A High, Teutonic Cry
However intimidating she seems onstage, Manuela Horn is out for laughs.
Hildegard van Schlag is as terrifying as she is sexy. At 6 feet, 10 inches (in heels), the crop-lashing, leather-wearing dominatrix towers over her subjects, but subdues their fears and spellbinds them by . . . yodeling.
Yet in news that will disappoint fetishists worldwide, “The Yodeling Dominatrix” is actually the stage creation of Manuela Horn, whose charming, eccentric comedy is frequently featured in Teatro ZinZanni productions here—including this spring’s Radio Free Starlight—and in San Francisco. (Some may also recall her from America’s Got Talent two years back.)
But Hildegard is nowhere to be found when Horn, accompanied by her Jack Russell terrier, Zorro, welcomes me into her Normandy Park home. Pleasant and pretty, the wife and mother of two children is as excited to show me the bathtub she recently bought on sale as she is the hundreds of stage costumes she’s accumulated over the years.
Born in Frankfurt, Horn explains that her parents are Austrians of humble roots. She recalls living for weeks off “baked potatoes, fried potatoes, mashed potatoes . . . we ate a lot of potatoes.” She spent time in both countries as a child, but her accent is Hochdeutsch—not peasant Austrian. “Otherwise, I would sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger!”
By her mid-teens, Horn had shot up to six feet, taller than either of her parents. “There must’ve been something in the milk I was drinking,” she jests. “Or maybe my mom will admit on her deathbed, ‘It was the postman!’ ” But on a more serious note, she remembers “I was a hunchback. My mom would dig her fist between my shoulder blades to make me stand up straight.” She hid her self-consciousness well and entertained her classmates by cracking jokes and yodeling, a skill learned from her father. A few years and two inches later, she enrolled in acting school and found work as a comic host for corporate events. “A 6-foot-2 woman in theater is never going to have a Romeo,” says Horn. “I always stick a head above everyone in the cast, and I always play funny and awkward characters.”
Rather than view such “Austrian Amazon” typecasting as an obstacle, she embraced it and developed a repertoire of silly and strangely sexy characters, including a naive Austrian schoolgirl, a life-sized Barbie, and the yodeling dominatrix. Achieving success in Europe, Horn was imported by TZZ for a 2002 production in Seattle. Horn’s act was such a hit with the audience that she became a permanent member of the company.
Horn recently starred in Bavaria on Acid at the Can-Can, a variety show in which she yodeled Top-40 hits and drinking songs, which she plans to pitch to casinos in Las Vegas. But at Artopia, her alter ego Hildegard will be making the rounds, giving—what else?—”yodeling spankings” throughout the event as she mixes with the crowd. Also look for two fellow TZZ artists, juggler Alex Zerbe and aerialist Marina Luna, who’ll perform onstage between music sets.
But from any elevation, and in whatever character she’s playing, Horn’s goal is the same. “When you do it right, you get a smile,” she explains. “You want to get a giggle or a laugh out of everyone. That’s what inspires you to give it your all.”