Revisiting “Daniela Ziegler Sings Ralph Benatzky”

Kevin Clarke
Operetta Research Center
1 September, 2020

At the beginning of August 2020 Helga Benatzky died at the blessed age of 96: she had been in charge of the Ralph Benatzky estate since the 1990s when her husband (Ralph’s nephew) had died and she became the driving force for many major revival activities. It is thanks to Helga Benatzky that the composer’s papers etc. went to the archive of Akademie der Künste (AdK) in Berlin, that a stunning edition of his diaries was published by Inge Jens who had edited the Thomas Mann diaries before. Mrs. Benatzky enabled many CD and book projects, and she singlehandedly opened my eyes on our first meeting to the fact that operetta had something to do with exile, Nazis, depression, deportation, jazz, revue, homosexuality, and the Weimar Republic instead of “Wien, Wien, nur du allein.” And that was just the beginning. Mrs. Benatzky also introduced me to Max Hansen – and to Daniela Ziegler.

Daniel Ziegler today. (Photo: Madeleine Coffaro)

Daniel Ziegler today. (Photo: Madeleine Coffaro)

While Max Hansen doesn’t need further introduction here as one of the all-time greatest stars of operetta, Daniela Ziegler as a Benatzky interpreter and potential operetta prima donna has fallen a little off the radar, sadly.

Miss Ziegler has starred as Evita and Norma Desmond, she has been (and still is) in many movies and TV shows. And in the late 1990s she was one of the first singers in modern times to delve into the expansive Benatzky chanson repertoire written (mostly) for his ex-wife Josma Selim, but also for Zarah Leander and many others, from Greta Keller to Max Hansen to Oscar Karlweis. To name only a few.

Many of the scores for these songs were still stored in Mrs. Benatzky’s Hamburg villa at the time, and it used to be an absolute pleasure to lodge in her basement guest apartment and spend days and nights going through all this material, which also included posters, letters, photos etc. With Mrs. Benatzky supplying coffee, tea and drinks on a regular basis, to stop you from dehydration. There often was cake and snacks, too.

Daniela Ziegler, as a longtime friend of Mrs. Benatzky, must have done some exploring too while staying down there in that apartment. And the result was a one-of-a-kind Benatzky program that she put together with the young Adam Benzwi as her partner at the piano. They entitled it Daniela Ziegler singt Benatzky and toured with it.

Benatzky and his first wife Josma Selim in Berlin, in the 1920s. (Photo: Archive of the Operetta Research Center.)

Benatzky and his first wife Josma Selim in Berlin, in the 1920s. (Photo: Archive of the Operetta Research Center.)

I saw and heard them together in Munich at Bayerischer Hof when Helga convinced me to come along, and I was immediately smitten by these songs and performers. (It was also my first live encounter with Adam, who later become one of my favorite operetta people when he started conducting Abraham and Oscar Straus at Komische Oper Berlin and Offenbach in Hildesheim, not to mention all the other amazing things he does…)

The duo recorded their program in Hamburg at the Schmidt Theater in March 1998: 22 brilliant tracks of repertoire that is far too little known and mostly overshadowed today by Kurt Weill’s and Friedrich Hollaender’s better-known chansons. (Of course Helga was in  the audience back then, smiling and applauding.)

The cover of the 1998 "Daniela Ziegler singt Ralph Benatzky." (Photo: Edition Berliner Musenkinder)

The cover of the 1998 “Daniela Ziegler singt Ralph Benatzky.” (Photo: Edition Berliner Musenkinder)

Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote about Miss Ziegler back then that she was a diseuse who “knows about the biggest secret of them all, and is able to turn it into practice: keeping the perfect balance between singing and talking in a chanson, being able to get in and out of the musical numbers in just the right way.”

The Hamburger Morgenpost wrote: “She’s very ladylike in her tuxedo, and she’s pure personality. Miss Ziegler creates an amusing and brilliant close-up of various female and male characters. She’s a Grande dame, a bitchy brat, a street-wise creature. And she’s blessed with a precise and sparkling acting talent.”

You can hear the range of that vocal acting talent in songs such as the deeply melancholic Ghetto and Wienerlied in New York (written in exile in the 1940s) and in the boisterous Yes, Sir (written for Zarah Leander’s UfA film debut) as well as in the cheeky “In Büsum gibt’s einen Keuschheitsverein” (“There’s a Chastity Club in Büsum”).

There’s also the striking Meditation über den Rauch einer Zigarette which you can imagine someone like Marlene Dietrich singing – it remains a puzzle to me why this number isn’t sung more often today by others, as it’s the ultimate feminist statement.

