The multi-talented first tenor
One of the many remarkable aspects of Zeno Costes‘ story is that he was part of two of the best-known and most popular vocal groups of the 1930s (his engagement with the „Meistersextett“ was short, but he was nonetheless involved in the group’s most famous recording). His voice can be heard in one of the most famous Zarah Leander films, and with his first group, the „Parkers“ he sang the most popular hits of the time with all the leading orchestras of the early 30s. His story becomes even more astounding when we learn that he held an Athletics record for three years, came close to representing Romania at the 1928 Olympics, starred in the first Romanian talkie and studied engineering on the side! Inevitably, you ask yourself two questions: first, was there anything he couldn’t do, and second, why is his name not known either in Romania or in Germany?
Zeno Coste was born into a well-respected family on 30 May 1907 in the small village of Ciacova in Banat, which at that time belonged to Austria-Hungary. His father Iuliu Coste was a lawyer and local politician. He and his wife Zoe had three other children besides Zeno: Brutus, who was three years younger, and the two girls Zoe and Hortensia.
His daughter Ileana reports that his memories of his school days there were rather unpleasant (although he was a very good student), which is not surprising given the school’s pedagogical orientation, which remains quite strict even in 2021! In 1919 he returned home due to circumstances.
From 1917 to 1919, Zeno attended the Catholic University Grammar School in Budapest’s II District (now Budapesti Egyetemi Katolicus Gimnázium).
Consequently, the Costes were now citizens of the new „Greater Romania“. In 1921, the family moved to Temesvár (now Timișoara), where Iuliu Coste ran his law practice until 1947. In the 1920s he was prefect of the Timiș-Torontal district twice.
Some views of Timișoara from the early 20th century:
Zeno attended the Lyceum Constantin Diaconovici Loga in Timișoara – the first Romanian high school in Banat – and after graduation went to Berlin to study engineering at the Technical University in Charlottenburg. Both Coste sons were active as track and field athletes: Zeno in various throwing disciplines, but also in high jump, 110 m hurdles, and sprint! From 1927 to 1930 he held the Romanian record in „double-handed weight throwing.“ He also successfully participated in the university championships in Berlin: he won the championships in Shot Put three times in a row. In 1929, he participated with the Romanian team in the first, still unofficial Balkan Games in Athens.
In 1928, he was supposed to take part in the Olympic Games in Amsterdam. The city of Timișoara and Timiș County paid for his participation and that of one other athlete, but the Romanian federation sent other athletes instead. Zeno travelled to Amsterdam at his own expense, but he did not even get a ticket for the competitions, as his feisty brother Brutus criticised – among numerous other grievances against the Romanian delegation – in a fiery newspaper article. The following year, the track and field athletes from Timiș were not permitted to travel to the national championships for financial reasons, which again prompted Brutus Coste to hit the journalistic barricades on behalf of his big brother. Finally, Brutus was suspended by the sports federation for two months after further critical publications in connection with the Balkan Games in 1929 (the rebellious streak of the younger Coste brother showed early on).
Zeno, meanwhile, began to concentrate more on his artistic career. He played a singer in the first Romanian sound film „Ciuleandra“, and took singing lessons in Berlin and Milan.
More about „Ciuleandra“ in the filmography (in German).
Father Iuliu Coste, the former prefect, was just as unenthusiastic about his son’s singing and acting ambitions as Paul von Nyiri’s parents in Budapest, but since Zeno initially studied engineering, and only pursued singing and acting as a secondary occupation, he was spared cleaning railway stations, unlike Nyiri, who had been cut off financially by his strict father! In 1931, Zeno successfully completed his engineering degree in Berlin. Newspaper articles of the time – as son of the former prefect, his career was observed by newspapers in his hometown – paint the heart-warming picture of a hard-working young man, who works nights on his engineering studies, while spending his days in film and recording studios.
