For admirers she was the second coming of Mother Courage and the greatest interpreter of the Brecht-Weill songbook. For critics she was an artistic apparatchik, compromised by her loyalty to East Germany.
Gisela May, who has died aged 92, was East Germany's greatest diva. She was the last link to the Brecht era and personified, like few others, the complexity of being a performer in – and surviving – Germany's socialist state.
Born in 1924 in Wetzlar in Hesse but raised in Leipzig, she grew up in an artistic, anti-fascist household. Her father was a social democrat writer, her mother an actress and communist who took in political refugees. Surrounded by Nazi neighbours, May studied drama in Leipzig and, in 1944, took her first engagement in Dresden.
Her earliest brush with fascism was a brutal one: a male friend and piano teacher was arrested for putting up anti-Nazi posters and beheaded.
“That influenced my life-long position against fellow travellers and yes men, against war, fascism and inhumanity,” May said in 2012.
She spent the postwar years as a soubrette in East German regional repertory and moved to East Berlin’s Deutsches Theater in 1951. There she played the classics and, in 1957, took a singing role in a revue of Bertolt Brecht songs.
Sitting in the audience was Hans Eisler, one of Brecht’s musical collaborators, who came backstage and urged May to continue down this musical path.
May’s move to Brecht’s hallowed Berliner Ensemble (BE) came about by chance, five years after the dramatist’s death, when she came upon his widow, Helene Weigel, drinking alone in an East
artists’ club on New Year’s Eve 1961. Uninhibited by Weigel’s legendary status, May struck up a conversation and, in the new year, joined the BE ensemble.
Berlin’s Schiffbauerdamm became May’s home and, in 1978, she was chosen to be the BE’s second Mother Courage, taking up the legendary role created by Brecht for Weigel.
“It was seven years after Weigel’s death and we had let the piece be because we didn’t think we could reach her level,” said May later. “It was a huge challenge to liberate myself from Weigel and bring my own, convincing Mother Courage to the stage.”
Considered her greatest dramatic role, May played Mother Courage until 1992, when she and other BE stars were fired by new management.
Though bitter at her summary dismissal, May found a new role the following year as the cranky mother of a television detective, another long-running role that introduced her to a new audiences.
However, it was Gisela May’s solo concerts, which she performed well into her 80s in her trademark trouser suits and red pageboy wig, that secured her international reputation.
In a warm, persistent voice she rehabilitated the Brecht-Weill songbook for those put off by Lotte Lenya’s smoky growl or Ute Lemper’s icy vibrato.
May took the middle ground, taking the BE stage captive as Pirate Jenny and creeping off two hours later as a whispering Mack the Knife, making the songs sound like they had been written for her minutes before the show.
The secret to her unique style, preserved on record and YouTube clips? A rejection of mannerism in favour of a precise, conversational style that brought Brecht’s elegant, clever lyrics to the fore like never before.
Whether set to the music of Weill or Eisler, May said in 2013 that “the Brecht text is the most important part”.
“People always say Brecht is hard and sober, yet he always gave his figures a lot of feeling. But he demanded intelligence from the audience,” she said.
Even when the cold war turned icy, May was one of the few East German artists to continue touring, filling La Scala and Carnegie Hall by insisting her concert posters always contained the word “Berlin” and never “GDR”.
May’s untouchable star status – along with her lifelong commitment to socialism – was such that not even a long-term relationship with East German dissident Wolfgang Harich impinged on her life or career.
And though not everyone in Germany warmed to her politics, May insisted that her views had to be seen in the right perspective: not of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 but the zero hour of 1945 when, like many artists and intellectuals, she embraced socialism as an antidote to the fascist terror.
“I never once considered leaving, the socialist ideal was too deep inside me,” she said.