MUSIC / Spirit of the sparrow: Nick Kimberley talks to Ute Lemper about her stage show Illusions, which looks back to Piaf's Paris of the 1950s

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The Independent Culture
EACH OF us carries round an internalised jukebox of music that invokes specific moments in our lives. Some music, though, works on a larger scale, speaking not just for individual memories but for an era, a Zeitgeist. That at least is the contention behind Illusions, a stage show created by the German chanteuse Ute Lemper.

For Lemper, Illusions triangulates three eras which, in juxtaposition, provide a snapshot of the century. From the present, she looks back to the Paris of the 1950s, represented in the songs of Edith Piaf, and beyond, to the Germany of the 1930s, glimpsed in the songs of Kurt Weill and, more particularly, in the figure of Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. Lemper takes full advantage of a passing resemblance to Dietrich. In this snapshot, Piaf is in the foreground, Dietrich and Weill in the background.

Piaf, who died in 1963 at the age of 46, has not been short of posthumous celebrations - biographies, a film, a play, a street in Paris bearing her name. Lemper attempts to take the spirit of Piaf, distilled in some of her most famous songs, and place it in a contemporary context, provided by Lemper's very different voice and musical sensibilities.

As Lemper says: 'I try to make each little song a theatre piece, to make something completely different out of them. The whole evening is puristic touching, it concentrates on the central emotional, dramatic line in her songs. They are big, classic songs which deserve not to be stuck in a cupboard. It's important for them to be reborn through a different approach. I don't make the songs beautiful, I just live them: the music has to follow the life. It's not an hommage to the music, it's an hommage to the life.'

Even if she wanted to, Lemper could hardly recreate the Piaf style. Where Piaf sang with a cadaverous vibrato, Lemper has the broad, nasal delivery of the contemporary musical. Where the diminutive Piaf - the name means 'sparrow' - had on stage a fearful rigidity, Lemper is leggy, hyperactive. And where Piaf was the emblem of a single place - backstreet Paris - Lemper is a pan-European. Her internationalism is reflected in the success of Illusions, which has filled theatres not only in France, Germany and Belgium, but also in north America and Japan.

For Lemper, that success, welcome as it no doubt is, speaks of a universal condition, an underlying angst which she sees as the theme of Illusions: 'The show deals with the Paris of the existentialists, of Sartre, De Beauvoir, Duras, Camus - and Edith Piaf. In the 1950s, pessimism made for a big, humanistic vision: existentialism, a vision to live for, to fight for. The culture of today is missing that vision. Its most violent symptom is the city, the sleepless city . . . so vast, so overpowering, it can't work. Even though it's joyful, a firework of amusement, it's such an obvious insult to the Individuum. That's the subject of the show, of the 20th century: the big city and the Individuum.'

It is ironic that the show looks backwards to celebrate Piaf, whose life could be summed up by the line in her biggest hit, 'Non, je ne regrette rien': Je m'en fou du passe (I don't give a toss about the past). Some might characterise Lemper's show as fin de siecle nostalgia; she herself is adamant: 'I'm not a retro person, but the material I find myself at home with on stage is in that strong, theatrical chanson tradition. That doesn't exist today.'

After years of being exclusively an interpreter of Kurt Weill's songs, Lemper has wisely broadened her scope: first, songs by Michael Nyman, now Illusions. Plans include performances - on stage and on record - of Poulenc's 'Don't leave me hanging on the phone' monodrama La Voix Humaine, 40 minutes of solo torment which should get the most out of her stage persona, even if she has problems with its tessitura. 'Its register is a very hysterical register for a woman's voice. I want to take that hysterical thing away, transpose it down, make it broken rather than hysterical.'

Other possibilities include John Cage's Aria, Luciano Berio's Folk Songs, Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. The stark gallows humour of the latter would suit Lemper, although she herself says: 'I love it, but it's so artificial.' Still, piece by piece, Lemper is assembling her own vocal history of the 20th century. Now all it needs is for a composer to take up the challenge of finding a musical language to fit the very particular timbres of her voice, hovering as it does between cabaret, classical, pop and musical - in its way, an appropriate voice for our impending fin de siecle.

Sadler's Wells, Rosebery Ave, EC1. 18-20 March (071-278 8916)