In mid-December 1930, Zeno recorded 14 songs in Romanian for the Columbia label in Berlin, including hits like „Liebling, mein Herz lässt dich grüßen“ and Paul Abraham’s „Good Night“ – to which his equally multitalented brother contributed the Romanian translation:
However, his name does not appear in the advertising for Zeno’s records, instead a certain „B. Călin“ is mentioned as the lyricist. Brutus already had ambitious and concrete political plans at that time and writing lyrics for pop songs was probably not an occupation he found adequate in view of his aspired political future. Zeno himself contributed the Romanian lyrics to „Frag nicht warum“ („Nu mă întreba“). It’s safe to assume that both brothers were trilingual: Romanian, Hungarian and German. In addition, Zeno also spoke Spanish, Italian and French.
More details about the Columbia records can be found in the discography.
Newspapers back home in Timișoara take a keen interest in his budding singing career – as son of the former prefect and a formerly successful athlete, he is naturally of great interest to the media, and there are reports at home in three languages about his gramophone recordings:
Obviously, Zeno had another artistic talent: Dr. Nicholas Dima, who later co-authored a book with Brutus, says: „As of Zeno, the only thing I remember is that Brutus once told us that his brother used to draw different sketches and one of them was of himself (Brutus) which was somehow funny and he kept it for a while. My own conclusion is that his brother Zeno was a little older than him and had early artistic inclinations.“
In 1931/32 Zeno Coste was a member of the singing group „Die Parker“, who were featured on a number of records as refrain singers with well-known orchestras, for example those of Bernhard Etté, George Nettelmann, Ilja Livschakoff or Billy Bartholomew. Their recording of the couplet „Morgen geht’s uns gut“ with the George Nettelmann orchestra and Kurt Mühlhardt as solo vocalist from the musical play of the same name is a must-hear title. Equally worth hearing is their „Sag mir mal Schnucki auf Spanisch“ with Lizzi Waldmüller, conducted by Jean Gilbert. The singing qualities of the members other than Zeno Coste are debatable – or maybe not! – but their recordings are fun and they were popular and often engaged as refrain singers in 1931/32. Unfortunately, nothing is known about the other members of the group.
Zeno worked with them on two films with big stars of the Weimar Republic: „Melodie der Liebe“ with Richard Tauber, and the already mentioned „Die spanische Fliege“ with Lizzi Waldmüller. The group’s appearance in „Melodie der Liebe“ is unfortunately lost – in the existing film fragment, a singing group appears, but they are the „Elitesänger vom Kottbusser Tor“. In „Die Spanische Fliege“, however, there is an appearance by the Parker with Lizzi Waldmüller that is worth seeing.
István Kardos recognised his talent in 1932 and took him on as first tenor in his newly founded vocal ensemble „the Kardosch Singers“:
The Kardosch Singers enjoyed great success until 1935: in a sense, they filled the gap left by the disappearance of the Comedian Harmonists from German concert halls and studios. They went on tour with Willy Reichert and his troupe of artists in 1934 and ’35, and this dedication from actress Tilly Kratz to Zeno Coste dates from that time:
These photos should illustrate why Tilly Kratz called Zeno a „big baby“!
A few days before the last recordings of the Kardosch Singers, on 11 November 1935, Zeno married Helene Anna Kryszewska in Berlin-Wilmersdorf. At that time he lived at Westfälische Straße 58 in Berlin-Halensee (on the second floor).
After the dissolution of the Kardosch Singers, he was engaged at the Theater des Volkes in 1935/36. From August to October 1936 he was under contract as an interim tenor with the Meistersextett and took part in the following recordings:
In Mexico / Ich wollt‘ ich wär‘ ein Huhn (28 August 1936).
Ja der Ozean ist groß / Schreit alle Hurra (21 September 1936)
The Piccolino / Hand in Hand (9 October 1936)
He was also involved in the audio recordings for the film „Und Du mein Schatz fährst mit“ (on 8 and 25 September 1936). He received a fee of RM 50 per recording.
In September, his brother Brutus, now working in Paris at the Romanian embassy, complains to his friend Anton Golopenția about a lack of communication with his brother: „But I don’t know what’s wrong with him because he hasn’t answered me in all my repeated letters.“
A few weeks later, Brutus reports on a planned visit to Paris by his brother, on which occasion Zeno was also to audition and sing at the Opéra Comique. (In passing, Brutus mentions his clandestine marriage, which he asks the recipient not to disclose at home). The planned visit actually took place at the end of November/beginning of December 1936, but unfortunately it did not lead to an engagement in Paris.
