to be inside one Broadway role."
There is one role, however, that Lemper will likely never give up, and that is her unofficial role as torch-carrier for a certain era of European cabaret repertoire.
"It suddenly dawned on me that there is a responsibility there," says Lemper, who continues to bring songs by the likes of Weill, Piazolla, Eisler and Brel to a contemporary audience. "At first, it just seemed the most daring and fun and meaty repertoire for me to explore. And then it was too many times that I read and heard from people that I’m the true inheritor of this repertoire."
Lemper pauses, as if considering the implications of this professional obligation for the first time.
"I’m very happy about this responsibility, and I treasure it."
Jeff Breithaupt is the co-author of "Precious and Few: Pop Music in the Early ’70s" and "Night Moves: Pop Music in the Late ’70s" (St. Martin’s Press).
The Brooklyn Philharmonic presents "Weill
Goes Brooklyn" on March 26 at 8 pm in the Brooklyn Academy
of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland
Place in Fort Greene. Vocal soloist Ute Lemper and conductor
Carl St. Clair will participate in a post-concert talk titled
"For Good Measure." Tickets are $20-$60. For more information,
call (718) 636-4100 or visit www.brookl