Since I've been writing a lot about opera this year, I decided to go and get a few singing lessons to get a better feel for what I'm listening to. After nearly half a century of singing this stuff in the bath, the first lesson came as quite a shock (all the bits about breathing and rib cage position made it feel a lot more like sports coaching than a music lesson) but it was fascinating none the less.
One of the surprises was that Berty, my teacher, is very definite about the difference between my "speaking voice" and my "singing voice" and the need to use the latter when singing opera (years of singing folk and blues have biased me to using the speaking voice). So when I went to see Ute Lemper at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last night, I found myself wondering what Berty would have made of her.
Lemper sings material that's on the fringes of classical: last night, the three main composers were Kurt Weill, Piazzola and Jacques Brel, and she was accompanied by brilliant jazz pianist Vana Gierig and bandoneon player Tito Castro. Her voice is truly extraordinary in its flexibility and range: she can move seamlessly between her singing voice and either breathily soft-spoken or viciously hard-edged speaking voices, or a beatbox-style muted trumpet sound: she produced one of the more amazing jazz trumpet solos I've ever heard, with the help of an echo unit (and no visible sign of a trumpet). I was quite taken aback by her ability to produce all these different sounds with power, dynamics, total control and no apparent difficulty in moving between them. By the way, she sings with complete authority in German, French, Spanish and English; in the Weill songs, she was constantly switching between English, to make sure the audience understood the story, and German, which gives a feel for the poetry and the adeptness of Weill's settings that no English translation can achieve. Her closing encore was Pirate Jenny, the song from The Threepenny Opera in which a down-trodden kitchen maid dreams of the day when a pirate ship puts in at the docks and, at her command, executes the wealthy patrons who torment her: the performance was quite outstanding.
In the programme notes, I was struck by one of the things Lemper has done outside her usual Weill-centred repertoire: singing with the Luciano Berio Orchestra. Berio's first marriage was to a mezzo-soprano, Cathy Berberian, for whom he wrote the extraordinary Sequenza III, an eight minute piece that explores just about everything that a female voice can do. I wonder whether Lemper has ever tried it.
But the material that thrilled me most last night was the Brel. The French "chanson" style (isn't something that comes naturally to English ears: it tends to be lumped into the "Eurovision Song Contest" fuddy-duddy category. But it's an interesting half-way house between classical lieder and rock, and to my mind, Brel was one of the greatest ever songwriters in any language in any genre, a permanent rebuke to those who carp that "there are no famous Belgians". Two of his songs, Ne me quitte pas and Amsterdam, come high on my desert island list, and Lemper sang them marvellously - not exactly like Brel (which one can't - he was a wonderful and unique performer as well as a poet and songwriter), but capturing in every way the power and despair of the originals.
Music audiences are somewhat split into the classical, jazz, folk and rock genres. Last night's concert was a reminder that there are things out there that don't fall into any of these categories, and that they include some great art.
12th December 2010