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Interview with Dagmar Koller and Michael Balgavy

The picture book “Goldene Zeiten” provides an unusual and sensitive insight into the private photo album of Austria’s most-snapped woman: Dagmar Koller. The actress, dancer and singer teamed up with editor and designer Michael Balgavy, who selected 420 images for the captivating publication. Twelve chapters in no precise chronological order provide a rough outline of Koller’s life story. The snapshots of past times present Dagmar Koller as an artist, daughter, wife, and woman – and most notably as a photographer herself. A “golden” world of images, accompanied by an engaging personal commentary.

What was your impression when you first held this book in your hands?

Dagmar Koller: It was great to finally be holding the book – but above all else, making it was an adventure. The book is magnificent and I cannot thank Michael enough. “Goldene Zeiten” is more than a biography. As Michael always says: It’s an art book!

Michael Balgavy: That’s because Dagmar Koller is quite simply a living art work! We spent an entire year selecting photographs. We looked through them together, then I carried on by myself. What’s it like for you now, to see these 420 photographs in print, as the cumulative result of our work? 

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Michael Balgavy and Dagmar Koller

Dagmar Koller: I almost can’t believe there really are that many of them. I know the boxes were full – but never in my entire life have I flicked through so many golden pages! To be honest, I actually haven’t seen many of these images before – I’ve always taken a lot of photos, but never had the time to look through them at home, as I was playing theatre every night. Having someone come and open the trunks for me now has just been fantastic. I often thought “It doesn’t look like he’s ever going to stop” – Michael just kept on rummaging through my storage boxes. I eventually gave up, thinking “Well, he’s one of those odd people who really like looking at old photographs”. But now I’m thrilled to bits!

Why did you want to make the book?

Michael Balgavy: We came up with the idea for the book together. We wanted to execute an artistic project that would bring us joy. Something that didn’t function according to the principles of commerce, but placed the focus on photography instead. What we are showing is both a development spanning 75 years of photographic history, and the artistic life of the most-photographed woman in Austria. And of course the media phenomenon accompanying her career. Alongside showcasing the images and the musical career, the book also touches on the archive of thousands of newspaper clippings. After all, Dagmar’s life was publicly documented in the media for over 65 years.

But the book also provides many insights into the private life of Dagmar Koller – we encounter different aspects of her life that occurred alongside her career.

Michael Balgavy: The amazing thing is that the performance Dagmar Koller gave on stages across the world never stopped with the end of the show. She played to the media in her private life, too. With Helmut Zilk, of course, but even way before that time.

Goldene Zeiten celebrates your wonderful life, but it also shows a different side of you: We get to know you as a photographer. It is often said that photographers like to hide behind the camera. The role of the observer is a lesser-known side to Ms. Koller.

Dagmar Koller: Oh yes. I always carried a small camera with me on all of my tours. I’m a loner: I like to go for walks by myself, stroll around town. I go to the areas where normal people live, not to places of luxury. I was always drawn to those ordinary neighborhoods, and that’s also where I took pictures. The great thing is that Michael has reprocessed all of the old, badly developed photos which I took at the time in such a wonderful way. It shows that Michael is a great artist.

Michael Balgavy: Of course you’re the artist and not me. Those are your photos! It’s a side of you that hardly anyone knows.

Of all of these encounters: Who do you think of most fondly in retrospect?

Dagmar Koller: I had a few colleagues who are just unforgettable. There was Josef Meinrad, the great actor, with whom I played “Man of La Mancha”. And Giuseppe Di Stefano. He showed me the big wide world out there: Every hotel rolled out the red carpet for him. We toured all of America and gave a huge number of concerts. That was an incredible time for me, during which I learnt a lot – also how great artists pass things on to the next generation. 

Dagmar Koller Goldene Zeiten Mancha Meinrad

„Der Mann von La Mancha“ in Vienna, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Wiesbaden with Josef Meinrad, Gideon Singer, Heinz Peters, Fritz Muliar, Karlheinz Hackl, Robert Meyer © Victor Mory / KHM-Museumsverband, Theatermuseum; Siegfried M. Pistorius; Josef Palffy; Volksoper / Reinhard Werner

Which great friendships have you known in your life?

Dagmar Koller: There were only a very few friendships in my life. I didn’t have the time. You have to nurture friendships. But that was hard for me to do, because I was always on the go. However, like all photo albums, ours also includes a page with all the friends. There is even one here of the man who was also my first love: Hans. And some later friendships, a couple of which were lovers, too.

You were independent and in the public eye: What was it like to be making your own money as a woman? That was not exactly common at the time.

Dagmar Koller: There were great women in my time, too – for example Hildegard Knef. That woman was just a dream to me. I met her personally and she forbade me to have plastic surgery done on my nose. So not only did I struggle as a woman, I also struggled with my looks. People would always say to me: “You look so much friendlier in person than you do on TV.” I would love to look good on television, too! Liz Taylor gave me a piece of advice: “You have to walk up to the camera and give it a kiss while wearing lipstick; that will give you a very pretty soft focus”.

Of course there were independent women working in theatre and film, but wasn’t it more difficult to retain that independence in relationships with men?

