Try and draw up a list of global German superstars and you may find yourself faltering. But there is one name for certain: Ute Lemper. The 53-year-old began her career in the eighties as a singer and actor in the musical "Cats" before heading off to Broadway via Vienna, Paris and London. But the Münster native has long put the rather shallow genre behind her. Instead, today she is celebrated on every continent as an interpreter of the works of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht and as a chanson and jazz vocalist. For our interview, Lemper picked out a café on New York’s Upper West Side with a half English, half French name that seems made for such a cosmopolitan woman: "Nice Matin."
SZ: Ms. Lemper, let’s talk money. Do divas wash their own dishes?
Ute Lemper: Sure they do.
We thought you’d have paid staff for things like that.
I wash dishes, I clean house, I do the laundry and if the dog forgets himself and goes on the floor, I clean the carpet, too. We have a very cozy apartment, nothing poshy-washy, all very down-to-earth.
Doesn’t this hype around being a diva drive you crazy?
The hype around being a diva is great. No, I don’t let it bother me because I know that I’m not that kind of diva. When I’m on stage I might look like one; that’s not bad since playing with eroticism and seduction is great fun. But as soon as the show is over, I’m running around in jeans and flats again.
Plus, there’s a lot more to my work than being on stage. I rehearse, I compose, I sit at the computer, book tours, negotiate contracts, pay my musicians...
You do all that yourself?
I do. Of course, I have agents who do the work on site in each country, but I’m the one who puts the puzzle together in the end. That’s much better than letting others do it.
Because there’s no one who works up to your standards?
No, because ultimately I know best what I want. Also, American managers don’t know Europe and European managers don’t know America. I tried it for a short time with a manager from the States, a really well-known man – it was fiasco. When you perform, say, in Spain or France, it’s completely normal to wait two or three months for your pay. That’s just the way it’s done there. But this manager was breathing down the necks of my long-serving agents there. That’s just not done.
And who decides how the pay will then be invested?
I’ve been with the same American bank for 20 years. If there’s something left to invest, I speak with my customer service rep and we make a joint decision. I am very cautious when it comes to investments.
But you had at least one very profitable investment idea when you bought a condo right around the corner from here on New York’s Upper West Side. It must have tripled in value since then.
That really was a worthwhile investment. Seven years ago we bought the top floor of the same building so I’d finally have a room to practice in. That cost a whole lot more, but for a family with four kids, our apartment was simply too small. If I wanted to practice I had to use one of the children’s rooms. That wasn’t good for me; I couldn’t concentrate in the chaos of toys and stuff.
That doesn't sound very diva-like.
What is it you like about New York?
The first thing I noticed when I came here 20 years ago was this mental freedom; the lack of intellectual narrowness that I felt so often in Germany. And the second thing was, when I performed in the eighties in France or in England, I was always "the German," along with everything associated with that floating about in people’s heads. Then, when I arrived in this progressive, liberal world of New York, I simply felt comfortable.
So, you’re happy and want to grow old here?
I love this city and will always love it. But you know what? If my kids, who go to school here and grew up with the English language, were already grown, I’d return to Europe.
In my heart I’m a European and probably always will be. My daughter is doing a semester abroad in Paris; I’d love to live there again. Or in Berlin. Or London.
What distinguishes a European from an American?
A completely different history, completely different socialisation, a completely different understanding of art. Take art, for example. In the US, art is entertainment, commerce; it has to be marketable. Here in America, you have to totally mask the dark chapters of being human, of life, which often are the source of art. That’s why I don’t even feel like seeing a Broadway play anymore. In that respect, New York is a wonderful place, but Europe is more multilayered and that makes it ultimately more interesting.
Where at the start of your career you were cruelly written off, especially in Germany. You recently met one of the music and theatre critics from those days for a double interview who did seem very sheepish after nearly 35 years.
