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ARTICLE: Singer Meow Meow planning musical trip back to turbulent 1920s Germany

Pam Kragen
San Diego Union-Tribune

March 5, 2024

The British chanteuse will present two shows on Sunday, March 10, in La Jolla

If you’re skipping Sunday night’s Academy Awards telecast and looking for some alternative entertainment, you won’t find anything more different than Meow Meow.

La Jolla Music Society is presenting the Australia-born British chanteuse and theater artist in two intimate concerts in the JAI cabaret space at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in La Jolla.

Her concert program will focus on music from the Weimar Republic era in Germany, from the post-WWI liberalism in 1918 to the rise of fascism in 1933. Featured composers include Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, Mischa Spoliansky, Marcellus Schiffer, Anita Berber, Friedrich Hollaender and Frank Wedekind, and the women artists who interpreted their music — including Lotte Lenya, Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker — will be celebrated.

During a recent concert trip to Vancouver, Meow Meow answered some questions via email about her eclectic career, her passion for history and Sunday’s concerts.

Q: For San Diego audiences new to you and your work, can you tell me a little about how you got your start as a performer and how has it evolved?

A: I’ve always danced and sung and been captivated by the theater. I was lucky in that I was exposed to lots of opera and ballet and comedy and jazz and there was never a distinction between “high” and “low” art forms. I’ve always followed the music that moved me, be it Mahler or Jacques Brel or Radiohead. I’ve had a wonderful career so far, everything from touring my original theater works to playing Titania in “A Midsummer Nights Dream” at Shakespeare’s Globe in London to playing Miss Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls” at Royal Albert Hall, playing Hollywood Bowl with the wonderful band Pink Martini and performing my own various shows with symphony orchestras around the world.

Q: Your work has elements of concert, cabaret, performance art, musical theater, opera, comedy, theater and more. If you had to choose only one medium to perform, which would it be?

A: It’s all the magical world of the theater to me. I like to genre hop and I think that’s really important. It gives space for all types of audiences to find a way in to the music and the show, and also gives room for dreaming. I like things to shift all the time and to be ambiguous. I like it when one can be crying one moment and laughing the next. That’s real life, too. I like to juxtapose material and even within a song have juxtapositions. The best songs do that, I think. Again it’s about creating space for emotion and meaning rather than dictating it. So I’m sorry I can’t be choosing or delineating. Performance art can be operatic, concerts must be theatrical.

Q: When and how did you discover your passion for the German and French song repertoire?

A: With French, it was through the emotion of the voice with (Edith) Piaf and the opera “Carmen.” Also Nina Simone singing “Ne me quitte pas” — it was so agonizing to listen to — immediately one wanted to understand. The sensuality and wildness of Carmen totally intrigued me as a little girl . With German, it was a roundabout way. I was always obsessed with Schubert and Schumann lieder, but hearing the Argentinian tangos by Astor Piazzolla in a record store as a teenager led me to keep pursuing the tango, which led me to Kurt Weill and the tangos of the 1910s and 1920s. Combined with the charged language of Bertolt Brecht, I was smitten. My voice changes completely when I sing in these languages. It is allowed to go everywhere and I love that freedom of sound to be beautiful, seductive, strident, passionate and playful.

Q: For these concerts in La Jolla, you’ll be performing songs written or performed by women artists from the Weimar Republic era. This was a critical time in German history that would later reshape Europe. How did these bold women and their music reflect their time and were there consequences for their outspokenness?

A: It’s a fascinating time — jazz hits Europe, dance crazes, political unrest, censorship is relaxed, women can vote, the “new” liberated empowered woman, the vamp, the revolutionary, new noises and new ideas, the speed of Modernism and big cities, immigration and refugees. It’s a wild time, and all against the backdrop of the physical, financial and psychic destruction wrought by the First World War. The women performers and artists of this time are so varied — comediennes, torch singers, political singers, grotesque dancers, naked dancers, dadaists and showgirls. With the regime change in 1933, things deteriorated very quickly as Jewish artists, left-wing artists, queer artists, anyone seen as critical of the Nazi government, was deemed “degenerate,“ (and) this led to exile, incarceration and often murder. Some artists stayed and became stars. Some survived and brought their art to the U.S. and the U.K. It was a brief period of jostling and varied creativity often called the “dance on the volcano” or “dance on the abyss.”

Q: You mentioned in a video for La Jolla Music Society that your program is particularly timely today. Right-wing extremism is on the rise here and in Europe. Do you delve much into politics in your shows?

A: Yes, but in this case, I try to let the music speak for itself. It resonates so strongly with contemporary politics it doesn’t need to be highlighted. It’s clear! And that’s fascinating to me.

Q: Are you a history buff? I’m curious how big a role historical research plays in the rare and little-known music you have discovered for your shows.

A: I’m a total history fanatic. Because our history is also our present. Research is my great joy, as well as performing. I’m fascinated by big and little histories and try to honor them all in these shows. I never stop learning!

Q: Where do you call home these days? And what exciting projects are you working on in the near future?

A: I live in my suitcases and airports at the moment, being a relentless globetrotter. Next up is Carnegie Hall on March 23 — very exciting as it’s my debut. Then I guest with the gorgeous band Pink Martini at Royal Albert Hall in London and start work in London on a project for the Franz Kafka centenary with choreographer Arthur Pita and the great Royal Ballet dancer Edward Watson. I’m terribly excited.

Meow Meow

When: 5 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: The JAI at Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla

Tickets: $73-$88