Weimar vamp

`Singing a song that goes deeply into your soul... you cannot just act it out; you have to be it.' Ute Lemper, passionate performer of Berlin cabaret, talks to Phil Johnson
Will the real Ute Lemper please stand up? The German singer of caustic Brecht/ Weill ditties, lovelorn lyrics by Jacques Prevert, and emotional tributes to Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf seems to have as many faces as she does songs. Her customary repertoire - a brilliant blend of high art and high gloss - is delivered with an attention to the details of interpretation that seems to serve the song at the expense of the singer, with the material portrayed through a series of cunningly contrived personae. At the Royal Festival Hall last year, she gave a quite electrifying performance, animating the Prevert songs of fog-bound, French film noir, doom and gloom with a virtuoso display of sheer theatricality - strangling herself with a feather boa here, making love to the piano there - summoning up the image of a woman at the very end of her tether. She ended on the Strindbergian note of Piaf's "L'Accordioniste", spinning round and round in a dizzying dance of death. As she exited the stage, one half expected the retort of a revolver shot to issue from the wings. Instead, the smiling diva returned to receive her bouquets. It was, after all, only a performance.

Lemper is, of course, an actress as well as a singer (and before that, a dancer too), who trained at the Max Reinhardt academy in Vienna. Now aged 33 and established as a worldwide star, her career took off with musicals after she was cast by Andrew Lloyd Webber in a Viennese production of Cats. Later she played the title role in Peter Pan, the Liza Minnelli part in Cabaret, and stepped into Dietrich's shoes in a German production of The Blue Angel. By then she had already made her name as a performer in one-woman shows conceived (by herself) around a central musical theme. Her latest incarnation is for an album and performance of Weimar cabaret songs, accompanied by Robert Ziegler's Matrix Ensemble, with whom she plays the Queen Elizabeth Hall this Wednesday and Thursday.

Meeting Lemper in the flesh at her home in a quiet suburb of Paris is slightly disturbing. On stage, and in photographs, her appearance is as artfully disguised as her singing style. The collage of portraits on her record company's publicity brochure favours, quite understandably, a vampish persona of peeled-back brilliantined hair, angular features softened by the ghostly pallor of make-up, ruby red lips set in a perfect cupid's bow. Additional, subsidiary pictures appear to be of another person altogether, with a "natural" look of curling hair, and an out-of-focus background of flowers and foliage, as if to reassure the viewer with a consoling after-image of normality.

And, indeed, she does look perfectly normal, with sharp, intelligent features. The house, too, is a bit of a shock. A nice, modest villa in an ordinary terrace, it is less grand than one had imagined (though, of course, one imagines that Billie Holliday lived in a nightclub, and that Marianne Faithfull lives in a squat). Children's cuddly toys litter the living room - Lemper has a son, Max, aged two and a half, and a daughter, Stella, aged six months - and though there is a small swimming pool in the room next door, it could be a feature in any builder's grandiose semi. Her husband, David Tabatsky, an American actor and comedian, takes Max out in their Renault Espace to give Ute space to talk. When she does talk, it's another shock to hear that she speaks English with a perfect Californian accent.

For her London performances, Lemper will be singing most of the songs in English, with lyrics translated by Jeremy Lawrence (there is both a German and an English version of the album). As a tri-linguist, she is alert to the differences of meaning that a change of language brings to the material. "I was really pleased to sing in English," she says. "It's lovely for me to do them in German because that's the way I feel it the most, but I always worry that the irony and even sometimes the story is not understood." In German, she says, "the language is an architecture, and you really structure what you sing with the mind always very present, and a message that you have to transmit. In English, the songs are often more light-hearted and superficial, you're singing for the music basically. When we recorded the album we did it first in German, and then in English, and it was very difficult. At times I took the English versions less aggressively, but sometimes it was a little more juicy."

The juice of the lyrics is important, because the tradition of Weimar cabaret - which both Lemper and Ziegler have researched extensively - was that of social criticism embedded in everyday sexual politics, with songs like Friedrich Hollaender's "Sex Appeal" or Mischa Spoliansky's "I Am a Vamp" playing with notions of an unconstrained, and threatening, sexual appetite. Female performers such as Dietrich and Margot Lion sang of dumping their men in favour of other women, while the openly lesbian Claire Waldoff (a more proletarian figure than her demi-monde or high society sisters) championed pieces like Hollaender's "Away with the Men". Despite the project's context of research and carefully wrought authenticity (the daughters of both Hollaender and Spoliansky were invited to the recording sessions, as was the 93-year-old composer Berthold Goldschmidt shortly before his death late last year), Lemper refuses to see it as a museum piece. "I didn't feel it was anything antique," she says. "But I'm used to this material - it's the time that I swim in. This was the time that was really revolutionary in Germany and there was nothing like it again, because all the creative people had gone, and the times nourished another culture..."

Despite, or perhaps because of, the success of the film Cabaret, Lemper feels that the true nature of Weimar cabaret is largely unknown today. "It's only through The Blue Angel [songs by Hollaender sung by Dietrich] that it survives," she says. "And I would say that even Brecht and Weill aren't really known, or only for the four years they worked together. The real Weill - of before and after that, in exile - is neglected. Even what the term cabaret means to us today is different: it doesn't really exist any more. To a certain extent cabaret has been reborn in Berlin, but it's different: the fun of it, the lushness and the erotic in it, and the political statement... it's gone. But the lyrics are contemporary. Issues like the emancipation of homosexuality, left-wing politics, they are still relevant."

Lemper is happy to extend the social critique of Weimar cabaret to the issues of the present. Recalling Brecht and Weill's 1930's operatic nightmare, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, "an american dream" city scape in which the only crime is to have no money, she remarks, "Today, the city of Mahagonny is everywhere - it's happening all over the place. Societies are totally abandoned and corrupt and the social net doesn't work at all. Capitalism has just driven itself to its rarest point and it's difficult to be human in that system. The winner is the most powerful, the most rich, the most corrupt. It's really amazing the way Brecht saw it. When I was singing his songs in New York people walked out because they thought I was singing songs by a communist. But look at what he wrote! There is so much of it, and no one speaks of Andrew Lloyd Webber having ripped other people off!"

It may be biting the hand that once fed her, but Lemper says her experience in musicals was not a happy one. "I thought after acting school that the musical was the right form because I was looking for a combination of singing, dancing and acting. But I very quickly worked out that there is not real theatre in the musical any more; it doesn't leave you any depth. I figured out over the years that it was better to do my own performance, to conceive the thing by myself, to find my own style through that."

This led to the discovery of her favoured repertoire, the theatricality consisting of the selection of appropriate personae. "The songs are not like sweet funny little entertainments," she says. "You have to dig into whatever low ends there are in your soul; you have to get it from somewhere. And these were the stories I chose, women at the edge of suicide, outcasts from society, but always still really powerful survivors with passion."

As to whether there can be conflict between her preference for acting out a song and her role as a singer pure and simple, she observes: "In performing you are in a different state of consciousness, and singing a song that goes deeply into your soul, you cannot just act it out; you have to be it. The sadness has to come from somewhere, and after the song is over, you're in tears, you're exhausted. But at least you know you're alive"n

Ute Lemper plays the QEH, London SE1, 29,30 Jan (0171-960 4242); Salisbury Festival, 7 Jun; Cheltenham Festival, 18 Jul (0171-679 9303). The album `Berlin Cabaret Songs' is available (in both German and English versions) on Decca