Oh yes, that was embarrassing! He approached me before the conversation and said, “Oh, Ms. Lemper, I’d like to apologise.” I replied, “At least stand by what you wrote back then.”
Does that criticism still sting?
No, and it didn’t hurt my career either. For me, though, it’s another example of this intellectual narrowness in Germany we were talking about. Actually, I wasn’t keen at all on that double interview. But then I thought to myself, maybe it’s a good thing to finally close that chapter.
New York is a wonderful place, you said. But it’s also an expensive place.
You can say that again!
A head of cauliflower might cost seven dollars at an organic grocery store, a pint of Quark eight dollars. Do you still notice that?
Of course and most of all when I’m in Europe. You go shopping, say in Germany, get to the cashier and think, they’ve made a mistake. It can’t be that cheap. And the weak euro makes the difference even more dramatic. Luckily, I’ve at least paid off my mortgages.
Do you watch your spending?
The good thing is that I don’t care about brands. My clothes don’t have to say Valentino or Versace on the label. They have to look good and be stylish – that's it!
Do you still have to work even, or do you just do it for fun?
Of course I have to work. My husband is a musician; they don’t earn the most. I’m the breadwinner in the family. And think of what the tuitions alone cost.
Four kids equal four school and college tuitions: That could easily be 170,000 dollars a year.
It’s not that much, fortunately. My older son has already graduated from college and the two younger kids go to public schools. But my daughter’s tuition at a top university costs 65,000 dollars in one year alone.
What relationship do your kids have to money? Did you ever hear them say, "Man, mom, we’re rich, you could buy me a..."?
Yes, the two oldest have said that. They are aware we’re not the poorest. But at least they feel guilty when they ask for money. And this year, my daughter looked for a summer job for the first time.
Do people in America handle money differently than in Germany?
Germany is more materialistic than the USA; status symbols are far more important: a house, a car, clothes, shoes. When I’m there, I always have to pay attention to what I’m wearing, that my hair looks good and my make-up is just right because you’re always judged by other people. Here in New York, I can run around any way I please. In Germany, children have to be quiet at noon, in the evening and on Sundays, here there’s nothing provincial like statutory quiet hours. In Germany...
...enough, enough! Now you’re comparing big New York City a little with your strict Catholic hometown of Münster, which might not be fair.
Okay, you’re right. But many places in Germany are simply provincial.
You once said, "Provinciality is a very bad thing because it narrows the minds of people and makes them believe that their limited world view is the only true one." Do you feel that’s been confirmed by the rise of the AfD in Germany?
Absolutely. People seek their salvation in a reactionary, backward-looking national identity and in shielding themselves against other cultures. Curiosity and openness are replaced by the tumor of provinciality. The British exit from the EU is another example...
...and Americans’ enthusiasm for Donald Trump...
...and enthusiasm for Donald Trump.
You sing in six languages, travel the world. How do you experience the new nationalism that is spreading in Turkey, in Russia, in the United States, in Germany and so many other countries?
I have been dealing with the topic of nationalism for decades. At the very beginning of my career I sang songs by Jewish artists that were branded as degenerate art by the Nazis. Right now, I’m working on a project called "Songs for Eternity." These songs were sung in Jewish ghettos and in Nazi concentration camps by people waiting in long queues for a bowl of soup or on their way to the gas chambers.
Where does your interest in this difficult subject come from?
I grew up in the days when many Germans still refused to grapple with their past. That is why I always had the urge to say things out loud that others didn’t want to say. Especially improving German-Jewish relations has become something of a life mission for me.
So your concerts today are more than that pure musical entertainment you started out with?
Much more. When I perform a solo concert today, then I seek out all of the pearls from the phases I’ve been through. In a way, the people can recreate my artistic pathway in song.
And the Germans and their only diva have made peace with each other, too.
Aren’t there also some advantages to being a diva? Ageing rock stars quickly seem embarrassing, but divas become more diva-like with every year.
Absolutely. I can quite imagine playing the diva on stage even 30 years from now!