NEW YORK, Jan. 24 (UPI) -- Because the international chanteuse is a disappearing species, the German singer Ute Lemper is all the more treasured by connoisseurs of the art perfected by Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf when cabaret was more prevalent than it is today.
At 40, Lemper already has had a varied career, playing the role of the Grizabella in the Viennese production of "Cats," the murderous Velma Kelly in "Chicago" in London and on Broadway, and the role of Sally Bowles in a Paris production of "Cabaret." She has appeared in films, notably Robert Altman's "Pret-a-Porter," and sung with leading symphony orchestras throughout the world.
Concert tours take her annually to Japan, South America, and Australia, and she has made numerous recordings for Decca. Maurice Bejart created a ballet for her performed in Paris, and she has appeared in a dance review with Kurt Weill music staged by Germany's Pina Bausch. She has even sung at La Scala, Milan's renowned opera house.
No wonder Lemper, who now lives in New York, is packing them in for her debut singing engagement at the Café Carlyle, a glamorous room decorated with murals by Marcel Vertes that is the nearest thing Manhattan has to an Old World boite. There is simply no one else like her on the cabaret scene anywhere.
"I'm very proud to be a kind of ambassador to this kind of music and the representative who carries this music into the new millennium," she said in an interview. "I treasure that, and I honor that."
She comes on strong, incredibly slender in a little black dress that looks like something Piaf might have worn until she turns around and displays a bare back, sexily criss-crossed with lacing. Her strong, angular face is framed by loose blonde hair, so that visually she might be Dietrich's more animated daughter, given to rolling her eyes and mugging.
But the voice is unlike that of either Piaf, who had the powerful, throbbing vocal instrument of a street urchin, or Dietrich, whose husky singing was that of a haughty femme fatale. Lemper's voice has a wild, feline quality of great resonance capable of the most guttural and delicate of sounds. She can be as frisky as a kitten, flirting with her musicians, or ferocious as a cat on a midnight prowl.
She calls her new 75-minute show "Voyage" and it can be heard in all its multilingual splendor at the Carlyle through Jan. 31 if you are lucky enough to get a reservation. She launches it with a cynical number titled "Life's a Swindle," well chosen number for an election year with lines like "Everyone will swindle you/ So vote for who will steal for you."
Such cynicism is very much the tone of German cabaret entertainment in the years between the two World Wars that was Lemper's native heritage. Her repertory is built on this patrimony, but she is also very much at home in the more romantic French cabaret songbook with a few Russian and Hungarian folksongs tossed in for good measure.
Lemper is particularly good in the German era songs of Bertholt Brecht and Kurt Weill such as "Alabama Song" from "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny," their theatrical spoof on romantic musicals, and the sinister "Mack the Knife" from "The Threepenny Opera," which she whistles and sings wearing a bowler hat.
But she can turn around and sing a hauntingly romantic rendition of "September Song" from one of Weill's American musicals, "Knickerbocker Holiday." Still in a tender mood, she sings one of her own compositions, another September song titled "September Mourn," It is Lemper's heartfelt tribute to all who suffered as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on New York.
Another composer Lemper likes to visit is Jacques Brel, and his "Ne Me Quitte Pas," a favorite of Piaf's, is her most intensely French rendition and the most evocative number in the show. She also sings Piaf's own, gloriously optimistic "La Vie en Rose" and another Brel number, a pungent and delightful sailor's ballad titled "Amsterdam," in both French and English.
Her sources are much richer than any other cabaret artist singing today, and she varies her program from performance to performance.
At one show you might get the Yiddish song "Ikh Shtey Unter a Bokserboym," and at another a song in Arabic titled "La Qad Kountou." When she feels like it, she sings what would seem to be a perfect vehicle for her talents, Stephen Sondheim"s "The Ladies Who Lunch,' or songs by Sondheim's younger contemporaries, Tom Waits and Nick Cave.
Lemper is backed up by Vana Gierig at the piano, Mark Lambert, guitar, and Todd Turkisher on drums.