GISELA MAY, who died last month in Berlin at the age of 92, was the foremost interpreter of Bertholt Brecht, Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler songs of her generation.
She became renowned far beyond her GDR home. May was a leading member of the permanent acting troupe at the Berliner Ensemble, Brecht’s theatre in Berlin and, when only in her mid-30s, stepped into the shoes of Brecht’s widow Helene Weigel to play Mother Courage to great acclaim.
She was discovered by composer and Brecht collaborator Eisler, who coached and encouraged her in her singing career, introducing her to Brecht’s song repertoire.
But, following in the tradition of that other legendary Brecht songster Lotte Lenya, it was as a singer, particularly of his work, that she won global renown.
As a chanteuse she performed in the world’s most prestigious venues to packed audiences at La Scala in Milan, Paris, Moscow, Britain, Australia and the US. After her performance at Carnegie Hall in 1974, the New York Times wrote that she was “the best performer of the genre at the present time.”
Her strong, gravelly and seductive voice, together with her street-girl coquetry had a touch of Marlene Dietrich as well as Juliette Greco but, in true Brechtian style, she never allowed her audience to indulge in sentimentality, emphasising the meaning of the lyrics, forcing them to reflect.
Born in 1924 in Wetzlar, Hesse, she grew up in a cultural household. Her mother was an actress and communist, while her father was a Social Democrat and writer who, after WWII, became a director of cabaret.
At school, she was known as the joker and class clown, as she was always “performing.”
But her childhood was scarred by her experiences under the nazis and by the war years. She was brought up with strong antifascist sentiments which she held throughout her life.
Until 1965, she was married to GDR journalist Georg Honigmann who had spent his years of exile from the nazis in London. After they separated, she lived with Wolfgang Harich, a dissident GDR Marxist philosopher who had been imprisoned there.
But she remained a firm supporter of the GDR, which she viewed as the only genuinely anti-fascist German state.
She joined the Berliner Ensemble, Brecht’s theatre on Schiffbauerdamm, in 1962, where she remained for 30 years. There she played many of the classic Brecht roles, including Mrs Peachum in The Threepenny Opera, Madame Cabet in The Days of the Commune and the barkeeper Mrs Kopecka in Schweik in the Second World War.
She was one of the GDR’s most loved artists and became one of the country’s most valued cultural ambassadors. Well into her eighties, she was still appearing every couple of months at the Berliner Ensemble in one-woman shows, performing Brecht and Weill songs.
May took on the main role in Hello, Dolly!, one of the first big Western musicals to be staged in East Berlin at the then newly built Metropole Theatre, played Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret at the Theater des Westens and appeared in films and on TV as an actor in many roles between 1951 and 1991.
She made a number of song recordings and among several awards she received were the 1991 Deutscher Filmpreis (German Film Award in Gold) for outstanding individual achievement and in 2002 the Bundesverdienstkreuz (Federal Cross) for artistic merit.
After her retirement from full-time acting, she gave lectures, workshops and master classes in many cities and countries and was a long-standing member of the German Academy of Arts.