Instead, Zeno made two records in Berlin in early 1937 as a refrain singer with the Erhard Bauschke orchestra, and sang for the film La Habanera with Zarah Leander. He also still frequently appeared on the radio.
In 1937, the first child of the Coste couple was born in Berlin, a daughter named Alexandra. In 1938, the young family was registered at Lutherstraße 40, and Zeno’s profession was no longer given as „singer“ but now read: „Dipl. Ing“.
Unfortunately it was impossible for Zeno to stay in Berlin, because in 1938 he was called up for the Romanian military. He went back to Romania to sort out the situation there – he didn’t have to do military service after all – and found a job as an engineer in Bucharest. The outbreak of the second world war and external circumstances made the eagerly desired return to Berlin impossible.
In April 1938, Zeno performed at a concert of the Timisoara Red Cross with the well-known Banatian artists Gabriele Dobrozemsky and Leo Freund. The Banater Deutsche Zeitung writes:
„A vocally delightful performance was given by Zeno Coste, whose lyrical tenor in the arias from Boheme, Rigoletto, Carmen, but especially in the Sole mio, showed tenderness and warmth and great security in the higher registers. The applause he reaped and the unmediated atmosphere his singing created were unmistakable signs of his success.“
Deli Hírlap also reports quite pleased about the „debut“ of the „young engineer Zeno Coste“: „He sang the arias of Puccini and Verdi in perfect splendour“, „he sang with Italian charm and ease“, „the audience celebrated the highly motivated young tenor with applause“.
In 1938, the couples‘ second child, Mihai, was born in Bucharest. His date of birth is stated on all records – he later became a Romanian national volleyball player – as 9 December, but in reality he was born on 8 November. His father („because he was such a bohemian!“ – to quote Mihai Coste) simply forgot to register his birth and did not do so until December!
During the war, the two brothers went their separate ways. Zeno now managed a road construction company and moved with his wife and children to Iași in Moldavia. In the winter of 1941/42, an attempt was made to establish the Romanian National Opera of Moldova in the opera house there. Well-known conductor Antonin Ciolan directed several performances, including Puccini’s „La Bohème“ in which Zeno Coste took on the role of Rodolfo.
Zeno Coste was featured on Radio Moldova several times in the early 1940s, mostly with Lieder or Italian arias.
In 1943, daughter Ileana was born.
In March 1944 he sang the role of Alfred Germont in „La Traviata“, also in Iași. Shortly afterwards, fierce fighting began around the city, and when the Russian army occupied Moldavia in 1944, the Coste family hastily returned to Timișoara.
In Timișoara, Zeno worked as an engineer, but was also engaged as a solo singer in the Philharmonic Choir and the Cathedral Choir after the war, and gave singing lessons. The family still lived in the house in Gheorghe Doja Street that the Costes had moved into in the 1920s, but at times had to share it with numerous other residents.
Tragically, the Coste family suffered a heavy blow in 1948: their first-born daughter Alexandra died at the age of 11.
In 1955 and 1956, Zeno Coste took part as a soloist in major church concerts in his hometown of Ciacova, together with the well-known Timisoara musicians Josef Brandeisz and Josef Gerstenengst, as the Banatian musicologist Franz Metz reports in his book „Josef Brandeisz und das Temeswarer Musikleben“.
In 1969, Zeno tried to find out through Willy Reichert (with whom the Kardosch Singers had toured several times) what had become of the remaining Kardosch Singers and other people he had met in the course of those tours, and received this card from Reichert in return:
„My dear Coste! I was very pleased to receive your kind greetings and return them most cordially. As you can see, I have grown older, but thank God I am doing well, as are my wife and my two children, who are now grown up. Angerer and Hofmeister are dead, you still hear from Schuricke from time to time, he has a hotel.
