A Fictional Interview with the German cabaret singer Ute Lemper, Guanajuato, Mexico, October 2013
Ute Lemper performed here in Guanajuato a few nights ago, for the Festival Cervantino. She will go on to the Belles Artes in Mexico City next. Here, she was a great hit with nearly everyone. This is how my fictional interview with her went.
Ute: You represent which newspaper again?
SB: Bennetts Blog—a highly influential voice on matters of artistic importance, read by thousands…
U: (A look of skepticism) Forgive me, but I don’t have a lot of time. Could you be as brief as possible?
SB: The audience loved you here in Guanajuato. That must feel good. I’m sure you are received with great applause wherever you go.
U: Not always. It depends on many factors—age, experience in the world, their knowledge of history, a concern for the voices of the past.
SB: It cannot be easy keeping up song and content for nearly two hours—one woman. That takes enormous courage, in my opinion…not to mention strength.
U: But? I hear a but coming…
SB: Not really—but it must be difficult to be the center of everything, one could even say self-referential—and at the same time honor the voices of great cabaret artists that came before you. Do you find that difficult?
U: Self-referential has a harsh edge to it. But I have been accused of that before…What did you say your name was again?
U: Well, Mr. Bennett, you run risks yourself of being the typical critic, who puts nothing into my work, but after a few strokes at the keyboard begins to make observations surely headed toward fault-finding. Remember that no work of art is perfect, without flaws, that there are no works of art that are not open to correction—unhappily, often by those who have never attempted anything on a stage or anywhere else, certainly never faced an audience for two hours. Or who grew up in the culture I did.
SB: I admire your courage, I truly do. And I know it is easy to be the comfortable critic that always knows better what the artist should have done on stage.
U: Thank you….
SB: But…if you will permit me, may I return to my original question about the risk of being self-referential…?
U: Only if I can just insert, as I said earlier, that we are all self-referential. You are being self-referential when you presume to enter my world to tell me how to perform my art better than I do. Isn’t that true? I may have the patience to listen to your opinions—for a short while, I remind you—but I have as much right to tell you to mind your own business—whatever it is—and not to presume that you can press your adjectives on me when they probably apply just as well to you—as if dishing out criticism were going to be a one-sided.
SB: I agree, but let me try to characterize my remarks a little differently. You evoke Marlene Dietrich but without, I thought, telling us much about the real woman: who sided with the allies and not the Nazis, who reinvented herself over and over, a bi-sexual woman who—as powerful seductress—at her death had accumulated a long list of very famous persons who were her lovers. She often dressed as a man, which gave her an air of androgyny. Certain critics with psychiatric training, I think, chided her for the “fetishistic manipulation of the female image.” You clearly imitate Marlene with great accuracy. And, I repeat, it cannot be easy to evoke that woman and still be your own woman who attracts us largely by the force of her own personality.
U: Well, that’s a mouthful. But you have hit on something that I worry about: imitating Marlene and other others like Edith Piaf without becoming epigonic—without being the inferior imitator. Fetishistic? You mean wearing the top hat, showing leg, posing with one arm extended over my head Marilyn Monroe style, writhing as I slink across the stage? Where do you think all that came from? It comes from the need to please men. Prostitutes and cabaret singers recognized a niche market. Men were the ones who got excited by the androgyny, the slit in the dress that shows the leg, at a time when the leg was not supposed to be shown—along with the rest of the woman’s body. Have you ever seen a woman walk that is wearing a corset? Well, I haven’t either. But those men saw it all the time and paid to see a woman slinking. So, Mr. Bennett, who is it exactly that makes a fetish of the female body?
SB: Who are those big guys at the door that stare at me all the time?
U: Those are my bodyguards….
SB: I don’t want to upset them.
U: What about me?
SB: Sorry…could I mention, you didn’t have a lot of help from the technical staff. The volume was too high and your words got mushed. As you pointed out, singing and speaking in four or five different languages, there should have been translations on the usual screen over the stage. Plus, it was hot and the chemical stage mist made it hard to breath.
U: How do you think we feel with all those conditions? We try to get it right before we start, but local “professionals” often think they know better, and they screw it up.
SB: It would help me if you smiled at your bodyguards.
U: It would help me if you smiled at all once in a while…and you have about thirty seconds left.
SB: Let’s see, you follow a long tradition of setting someone else’s words to music—like Shubert setting Goethe’s poems to music: “Der Erlenkönig.” In your case, Neruda’s poems and the woman Ilse Weber who wrote “Wenn ich wandere durch Theresienstadt….”
U: You speak German?
U: I’ll give you an extra minute.
SB: Ilse Weber apparently was a night nurse in the children’s infirmary in the concentration camp Theresienstadt. When her husband was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, she volunteered join him with her son Tommy, to keep the family together. I am sure she arrived at Auschwitz believing they would be reunited. On arrival, she and Tommy were sent straight to the gas chamber. Please don’t call your guards, but if you leave all that out and just sing a song because it was written in a concentration camp, it seems—at least to me—like you’re only giving token recognition to the horror of that time. Almost trivializing it. At least, that’s how it seemed to me.
U: Let’s clear something up. We Germans have been chewing on the holocaust for nearly seventy years. Half of France was anti-semitic. Perhaps. Maybe still is. Your country has splattered blood all over Viet Nam, Irak and Afghanistan and countless other peoples since 1945, and called it “collateral damage”—always with a presumption of your own innocence and rectitude. Always larded with an insufferable air of triumphalism. Have any of your singers ever bothered to sing a children’s song composed by a woman who was then slaughtered at Wounded Knee?
SB: I suppose Buffy Sainte Marie…but the fact is, I don’t really know. I’m simply suggesting that cabaret and sentimentality may be like oil and water…
U: That’s it. I’ll think about it—but you’re time is up. Good-bye.
SB: (standing, possibly out of politeness)…I think you should at least know that, as you were singing the Theresienstadt song, that awful artificial mist was billowing out from stage right and was far too closely suggestive of what you were talking about….and maybe you should try to prevent that next….
Bodyguards: Sir, please step back….