Ute Gfrerer :: Not your typical cabaret singer

John Amodeo READ TIME: 6 MIN.

Ute Gfrerer is not your typical cabaret singer. Though, yes, she may be an attractive blond with a mellifluous singing voice and a way with a song, she is cut from another mold. As a trained actress, this Austrian-born chanteuse is a genuine shape shifter, taking on such varied roles as Eliza Doolittle ("My Fair Lady") in Bregenz to Despina ("Cosi Fan Tutte") in Salzburg. She's performed solo concerts, musical theater, opera, and operetta in places as varied as Guatemala, Japan, Ukraine, Poland and Mexico. She was a member of several opera companies, including the Volksopera in Vienna, and performed under the musical direction of renowned conductors including HK Gruber and Ingo Metzmacher in Zurich, Hamburg, Munich, London, Salzburg, Bregenz and Vienna.

Considered a Weill aficionado, a favorite role is that of Jenny in Weill's "The Rise and Fall of The City of Mahagonny." In fact Dr. Peter Bilsing, for the magazine Der Opernfreund, proclaimed "Ute Gfrerer, this all-round talent, is well on her way to be one of the best Weill interpreters of the world. She enchanted her audience on a Broadway level! We are looking forward to hearing more from her soon, so remember this name!"

Unlikely combination

Gfrerer weaves the music of Weill into a new concept for a cabaret show Lives in the Limelight, which features the songs and lives of an unlikely combination of divas: Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf, and Lotte Lenya to be performed at the new Shalin Liu Performance Center at Rockport Music, in Rockport, MA this Sunday, May 15th. Grferer spoke to EDGE from her Nahant home about her love of song, her upcoming show and her thoughts on what Judy and Marlene have in common.

As a girl growing up in the small south Austrian town of Spittal, near the Trieste border of Italy, Gfrerer was constantly surrounded by song. If visions of yodeling farmers in lederhosen come to mind, you wouldn't be far off. "It was Heidi-land," Gfrerer says of her alpine nestled hometown, where she was an innkeeper's daughter, with three sisters, all of whom sang. Gfrerer recalls singing as a toddler in the back seat of her parents' car to keep from getting carsick. "The regular breathing kept me calm," she explains. "And being engaged in something that was interesting got my mind off it."

The trick not only worked, but it blossomed into a full time vocation for Gfrerer, who began singing Austrian folk songs in 3- and 4-part harmony with her sisters. "We were like a small version of the von Trapp family," quips Gfrerer. But according to Gfrerer, singing is a way of life in Austria. "The part of Austria where I grew up has a lot of choirs," she recounts. "You can't grow up there and not sing. Singing is like breathing."

In fact, singing is so integral to the Austrian social fabric, that a performer in Austria might find their audience joining in on their performances. Gfrerer had one such transcendent experience while recording one of her live concert performances in Austria, where she sang a traditional folk song from her countryside. "When I got to the second verse, the audience began humming along with me," recalls Gfrerer, "Then in the last verse, they all started singing in 4-part harmony, and it was so beautiful. It could only happen in Austria!"

Wide-ranging influences

In spite of this, her earliest musical influences are in stark contrast to Austrian folk music. "I always loved Al Jarreau," she confesses. "I actually wanted to marry him." She also loved the gospel sounds of Mahalia Jackson. And careering from one style to another, she also cites Maria Callas. Then she circles back to folk music, but international folk music. Elaborating, she says, "I love folk music but in the best sense of the word, because it reflects the way people are in that part of the world. It says something about them."

But the classically trained soprano felt she needed to be an opera singer to be taken seriously. She immersed herself in the operas of Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini, only to find that it wasn't enough to produce beautiful melodies. "My parents were also in spoken theater, so I love words," imparts Gfrerer. "I began to approach my songs more from the lyrics."

When she started exploring a broader repertoire, she stumbled upon the work of Richard Strauss. "After I sang him, I didn't want to sing anyone else," declared Gfrerer. "They all seemed so banal." Then she discovered Weill, and her world changed even more. She loved that he worked with some of the best lyricists in the world, and molded his music to the lyrics, to get the best out of the native language, whether German, French, or English, and allowed the language to influence his melodies. But she divulges that she worships Stephen Sondheim for his mastery of word play. "I would just kneel down and bow in front of him," she gushes. "I have to do an all Sondheim show sometime."

Having lived and performed all over the world, including France, Germany, and Los Angeles, it is perhaps not so surprising that she would create a show with divas from each of those countries and combine them into a single evening of story and song. At first blush, you might not think there is much in common between the music and lives, for that matter, of Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Lotte Lenya, and Edith Piaf, but Gfrerer begs to differ. Dietrich seemed to be the common thread, having been friends with Lenya, been the matron of honor at Piaf's wedding, and appeared with Garland in the film "Judgment at Nuremburg." She adds, "They were all great artists, but they all had challenging lives."

While she calls the show, "Lives in the Limelight," for seemingly obvious reasons, the full reason for the title is more nuanced. "Where there is a lot of light, there is also a lot of shadow," Gfrerer hints. "When we look at our stars, we get a glimpse of what they are about, but what we see is the person on stage in the limelight. But we forget there is a human being behind that star." She acknowledges that each of the women paid a price for stardom. Without stooping to tabloid editorializing, Gfrerer wants to offer a glimpse into the real lives of each of these famous women, through story and song.

"I'm not trying to imitate them," asserts Gfrerer. "I want to give the audience an impression of these women through my very personal interpretation of them." She's put together a program that use stories about each of these four iconic women and combines them with the signature songs that are forever associated with each singing legend, with some of their more obscure songs that help fill in more details about their lives. So while "Over The Rainbow" and "Falling In Love Again" are likely to be heard, so will a number of unusual and unexpected pieces, such as "The Boys in the Backroom," a jaunty wartime drinking song that Deitrich performed to GI's in the battlefields.

As a world traveler and performer, Gfrerer has found that there is more that unites us than divides us. She ponders this as she looks ahead at another set of concerts, opera and theater performances in Europe this year and next. When asked if she needs to tailor her shows for different cultures, she says she doesn't. "I think people in their core are pretty much the same everywhere, and if you reach them in their core, the reaction will be the same," she muses. "It doesn't matter where you are in the world, it's more important that you get the message across, and if you do, you will be well received."

Ute Gfrerer will perform "Lives in the Limelight" at Shalin Liu Performance Center, 37 Main Street, Rockport, MA at 5pm on Sunday, May 15, 2011. Tickets are $18, $24, and $32. For information and reservations, call: 978-546-7391 (M-F, 10-4), or visit www.rockportmusic.org.

by John Amodeo

John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.

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