A Blossoming Talent
In spite of the harsh realities of growing up in post-World War II-era Austria, Mariella Koller enrolled her six-year-old daughter in ballet classes under the advice of a local doctor to help Dagmar overcome a slight birth defect in her legs. When not in classes at school or ballet, Dagmar escaped to the cinema of 1950s Hollywood musicals, quickly becoming enthralled with the dancing talents of MGM star Cyd Charisse. Moving to Vienna to follow her own dreams of being a dancer, Dagmar enrolled at the Academy of Performing Arts, where she ultimately won the Austrian State prize in dance. Dagmar’s first paid performance as a dancer was in the chorus of the Vienna Volksoper. Continuing to study with some of the greatest dance instructors in the world, Dagmar traveled from Vienna to Paris where she befriended and studied movement with the legendary Marcel Marceau. Later she moved to London, where she enrolled in Sadler Wells Ballet Theatre.
Feeling she doesn’t possess the right physicality to become a prima ballerina, Dagmar enrolled in voice lessons with some of the best teachers in Vienna. After exploring her wonderful soprano voice, Dagmar began training in the world of operetta. Her years of hard work soon paid off with her breakout role of Princess Mi in Franz Lehar’s The Land of Smiles. Paired with famed Italian tenor Giuseppe di Stefano, they embarked on a tour of the show throughout Europe and North America. Later in New York, Dagmar made her Broadway debut in the revival of Wiener Blut at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. During the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of 1966, Dagmar achieved a personal best when performing as the female soloist with the Johann Strauss Orchestra at the famed Carnegie Hall.
At this time in New York, Broadway experienced a renaissance with hit shows like Hello, Dolly!, Funny Girl, Sweet Charity, and Man of La Mancha. Dagmar soon returned to Europe armed with a wealth of experience and knowledge in the art of musical theater.
Musical Star #1
After returning to Vienna, Dagmar made a triumphant appearance during the premiere run of the German language production of Man of La Mancha with Josef Meinrad. She then lead the production in Hamburg and recorded the musical album for the show while in Germany. In Wiesbaden she quickly danced and sang her way into the hearts of the press and public alike, receiving top billing in Sweet Charity. Dagmar then recorded the show’s album, which allowed her to showcase her unmistakable style on the international hit song, “Big Spender”. Following her success in Wiesbaden, the production moved to Berlin and played at the renowned Theater des Westens. At that time, Bunte magazine placed Dagmar on its cover, declaring her Musical Star #1.
For the next 20 years, Dagmar starred in German-language productions of Carousel, Irma LaDouce, Annie Get Your Gun, Kiss Me, Kate and Hello, Dolly! For My Fair Lady, she starred in the role of Eliza Doolittle in thousands of performances in Austria, Germany and Switzerland — learning different dialects for each production. It’s no wonder that Marcel Prawy, the highly regarded Viennese dramaturg and opera critic, called Dagmar “the one and only Austrian musical star.”
First Lady of Vienna
Dagmar Koller married the beloved Austrian educator and journalist, Dr. Helmut Zilk, on July 21, 1978. Dr. Zilk served his country as Minister of Culture and Education and, much to his delight, became, arguably, the City of Vienna’s most celebrated mayor and governor from 1984-1994. During these years, as First Lady of Vienna, Dagmar served her city proudly while hosting some of the greatest personalities in the world: The Prince and Princess of Wales; Czech playwright, dissident and president, Vaclav Havel; U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz; Teddy Kollek, Mayor of Jerusalem; Queen Noor of Jordan; First Lady of the United States, Nancy Reagan; Frank Sinatra; Liza Minnelli; and Placido Domingo, to name only a few.
The darkest days of their very public lives came in December 1993, when an assassin sent a letter bomb to their private residence in Vienna. The ensuing explosion nearly cost Dr. Zilk his life. The quick actions of his wife saved him and kept the physical damage isolated to his left hand. After several emergency operations and months of rehabilitation, Dr. Zilk finished out his final term of office in 1994. He continued to serve his country and his beloved Vienna until his death in 2008, receiving a televised state funeral usually reserved for Austrian presidents.