I was happy when the Vancouver Opera Festival announced a concert by the German singer Ute Lemper. Ever since I was introduced to her album of Kurt Weill songs in the early 1990’s, I have been a keen admirer of her artistry. Her performance in Vancouver had the title Last Tango in Berlin, an eclectic mixture of the unfamiliar and very familiar. Backed only a trio of piano, bass and bandoneon – all wonderful musicians in their own right - it was an almost two hour tour de force of musicianship and vocal artistry.
Lemper began her concert with a deeply felt and moving performance of a work from her latest project, Songs for Eternity, songs that were all written in the concentration camps between 1941-1944. The song that she chose to sing was written in the camp at Vilnius, Lithuania. If her voice has lost a little of the refinement of her early years, it was apparent right at the outset that she has not lost any of its power, or the emotion it conveys. At 53, it is still a voice that reaches us directly and touches us emotionally. And her diction, whether she is singing in German, French or English, is impeccable. The songs that she chose gave us a glimpse into her very large musical world.
To be sure, there were songs that I had loved for a long time, such as Want to Buy Some Illusions, Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt, Lili Marleen (a personal sentimental favourite), and Edith Piaf’s iconic Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien. And yes, she did sing Die Moritat von Mackie Messer, better known as the Ballad of Mack the Knife. There were also many works that were new to her and to her audience – works from her more recent projects, such as one from a collection of songs set to the poems of Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet. They were all songs of love, of despair, of hoping for a better world, as well as songs that show the seedier side of life.
It was a privilege to have heard this great singer in concert. I wish there were more young people in the audience. Those who were not at the concert – for there were many empty seats – missed a great opportunity of hearing a truly quality “popular” music performance, one that relies not on gimmick, but purely on the basis of the artistry of the performer.