Dagmar Manzel
© Janine Guldener

“In a world without melancholy, nightingales would belch.” Dagmar Manzel cites this wonderful quote by Emile Cioran and smiles. “There’s this certain Jewish humour in the songs which suits me quite nicely. It opens my heart. I simply want to sing this music. I wouldn’t want to live without these songs.” Thankfully, she doesn’t have to. Manzel is one of today’s most versatile stage artists and is known for her theatre, opera and TV roles alike. We talked about our love of music and the texts of the Weimar time, her path from acting to singing and why it is still important today to uphold the legacy of the 1920s and 30s.

On the 23rd September the Berlin-born singer comes to London for a very special evening: Weimar Berlin: To the Cabaret! with the Philharmonia Orchestra. “I’m so looking forward to working with the Philharmonia Orchestra, especially with Esa-Pekka Salonen. I adore him and it’s a great joy to do a concert together!” Needless to say, she sings songs from the 20s and 30s, the 15 years between the two world wars which sparkle with creativity. The Philharmonia explores this era with a series of concerts, talks and cabaret: Weimar Berlin – Bittersweet Metropolis. It is fitting the that Dagmar Manzel has specialised in this field. From songs to operetta, Paul Abraham to Oscar Straus, she has devoted her career to this special time, mainly in Berlin.

When it comes to the selection of songs for such an evening, “it’s only coherent that all composers whose songs I sing are Jewish. All important composers of the 1920s and 30s are of Jewish origin.” Of course, the Berlin dialect has to be included. “It’s my home, those are my roots. I have a very close relationship with the music, especially because I sing at the very same house that used to be the Metropol Theater. All important artists of that time appeared on stage here, starting with Fritzi Massary. Straus and Abraham stood in the orchestra pit and conducted. We sing their music, we play their pieces. You can’t really say that we follow in their footsteps, but it is our duty to preserve this art and this music.”

“I encountered the music of Werner Richard Heymann and Abraham, Friedrich Hollaender and Hanns Eisler quite early on when I was still a young girl.” She was impressed by their incredibly powerful biographies and the contradictory and exciting times reflected in the texts. “I would have loved to be a fly on the wall back then,” she says joyfully. “But 1933 changed everything. Many artists left, emigrated and sadly many of them were killed. So much has been forgotten.” At the same time, cultural Berlin was flourishing. “The actors would play at the Deutsche Theater, then go to nightclubs and sing. During the night they would do some dubbing and the next morning, after three hours of sleep, get up again and shoot a film. [Manzel laughs] It’s a bit different today.”

“The UFA (Universum Film AG), the films they would make there! Heyman was the UFA composer. Not many remember his name today, but everyone knows his songs: Irgendwo auf der Welt (Somewhere in the world) or Das gibt’s nur einmal (It only exists once). The Nazis tried to hide this music, but not with me!”

Even though music didn’t play a big role in her family, Dagmar Manzel always wanted to become a singer. “In parallel to my acting, I’ve always been working on songs. I only ever sang to myself, but then had the fortune of meeting a friend, an opera singer, who said ‘Let’s do an evening together’” And that’s what they did. “It was called Eine Sehnsucht, egal wonach (A desire, no matter for what), named after Hollaender. At the time, I’d already been taking singing classes. I’m still working together with the same teacher for more than 20 years now.”

“At some point, music in the theatre wasn’t enough for me any more. But I can’t sing Mozart or the great Offenbach. I’m not an opera singer.” Luckily for her, the Komische Oper Berlin became aware of her and that’s when she met Barrie Kosky. Together they have brought many pieces from the Weimar era to the stage. “Of course, we did it a bit differently. I’m no Cleopatra, I’m 60 now, at some point is ma au jut (it’s enough),” she says in a charming Berlin accent. “It’s a true fulfilment. I have to work hard for it, but I love it!”

Her work in theatre has always enriched her music. “Since my background lies in acting, I have a very theatrical approach to it. It’s not enough for me to sing beautifully. There are lines where you can really savour the singing, but you can break it up by speaking or even whispering parts of the texts.” In order to prepare for the concert, Manzel listened to recordings of famous Weill performers, all opera singers, “and that’s an absolute no-go for me!” She parodies Weill’s Klops Lied with an operatic voice and we both burst into laughter. “It’s all about the vocals and the shaping through the music. Wow, that’s not possible. I’m relying on my acting roots and decrease rather than increase the singing here.”

Dagmar Manzel
© Janine Guldener

“Especially when you know that Heyman had to emigrate with only a few Reichsmark in his pocket and didn’t even know whether he would survive or not. When you know that Hollaender came to a different country and said ‘We live in a country with people who don’t speak our language and they laugh at things we don’t find funny. We don’t understand their souls, because we don’t understand their language.’ I’m deeply moved by those fates. When I sing Wenn ich mir was wünschen dürfte (If I could wish for something) and the text says ‘We weren’t asked when we didn’t have a face yet. Whether we wanted to live or not. Now I walk alone, through a big city, and I don’t know whether it loves me or not’, it still matters today, especially if you look at the people who come to Europe, trying to start a new life here. That’s why I love those texts so much, like Walter Mehring’s An den Kanäle (At the canals). The power of those words, those strong images, they take my breath away.”

“Songs are often shaped or characterised by a serene melancholy. But there can also be harsh breaks that develop into different colours, temperatures or moods. You instantly notice it during a concert, you sing yourself into the hearts of the audience, because the songs are about sentiments and desires that everyone can relate to.”

Besides the melancholic songs, there are some real bruisers among them. “There is the Ballade von der Höllen-Lili (Ballad of the Lili from Hell), for example. There are some real slaps in it. I enjoy singing them just as much. It’s great for the orchestra as well.” She sings the fast, rhythmic accompaniment and I realise how connected she is to the music, the passion that drives her. “There is such a tempo, such a force, simply Weill.”

“You can’t find that kind of song or language any more today – it’s so rich and intelligent, entertaining and still political, stimulating people in the best sense of the word. That’s why we always come back to it.”

Click here for upcoming events with the Philharmonia Orchestra.

This interview is sponsored by the Philharmonia Orchestra.