Klaus Zehelein’s first engagement as dramaturge was at the stages of the Bühnen der Landeshauptstadt Kiel in 1967. In 1970 he moved from there to become head dramaturge at the Staatstheater Oldenburg (until 1977) and also took over as lecturer for the sociology of music at the Universität Oldenburg. In 1977 Klaus Zehelein went to the Städtische Bühnen Frankfurt am Main as head dramaturge, where he was later promoted to coordinated opera director. Meanwhile, Klaus Zehelein continued his teaching activity as lecturer at the State University of Minnesota and at the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris. Guest professorships took him to the Universität Gießen (Institut für angewandte Theaterwissenschaft) and from 1986 to 1992 at the Hochschule für angewandte Kunst in Vienna. After two years of freelance activity as dramaturge for theater and opera in Berlin, Frankfurt, Brussels, and Vienna, Klaus Zehelein became the artistic director of the Thalia Theater in Hamburg in 1989. From 1991 to 2006 he was the artistic director of the Staatsoper Stuttgart, and since May 2003 the president of the Deutscher Bühnenverein as well. Since autumn 2006 he is president of the Bayerische Theaterakademie in Munich.
For his work as dramaturge at the Oper Frankfurt, Klaus Zehelein received the Deutscher Kritikerpreis in 1983. Under his leadership the Staatsoper Stuttgart was chosen opera house of the year in the critics’ poll in the journal Opernwelt in 1994, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2006. For outstanding service to the State of Baden-Württemberg, Governor Erwin Teufel awarded him the Verdienstmedaille des Landes in 2001 and the title of professor in September 2003.