erasing clouds

Chanteuse, Thespian, Magician: A Review of Ute Lemper's City of Strangers

by Joseph Palis

Perhaps it is her being an actress that made her sing convincingly. There are singers who can impress us with their abilities to inhabit a song, but it takes a great singing actress to really convey with vividness the nuances of the song, the subtle heartaches. Ute Lemper's singular talent makes her a magician of our time.

Lemper's 1995 album City of Strangers is not only a homage to Paris, but an emotional cavalcade that runs from alienation to desire, to disillusion to unexpressed joy and the naturalness of magic crossing boundaries as though borderless.

She sings songs in the language these songs were originally written. Her facility with German, French and English made it easy for her to get into the local color of the song and in their particular idiom. When she sang "Je attend le doux veuvage" you really feel the desolation behind the carefree attitude of the character she is singing. When she sings "Being Alive", she almost makes it appear as though being alive is tragic. When one listens closely at the Stephen Sondheim lyrics, one suddenly realized that maybe that was how Sondheim want the song to be: very celebratory and convivial to disguise our fear of living life to the fullest. Another Sondheim song "Losing My Mind" is like a mind slowly unhinged by pressure and brutalities and how life may not be full of redemption after all.

It takes a great actress to realize these subtexts in songs that get buried by the sentimentalism of other singers' versions.

The war song "Lili Marleen" is a brilliant example of emotions. The song started as a march as though for freedom and how it ended in a whimper, almost bewildered and confused coming to terms with one's self. Lemper also used spoken speech to tell a story: be it a blind child who can see, a statue that embraced her one Sunday and the little bird that made the commanding officer salute. She also used montage to great effect. Her "Immense Et Rouge" montage is beautifully conceptualized and beautifully performed. The indescribable excitement mixed with trepidation haunts her "Another Hundred People" song, after which she spewed military-like anger, and was soon telling the the epilogue of the other hundred people that got out of the train.

Lemper may be in the tradition of great actresses who can sing, from Glenn Close to Lotte Lenya. Lemper, herself appeared in several European art-house movies, most memorably in Benoit Lamy's Combat de Fauves. She was also seen as the very pregnant model in Robert Altman's Pret-a-Porter. The intensity she brings to the screen are as clear as air and water.

Her singing voice is also its ultimate masterpiece. While she can act the song without regard to beauty of sound, she can sing long, soaring vocal lines ("The Ladies Who Lunch", "Being Alive") and slyly steal your lover from you with a mental image of a vamp with long lashes ("Die Kleptomanin"), or just engage you in ordinary tete-a-tete ("Dejeuner Du Matin"). Or chirp exactly like a bird in the album's closing.

Or perhaps Ute Lemper is only a pretender, who, like cabaret singer Andrea Marcovicci, is acting only for our benefit and enjoyment. But when she sings and acts the songs, you are very sure she is singing only for you. And if that is not the real, then magic exists after all.

Issue 7, October 2001 | next article

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