Ute Lemper finds a home on the world’s stages, including at some of New York’s celebrated venues. And the stage has returned the favor, leading her to her adoptive home on the Upper West Side, where she’s lived for nearly two decades.
“I’m not such a crazy social person,” said the singer and cabaret performer on a recent afternoon, looking very much at ease in a pair of loose jeans, black slip-on sneakers and a patterned short-sleeve shirt as her brown miniature poodle nestled against her. “I just love to be home and have my residential life.”
At least for one evening, she gets the best of both worlds when she brings songs from her latest album, “The 9 Secrets,” based on writer Paulo Coelho’s book “Manuscript Found in Accra,” to Symphony Space on Friday, May 13. The album features Middle Eastern instruments such as the shepherd’s flute and udu drum, and finds Lemper singing in English, French, Portuguese and German. Fluent in all but Spanish and Portuguese, the Münster, Germany native sought the help of her Brazilian neighbor for assistance with her Portuguese.
“Most of it is centered around the old world of the word,” said Lemper, 52.
A longtime devotee of Coelho’s work, Lemper first read the book while touring her album of songs incorporating works by poet Pablo Neruda in Australia. A month later, while performing in São Paulo, she mentioned the book to a reporter who happened to know Coelho. The next day, she said, she received an email from “The Alchemist” author, who heard from the reporter that she was a fan. He said he enjoyed her music.
After a few months of emailing, Lemper asked Coelho’s permission to adapt his work for an album. He consented.
“I said, ‘Okay now I’m going to have to do it, he expects me! Oh my God, what did I get myself into?’” Lemper joked.
She worked with musician and arranger Gil Goldstein, who plays accordion on the album and wrote the string arrangements.
“The music didn’t fit neatly in any set genre really,” said Goldstein. “It was kind of cross-cultural and fragile in that sense that you couldn’t have a cookie-cutter approach to how you receive it.”
The album incorporates bossa nova, a nod to Coelho’s Brazilian heritage, and New York composer Jamshied Sharifi gives the album its Middle Eastern elements, Lemper said. Coelho also lends spoken word to two tracks.
Lemper, whose extensive performance and recording history includes works by German composer Kurt Weill and tango composer Astor Piazzolla, among many others, moved to New York in 1998 to play Velma Kelly in “Chicago” on Broadway, after portraying the murderess in London for over a year. She’s lived on the Upper West Side ever since, and likened the neighborhood to a “little village where everything is accessible in the middle of Manhattan.”
“I lived in London many years. I lived in Paris many years. I lived in Rome,” said Lemper from the couch in her penthouse studio in the same building in which she lives with her four children and her husband, drummer Todd Turkisher, who plays on “The 9 Secrets.” “I have to say nowhere in Europe I felt home immediately like I felt home in New York.”
Lemper has lived in her current apartment building on W. 76th Street since 2000, and in 2010, she purchased the penthouse for use as a studio, and evidence of the family that lives below fills the light-filled quarters. Toy trucks are collected messily in a corner. A bin filled with table tennis paddles sits on the floor, and a sandbox on the terrace blends with blossoming trees and plants. The tranquility of the top-floor studio, remarkably free of the rumble of traffic on Columbus Avenue and decorated with student paintings purchased at a nearby flea market, grants her a creative respite, though she will relinquish some of this space when her two older children return home from college this summer.
Having performed on prestigious stages around the city and the globe—her first Manhattan show was a Kurt Weill performance at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in 1987—Lemper appreciates the subtle luxuries that come from working close to home. She recently performed a collection of Yiddish songs written in concentration camps at the Center for Jewish Research on W. 16th Street, a program she’ll continue in New York in 2017, after performances in Europe throughout this year.
“Working in the city is a privilege for me,” said Lemper, who brings her five-year-old to play sports at JCC Manhattan, and takes both her young sons to Tecumseh Playground on Amsterdam Avenue and 77th Street after dinner some nights. When her two older children are home from college, she accompanies them to Amsterdam Ale House down the street.
“I love to be home and come home and sleep in my bed, and have my kids crawl in my bed and cuddle after a performance,” she said.