All good wishes, your old Willy Reichert“
(„Angerer“ is Oscar Angerer, the concert promoter with whom Reichert and the Kardosch Singers were under contract.)
Zeno’s father Iuliu Coste was temporarily detained in the early 1950s because of his political activities in the pre-war years, while Brutus Coste had emigrated to the United States after 1947 from his last diplomatic post in Portugal, and from there fought against the communist regime in Romania for decades. Among other things, he was Director of the International League for the Rights of Man and Secretary General of the Assembly of Captive European Nations (ACEN) and, since its foundation in 1973, Chairman of the Truth about Romania Committee. He was unable to see his family in Romania again before his death in 1984, and contact by letter with his brother, parents and godchild Mihai was impossible. There was only a brief exchange of letters between Brutus and Mihai while Mihai was participating in the Olympic Games in Tokyo with the Romanian volleyball team. Here is the obituary from the New York Times, with the reference to his surviving brother in Romania: along with the small undated note in the Brutus Coste correspondence, the starting point for my search for Zeno Coste in post-war Romania!
In 1979, Zeno’s wife Elena died. A year later Zeno travelled to the Federal Republic of Germany to undergo a hip operation. In 1985, he died of kidney failure at the age of 78.
He is buried in the family tomb at Cimitirul Cosminului in Timișosara.
Zeno’s son Mihai Coste continued the family’s sports tradition and won the 1963 European Championship with the Romanian volleyball team. A year later, he was able to participate in the Tokyo Olympics with the team, finishing 4th.
On druckeria.ro there is this photo of Mihai Coste with the Romanian volleyball team from 1965. You can see Mihai standing as second from the right with the number 12. Zeno Coste’s children still live in the family home in Timișoara. According to Mihai, he only inherited the sporting talent from his father, but not the musical one!
Special thanks to Mihai Coste and his wife Adriana and his sister Ileana Maries for photos, information, memories and their wonderful hospitality!
Also thanks to Theo Niemeyer (for notes on Zeno’s recordings with the Meistersextett), Jan Grübler (for information on biography and discography), Jens-Uwe Völmecke (for discographical notes on the Columbia records) and Dr Nicholas Dima for his memories of Brutus Coste.
- Photos by the Coste family and Martina Wunsch, newspaper clippings courtesy of the Coste family.
- Instituția Prefectului Judetul Timiș: Prefecții de-a lungul timpului.
- Digital library of the „Lucian Blaga“ University of Cluj-Napoca: Biography of Iuliu Coste.
- The Brutus Coste correspondence in: Rapsodia epistolară. Scrisori primite şi transmise de Anton Golopenţia (1923-1950) Vol.1: (Ion Adameşteanu – Nina Crainic), Ed. Albatros, Bucuresti, 2004.
- Recording book Columbia International recordings 1930-1938. Lindström Recording books on CD-R, available though: Gesellschaft für Historische Tonträger und Sammlung Alfred Seiser, Rossauerlaende 23a/2, 1090 Vienna, Austria.
- Broody’s biography of Zeno Coste on: http://www.comedian-harmonists.net/.
- Josef Westner: VOKAL TOTAL bei der UFA. Filmauftritte deutscher Gesangsgruppen 1929 bis 1945, 2. Teil. Fox auf 78, Nr. 31.
- Peter Czada, Günter Große: Comedian Harmonists. Ein Vokalensemble erobert die Welt, Edition Hentrich 1993.
- Wolfgang Schneidereit: Discographie der Gesangsinterpreten der leichten Muse von 1925 bis 1945 im deutschsprachigen Raum: Eine Discographie mit biographischen Angaben in 3 Bänden. Band 1 und 2.
- Douglas E. Friedman: The Comedian Harmonists: The Last Great Jewish Performers in Nazi Germany, Booklocker.com, 2010.
- Illustrierter Filmkurier Nr. 336, 1766 und 1904.
- Franz Metz: Josef Brandeisz und das Temeswarer Musikleben. 2016, Edition Musik Südost.
- History of the National Opera in Iaşi.
- Online Archive of California: Biography of Brutus Coste.