Franz Wittenbrink’s Secretaries in Cottbus

Franz Wittenbrink’s Sekretärinnen (Secretaries) has had an enormous success in German-speaking theatres since it was first performed in 1995. Best described as a musical revue, it contains no spoken text but a series of songs about women, their desires and hates, some wistful, some defiant, but in all cases saying something about the predicaments of life. Wittenbrink’s brilliant idea was to distribute them among six secretaries working in an office along with one man playing alternatively their boss and a boy cleaner. The piece has no plot. Rather the characteristics of the six (one lovelorn and sentimental; another disenchanted and defeatist; the third adventurously promiscuous; the fourth a cynical lesbian; the fifth anxious-ridden and pregnant; and finally a wide-eyed innocent) are revealed and developed through the songs and the stage action which complement them. The songs are drawn from German classics by, for example, Friedrich Holländer and Hildegard Knef, some American and international standards, including Jules Styne’s “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friends”, Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” and “Never on Sunday” by Mikis Theodorakis, as well as some more recent hits.

The enjoyable performance at Cottbus was given mainly by singers from the local opera company. They impressed not only with their musical versatility and physical agility with dance and posture but also with their ability to so inhabit the roles assigned to them that, as the evening progressed, one became increasingly involved with the characters and their emotions.  The production by Thomas Weber-Schallauer was convincing in its detail of type-portrayal, ingenious in its use of props, and, as regards choreographed movement, aesthetically pleasing. Perhaps there was a little too much comic business at the expense of reflective introspection but it was amusing and entertaining. Frank Bernard at the piano was responsible for the musical direction.