Next morning I find Ute Lemper bleary-eyed from a late dinner with executives from Decca, for whom she is a very hot property indeed. She regrets that her behaviour of the night before was not all it might have been - not bad enough, that is. "Insult and humiliation is what Berlin cabaret was about. Attacking politics, attacking militarism, attacking injustice, pretentiousness, oppression of all kinds. And the 1920s bourgeois audiences were fair game. They expected it." She felt constrained, she says, on this occasion, because it wasn't her own show but an expensive one-off do linked to the George Grosz exhibition at the Royal Academy. When she returns to Britain this week, for an appearance at the Salisbury Festival, followed by a season at the Almeida, she promises "more naughtiness". She almost gurgles in anticipation of the event. "Playing with the audience ... I so love it!"
Over a hotel breakfast, scrub-faced and wearing dungarees, it's hard to recognise the sleek virago whose style has prompted comparisons at various times with Dietrich (for her sultry low notes), Garbo (those eyebrows), the modish Twenties chanteuse Margo Lion and even - ludicrously - with Marianne Faithfull, who may have just released an album of Kurt Weill songs but whose voice, as Lemper remarks, nonplussed, has but a one-octave range. The last comparison, she suspects, comes from a widespread belief that like Faithfull she has actually led the life of the hard-bitten characters she portrays - that of junkie, man-eater or lesbian. Not so. "I don't even drink whisky." She fishes in her purse for a photo of two adorable infants at home in Paris with their daddy. "No, for me it's pure theatre. I approach this repertoire as an actress and musician. You don't have to put yourself in torturing situations to be able to sing these songs."
In fact it was her safe, provincial upbringing that made Lemper's discovery of the Weimar cabaret culture such a forceful revelation. Born in the early Sixties to a stalwart Catholic banker and a mother "who would leave the room when archive film of the Holocaust was shown on TV", she grew up largely unaware of Germany's recent past. "My parents wouldn't talk about it. We were taught the facts at school, but it was like being told about Napoleon. It didn't touch us." It was only after leaving drama school in Vienna, when she began to research her own show of songs by Kurt Weill, that she woke up to what had really gone on during the Twenties and Thirties. "The shock for somebody of my generation was to discover what Germany had done to itself, besides what they did to the Jews. They had systematically stamped out their own popular culture, denying the work of artists and musicians because theirs was the voice of dissent." The texts of the songs sung in Berlin night-spots, most of them unknown today, even in Germany, provide a key to the erroneous belief that every German unquestioningly welcomed Nazism. At the age of 22, Lemper was fired with a missionary zeal "to tell these stories, to sing this music, to get up there with this message as if it was a message for today."
The period obviously holds glamorous, nostalgic appeal for many people, but the singer denies that this is what has kept her in thrall to the cabaret repertoire. Despite a digression into musicals when her career first took off in the mid-80s (she landed a big part in the Vienna production of Cats) and a lucrative sideline in films (she appeared naked, and pregnant, in Robert Altman's Pret-a-Porter), she had been drawn back time and again to the music of the Thirties. She took the Dietrich role in a Berlin production of The Blue Angel, and toured all over Europe for two years playing Sally Bowles in Cabaret. For the next decade home became New York, Paris, London, Berlin, then Paris again, and the little Kurt Weill show came along too, as a well-travelled hedge against unemployment, until in 1986 a Decca producer from London heard it by chance and signed her up to re-record the complete works.
That was great, she recalls, except for the fact that the Kurt Weill Foundation, which vets all recordings of his songs, turned up in the studio and insisted at the eleventh hour that she couldn't transpose The Threepenny Opera down more than a tone to suit her deep contralto range. But didn't Lotte Lenya, Weill's wife and original interpreter of the songs, famously deliver them with a sackload of gravel? "Of course!" Lemper exclaims, "but on her deathbed in the 1980s she decreed that she'd been wrong all along, that in fact they were meant to be sung by a classical soprano." She sucks in her cheeks and rolls her eyes up under the Garbo brows. "It was the most brilliant way to make sure that her own recordings remain the ones that people want to hear. I must remember that one also for when I'm old!"
No such strictures have hampered Ute Lemper Sings Berlin Cabaret Songs, a mixed collection of songs by Friedrich Hollander (who later in exile composed The King and I), Mischa Spoliansky and Rudi Nelson - all Jewish, as Lemper points out. The septuagenarian daughters of two of them offered advice in the studio, but this time the singer took it as an honour, not an attempt at control. It transpired that both daughters were delighted with her interpretations. Since crackly original recordings still exist of some of the songs, Lemper had felt she should avoid imitation at all costs. "I don't purposely perform in a nostalgic manner," she says. "That would be cramping and artificial. I just do it the way I feel." And the way she feels comes across as a lip-smacking relish for the German language. ("Am liebsten war' ich Sex-Appeal/ und 7-Appeal und 8-Appeal!") and a breathtaking sweep of dynamic from velvety whisper to raucous croak, sometimes made thrillingly over the stretch of a single note. Her technique gives classical-voice teachers the screaming abdabs (she won't go near them), but it's superbly adapted to this material.
Unusually, Decca have issued the new album in two versions, one sung in German, one in a clever translation. (In English, rather fittingly, Lemper's accent is pure Jewish-American.) Yet against all expectation the original is outselling the English version two to one. On Lemper's lips German becomes suddenly the funniest, sparkiest, juiciest language on earth, at mention of which the singer almost purrs. "I'm not an ambassador for Germany. I have no nationalistic feeling for any country. But if through this music I can persuade people that there is a German sense of humour, that there is beauty and theatricality in the language, then ... well ... I guess I'd be quite proud."
Salisbury Festival (01722 320333), Sat; Almeida, N1 (0171 359 4404), 9-24 June.Reuse content