There are comedy numbers such as Der unmögliche Erlkönig (a spoof of Schubert’s Erlkönig) and Die Entfettungskur (“The Diet”), there are snappy songs with a Music Hall flavor such as Lilly vom Picadilly (think “All down Piccadilly, dilly, dilly, dilly” from act 3 of The Arcadians and you get the picture). Here’s Adam Benzwi duetting with Daniela Ziegler:

But Miss Ziegler also manages to change the mood with the blink of an eye lash (a quality she shares with Dagmar Manzel) and delve into the deep end with Ich steh im Regen or Hamburger Hurenlied.

For the CD release on Edition Berliner Musenkinder Mrs. Benatzky wrote a little note that sort of says it all: “With this CD Daniela Ziegler has managed to draw a portrait of Ralph Benatzky that did not exist before in this sensitive way. Benatzky was a provocatively frivolous, serious and thoughtful, melancholic and deeply sad composer, all at the same time, someone who is all too often reduced today to having created Im weißen Rössl.”

Helga Benatzky's hand-signed note in the booklet of "Daniela Ziegler singt Ralph Benatzky." (Photo: Edition Berliner Musenkinder)

Helga Benatzky’s hand-signed note in the booklet of “Daniela Ziegler singt Ralph Benatzky.” (Photo: Edition Berliner Musenkinder)

22 years later we know much more about Benatzky, in large part thanks to Mrs. Benatzky unfaltering crusade to promote the works, and many of his other shows have been revived: Axel an der Himmelstür at Volksoper Wien, Casanova is due at Staatsoperette Dresden, Die drei Musketiere made a splash in Nordhausen and launched the career of (“dancing”) conductor Joseph Olefirowicz (google him!), Benatzky’s chamber operettasMeine Schwester und ich and Bezauberndes Fräulein have been revived and are available on CD. Yet many of the once-famous chansons still remain unexplored in the new millennium by contemporary singers.

Composer Ralph Benatzky in the 1930s. (Photo: Operetta Research Center.)

Composer Ralph Benatzky in the 1930s. (Photo: Operetta Research Center.)

Which is why it’s worth the while to pick up this “old” album and listen to it again. And also rediscover Daniela Ziegler the “operetta singer” again. Her suave voice is much easier on the ear than let’s say that of Dagmar Manzel or Desirée Nick, and as the reviewers quoted above noted Miss Ziegler is quite the stage animal – but she’s never asked to be part of any major (or minor) operetta production. Not at Komische Oper, at Volksoper, at Musikalische Komödie, at Staatsoperette, at Gärtnerplatztheater… (Hello, is anyone listening?)

She did tour with Helmut Baumann during this Corona summer 2020 and presented a program entitled Alt Sein für Anfänger, i.e. “Being Old for Beginners.”

At age 71 Miss Ziegler is not the “bitchy brat” of 1998 anymore, obviously. She has sung in many of the big musical productions in Vienna over the past 20 years. But she still hasn’t been seen or heard as Gloria Mills in Axel and der Himmelstür (the songs “Ich bin ein Star” and “Gebundene Hände” would suit her perfectly, both are not part of the Benatzky album from Hamburg). She’d also be a pretty dazzling Hanna Glawari who knows how to get in and out of songs. And, yes, with all of this renewed interest in the repertoire of Weimar Republic Germany it’s high time to have Miss Ziegler back on stage with a program that encompasses Benatzky, Weill, Hollaender, Spoliansky, Nelson et al.

A caricature of Benatzky from the 1920s, with a "Jewish Star" in his eye. (Photo: Archive of the Operetta Research Center.)

A caricature of Benatzky from the 1920s, with a “Jewish Star” in his eye. (Photo: Archive of the Operetta Research Center.)

Till then: enjoy this album and discover gems such as “Jeder macht’s,” which is Benatzky’s answer to Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It.”

Since many of the words are by Benatzky himself you can re-discover the dazzling writer of German language lyricist who represents an artistic level otherwise associated with Fritz Löhner-Beda, Robert Gilbert and maybe Marcellus Schiffer, but not with many modern-day musical translations that have flooded the market and make me cringe with their sloppy rhymes. (Benatzky also translated Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess for the first European production at the Zurich Opera, right after WW2.)

By the way, the booklet contains an endearing photo of Adam Benzwi as a young pianist that must be part of this article. Because, also obviously, Mr. Benzwi’s contribution on this album is breathtaking, foreshadowing his outstanding operetta career by two decades.

Adam Benzwi as seen in the booklet of "Daniela Ziegler singt Ralph Benatzky." Benzwi first worked with Ziegler at Theater des Westens in 1990 for "Follies." (Photo: Edition Berliner Museunkinder)

Adam Benzwi as seen in the booklet of “Daniela Ziegler singt Ralph Benatzky.” Benzwi first worked with Ziegler at Theater des Westens in 1990 for “Follies.” (Photo: Edition Berliner Musenkinder)

You can hear the entire album online at YouTube. But you can also order the CD.

Thank you, Helga Benatzky, for everything. Rest in peace!