Dagmar Koller: Thankfully I grew up with a brother. He was like a father to me: Our father hadn’t returned home from the war. My brother taught me to be very careful in my dealings with men. That’s why it would scare me when men were friendly and kind to me – I was very suspicious of them. But I did love to flirt. Because I love these entities called “men”! In fact, I’m almost a man myself, because I’m so independent.

You only married Helmut Zilk after you turned 40 – what changed?

Dagmar Koller: People often say that the serious side of life starts at 40, and that you should have a family by that age. This wasn’t the case for me – so I married, for fear of being left on the shelf. I loved my job so much that I never even had a child. It did make me think: “I’m 40 now and still unmarried”. I was always in stable relationships, but had never thought of tying the knot.

So the step to becoming a wife was a big one.

Dagmar Koller: Yes, and especially because I got married to someone who was not a regular guy, but a person who led an even more public life than I did. Helmut Zilk was a very successful man. His work was very highly regarded, but he still had a hard time.

Did you ever enter into competition with each other? Was there jealousy? 

Dagmar Koller: I do believe we competed with each other, but that was likewise part of the appeal. He wanted to be better than me and I wanted to be even better than him. Our marriage was never boring. We both loved being in the public eye. It really was rather special. I do believe that my life with Helmut opened up an entirely new world for me. His life was a political one, and I was a witness to it.

Private archive Dagmar Koller

Private archive Dagmar Koller

Michael Balgavy: What was meeting all of those influential politicians like for you? You met politicians across the world – in Japan, the US, Oman.

Dagmar Koller: I think it may have been more interesting for them to meet me – to have this mayor turn up with a wife who acted all confident and had had a successful career as an artist. Of course they all asked me “What was it like playing this or that role” and “You met Frank Sinatra – what was he like?”. And I would tell them. The entire conversation with these politicians would be focused on what I had to say. I was always good at talking. People say I jabber too much – but I like it. Of course there are also moments when I’m not funny at all, but incredibly sad. 

What was it like with Princess Diana and Prince Charles in Vienna?

Dagmar Koller: One of the most enchanting encounters of my life was with Princess Diana. She was in Vienna for the English fair, and I had been tasked with taking care of the ladies’ program. I will never forget the week I spent with her. But her life was very tough: You could tell that her marriage was on the rocks. And our security guys were very discreet, we were able to move about Vienna quite freely.

Dagmar Koller Goldene Zeiten Diana

Lady Di, Princess of Wales receives flowers. Vienna City and State Archives, FA3: 86140/I/0

Michael Balgavy: Because you just mentioned security: This didn’t work quite as well when it came to protecting you in your own living room. We are sitting right in front of the space where Helmut Zilk received a letter bomb. 

Dagmar Koller: Everything was covered in blood. Everything. And I still haven’t changed flats since, because I am very strong. I never saw a psychologist to overcome that trauma. I always thought I was strong enough to deal with it myself. And I did manage to, but I don’t sleep well and I’m scared a lot of the time.

The book also contains a beautiful love letter from Helmut Zilk. Did he only start writing these kinds of letters after the attack?

Dagmar Koller: My husband was an early riser and left notes in front of my bedroom door every day. I let Michael use two letters from this collection – but before making this decision, I spent a long time considering what I was allowed to make public. Yet I wanted people to see what a big heart this man had, and what sentimentality I discovered in him.

What were the most golden times of your life?

Dagmar Koller: In reality I have lived a great many different lives. Every part of my life was special. I was a little ballerina even as a child. And at the very start of my career I toured the US with the Johann Strauss Orchestra. Classical singing was a very different kind of art for me at the time. After all, musicals are an entirely different kettle of fish. Doing musicals, I was able to use all three of the artistic media I had taken up throughout my life. I toured the world as an actress with Hans-Jochen Kulenkampff for “The Play’s the Thing”. We even performed in Israel in 1967/1968. 

One chapter is titled “Inseparable”: the one about your mother. What was your relationship like?

Dagmar Koller: I had a very strong mother. She had a great deal of self-confidence, and she prepared me for life well. She was also very well-educated. However, I didn’t embrace education, I rejected it. She always wanted me to learn languages, but I was extremely stubborn. Life as an artist can be incredibly tough, it has constant up and downs. You have to pick yourself up time and again and struggle through. Nothing is ever smooth. Nevertheless, I owe everything I am now to her: She gave me the strength to persevere through anything. In the end I still ended up achieving everything I had dreamed of. I would encourage each and every girl to follow her dreams in her career – then they will come true.

Michael Balgavy: Was ballet synonymous with the great wide world for you?

Dagmar Koller: No, singing really was that. I knew I would be able to conquer the world with it and travel a lot. I was much too young when I took my first job, I was only 20 or 21 – but I needed to make money. So I accepted a part in an operetta. I also had my first terrible experience on stage in Dortmund singing for “The Flower of Hawaii”. At the dress rehearsal an artist director who was keen on me and very lewd shouted up from the auditorium in front of all of the colleagues: “Miss Koller, you will never have female charisma as long as you’re still a virgin!” I ran to the changing rooms and cried bitterly.

Did you make a lot of these kinds of experiences as a woman?

Dagmar Koller: Yes I did. But I could not defend myself. Now come the times, where I can finally let myself go. (smiles all over her face)

Many thanks for the interview!

Interview: Manuela Hötzl

Dagmar Koller Goldene Zeiten Y

Private archive Dagmar Koller