Gisela May is a German national treasure, a singing actress (or "diseuse") in the tradition established by Lotte Lenya and Marlene Dietrich and later continued by Ute Lemper. Born to artistic parents, May's career got off to a slow start, working obscure parts in East German films and taking acting lessons in Leipzig. Her singing talents were discovered by composer Hanns Eisler, and in 1962 she joined the Berliner Ensemble, the theatrical group founded by Bertolt Brecht. May remained a member of the Ensemble for three decades. She is strongly identified with the roles of Mother Courage, which she took over from Brecht's wife Helene Weigel after the latter died in 1971, and of Mrs. Kopecka in Schweyk and the Second World War. In 1992, May decided to leave the Berliner Ensemble and enjoyed a second career starring in German productions of the shows Cabaret and Hello, Dolly! Although the better part of her career was based in Soviet-bloc East Germany, May was able to pursue it on an international basis, touring to Australia and even the United States.
May is considered an expert interpreter of the work of Brecht, Kurt Weill, Eisler, Kurt Tucholsky, and Jacques Brel. She has recorded extensively and has won numerous prizes and awards, including election to the East German Academy of the Arts. May's memoir, Es wechseln die Zeiten Erinnerungen (The Times Memories Change Around), was a best seller in Germany when it was published in 2002. She also held master classes and workshops in German on Brechtian theater and cabaret performance.