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July 15, 2019

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German diva’s ‘Rendezvous with Marlene’

While Ute Lemper’s vocal range and captivating adaptations have led to international fame, it is her intelligence and sensitivity that makes the singer someone to look up to.

The world-famous star returned to the city recently to perform with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra for the city’s 10th Music in the Summer Air festival. In a one-hour interview the 56-year-old opened up to reveal her life and career inspirations.

Lemper’s latest creation, “Rendezvous with Marlene,” honors the life of Hollywood film and music star Marlene Dietrich. The show is based on a three-hour long phone call between Lemper and Dietrich in 1988. Baring her soul, Dietrich spoke of life, love, career and country. It has left an indelible impression on Lemper ever since.

“She was an international star, loved by many nations. Yet she had a complicated story. Now, 30 years later, I think it is time to tell the story again,” Lemper said.

“She was an extraordinary woman; very progressive. She was a strong lady in times when women were not allowed to be strong.”

The German-born performer is also a strong woman, who advocates gender equality and free speech. She describes herself as “certainly not obedient.”

Some Middle Eastern countries have strict dress codes; women’s arms should not be left bare. However, Lemper does not conform to the norms of covering up when she attends concerts in countries like Turkey, Israel or Lebanon.

“I am representing exactly what I want to represent,” said Lemper. “I think it is a responsibility as an artist to just be open and truthful, I call it authentic.”

Lemper’s confrontational side was also crucial in defining her as an artist. Many of her works are reflections of society. In her creation of “The Bukowski Project,” Lemper uses Charles Bukowski’s poetry as inspiration. Much of Bukowski’s poems express the day-to-day struggles of the public; of pain, sorrow, loss and alcohol.

It’s little wonder politics and freedom are main themes in Lemper’s music. Whether it is her interpretations of Kurt Weill’s cabaret numbers or songs from the Holocaust, they speak of realism, truth and peace.

“Politics define life. Freedom is also haunting because when you are free, you think, and you feel. When you are angry, you want to express, so you find and search,” said Lemper. “You look for what is the sense of that and that is what we artists do. I am reflecting myself and what I do in the world.”

Lemper lived in Berlin in the cold war years, with the Berlin Wall separating the east and west. She described of the cabaret scene in the Weimar Republic to be very vibrant, but the Nazis destroyed the culture, society and the cabaret scene.

“When the wall came down in 1989, there was a sudden desire to revive the cabaret scene,” Lemper said. “And I was one of those who re-recorded it and brought it back to the people.”

And while Lemper has had a fabulous career in big stage production musicals, she saw it as an unsatisfying experience. She has starred in lead roles including Velma Kelly in Chicago, Lola in The Blue Angel, Peter in Peter Pan, and Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Yet, it was not what Lemper enjoyed the most. As “a musician at heart,” it was hard for her to live without music.

She chose to stick to doing her own concerts and one-woman shows for another reason too. Lemper has four children in New York. The balancing of being a mother and performer was never easy and she made many sacrifices on all ends.

Being abroad often, she could never put her children to sleep at night. Occasionally, Lemper also had to reject movies to spend more time with her children. Thus, she chose to be a concert performer to have better control of her time.

Beyond her sultry stage persona, Lemper reveals a caring side that contrasts her charismatic presence.

In a room filled with armchairs, she held an interview with a small group of media representatives. Lemper noticed that one of the journalists, who was pregnant, had swollen feet.

“I see that your feet are swollen. I know because I was four times pregnant,” said Lemper. “I care about people and I know about pregnancy. You should put your feet up. You need to put them on a chair.”

Lemper also reflects on her interaction with the Chinese audience. The crowds she has had in Europe or America are “much more badly behaved and open about their comments.” Here, she sees a disciplined and well-behaved audience.

On July 5, Lemper performed the Chinese premiere of The Seven Deadly Sins, with Charles Dutoit as conductor, supported by Hudson Shad and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.


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