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Q&A: Jeremy Goldstein Interviews High Voltage Performer Sven Ratzke

Sven Ratzke is a superstar singer and performer in Europe, New York and Australia. Like Meow Meow, he is literally the international supernova of cabaret, and next week his transgressive showmanship takes over Underbelly with his latest show ‘Starman’‘Starman’ is a bold homage to David Bowie combining many of his most famous songs with classic album tracks. The show was created in 2015 with Bowie’s personal blessing so it's much more than a mere tribute. I saw it in Edinburgh last year and was very moved by it. I especially love the way it fuses Bowie’s music with Warhol fantasies, anecdotes and New York stories. Sven has worked with Nina Hagen and The Tiger Lilies and is also the European star of ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’.  John Cameron Mitchell described Sven as the best ‘Hedwig’ he’s ever seen. When you see him perform, it’s easy to see why.

Jeremy Goldstein: How would you describe yourself and what can London expect from you?

Sven Ratzke: I’m a high voltage cabaret/theatre entertainer and singer. I put in a lot of my own personality and perform in the moment so that every night is a totally new and unique experience. This is a risk of course but the rewards are much greater than playing it safe. This is why the world of musical theatre is not so much my own as it’s often way too scripted. I like to get close to the audience, and I tell lots of stories as part of my improvisation in a theatrical and cabaret like environment. Together with my band, we create and perform new music as well as unique interpretations of classic songs. On any given night we might perform tracks by Brecht/Weill, 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch', my own music or David Bowie as we do in ’Starman’, but it’s always a Ratzke trip.

Jeremy: Why Starman? Why now?

Sven: I started preparing ‘Starman' in 2013 and premiered it in 2015. After I was ‘Hedwig’ I knew I needed to do something with the universe of David Bowie and specifically around his work in the 70’s when he was all these different characters. To me these characters were more mythical than human and full of mystery.  His music changed as often as he did physically and it felt like an opera. His work was full of courage and influence which is almost impossible to find these days so I felt the time was ripe to explore it. Since then, the show has become a world-wide hit. We have performed it over 100 times in cities all over the world but as we end the tour this year, I can’t tell you how special it feels to finally bring it to Bowie’s London birthplace.

Jeremy: With so many Bowie songs to choose from, how did you go about making your choices?

Sven: I went with my instincts and chose the songs that meant the most to me.  But it was also important I was able to make the songs my own. It seems ridiculous but since 2015, the set list has never changed so my choices were right from the start. As a performer you have to trust your instincts. ‘Heroes’ has always been the last song in our set. It means so much in the world right now to stand out and speak up in this crazy time with all these idiots in power so it was always going to be a big part of the show. There are some Bowie songs which are very personal which could be pages from his diary.  It’s also interesting how people form their own relationships with his songs.  I also wanted to pick songs that are not so well known like ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ and ‘Time’ as they are like little movie clips or miniature plays which are heavily related to the work of Brecht/Weill and Jacques Brel. And then of course we’ve added a couple of my own songs that I co-write with the amazing singer/songwriter Rachelle Garniez in New York.  These are the kind of songs which I couldn’t find in his repertoire. Our song ‘The Torch’ is about Bowie's failed relationship with my friend Romy Haag who is a trans woman in Berlin so all the material is related and I think that’s what makes the show feel so personal and intimate.  

Jeremy: Did you ever meet Bowie and/or see him live? What are your memories from this?  What impact did he have on your career?

Sven: I never met Bowie but I did have to ask his permission to do the show and his management told me he gave it his personal approval which was the biggest blessing I could find. He’s had so much influence on popular culture and the impact he had on my own career has been enormous. For example, the way he worked, the way he handled things, the way he took risks, his courage and his balance between theatre and music. All of these things are very inspiring. My new show will be a lot more personal featuring songs I’ve written myself and by other great songwriters including Lisa Hannigan, Rufus Wainwright and Rachelle. Bowie has given me the courage to be myself, and within that I found from doing this show, we have many things in common.  

Jeremy: Some people may know you as the international ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ star and the show’s creator John Cameron Mitchell described you as ‘the best Hedwig I’ve ever seen’.  Are there other characters in the musical repertoire you’d like to play and why?

Sven: I had so much fun on ‘Hedwig’ but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. You have to give it all you have and there is no time to breathe.  You literally have to live the character. I was also very involved with recreating the whole show, adapting the script with the director and casting all the creatives.  I love doing that as it ends up feeling like your own baby so in future I will do it more often. I also once played the emcee in ‘Cabaret’ and although I never liked this musical at first, I changed my mind in the end.  Performers who work in musical theatre are amazing and about the hardest working people I have ever met. But I don’t like it when it becomes a factory or pure product. I have some ideas in musical theatre I want to produce and in 2018, I’m going to collaborate with some other producers on a new one woman show. The best showgirls are women after all.   

Jeremy: What’s your new show?

Sven: My new show is called ‘Homme Fatale’ and is about fatal men. Since the beginning of my career I’ve been called a homme fatale and I like this very much. I’m pansexual, vulnerable, and full of mystery and temptation with many female qualities and different sides.  This is what I sing about and this is what I take into my new show. This is my character. It will have original music plus songs by Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Jacques Brel in amazing new adaptations with wild storytelling and beautiful haute couture.  The show will premiere in October in Berlin and tour all over the world like ‘Starman’ visiting New York, Amsterdam, Vienna, and Australia. I hope to bring it to London too! 

Jeremy: What was your experience of working with Nina Hagen and The Tiger Lilies, and who is on your wish list of future collaborators and why?

Sven: I love people who are from another planet and Nina Hagen and The Tiger Lilies are legends who fit the bill and are both very sweet. I get along well with Nina now but she doesn’t trust a lot of people so first you have to gain her trust as otherwise it doesn’t work. We did a couple of shows at the Berliner Ensemble which is the former theatre of Brecht. It was amazing. I will never forget it. I’ve done many shows with The Tiger Lilies and we worked together in a Spiegeltent in Holland. At first they thought I was the owner and employed all these burlesque girls. They called me the ‘pimp’ which became my nick name. In the future, I’m going to do some work with Katharina Thalback who is a very famous German actress and director who was in ‘The Tin Drum’ and ‘Sophie’s Choice’. I know I’m going to learn so much from her so I can’t wait. I would also love to work with Roman Polanski. 

Jeremy: What do you and your colleagues in Europe think of Brexit?

Sven: What can I say - it sucks. It's going to be awful. 

Jeremy: My company is London Artists Projects with a mission to speak truth to power for audiences who hunger for live and authentic moments of joy, beauty, and meaning. What does speaking truth to power mean to you?

Sven: As an artist you have to speak the truth even if it means it makes you unpopular with certain groups including the media. I know I can be quite outspoken but these days it’s a process of seduction and I’ve learnt to do it with charm and humour, and from there I can tell the truth more than before.

Sven Ratzke’s ‘Starman’ is at Underbelly on 7, 8, 9 June.

Book now and quote BOWIE for 2-for-1 tickets, subject to availability.

London Artists Projects autumn/winter programme will be announced shortly.