Klaus Nomi: Watch the Final, Brilliant Performance of a Dying Man

Klaus Sper­ber was born in Immen­stadt, south­ern Ger­many, in 1944. As a teenag­er, he dis­cov­ered his love for opera and also pop music. In the ear­ly 1970s, he moved to New York and soon found many friends among the East Vil­lage artists there. Around this time, he start­ed using the pseu­do­nym Klaus Nomi, an allu­sion to the Amer­i­can Sci­Fi mag­a­zine Omni and an ana­gram of the Latin word omni(s) (all, every). David Bowie dis­cov­ered Nomi in 1978 and helped him sign with RCA records two years lat­er. But Nomi’s musi­cal career was cut short when he was diag­nosed with AIDS  — an ill­ness vir­tu­al­ly unheard of in those days. He died in New York on August 6th, 1983, at the age of 39 — two years before Rock Hud­son’s death raised pub­lic aware­ness of this new ill­ness. His ash­es were scat­tered over New York City.

Klaus Nomi’s musi­cal style was undoubt­ed­ly unique: he com­bined opera and New Wave pop music and per­formed his music in elab­o­rate stage shows rem­i­nis­cent of retro-futur­is­tic Sci­ence Fic­tion visions of the 1920s: face paint­ed white in Kabu­ki style, black lips, extrav­a­gant clothes and hair­styles inspired by Cubism. One of his most famous live per­for­mances is Total Eclipse from the music film Urgh! A Music War (1981).

The video above shows Klaus Nomi’s last per­for­mance before his death. Towards the end of 1982, he returned to Europe for a small con­cert tour and also per­formed at Eber­hard Schoen­er’s Clas­sic Rock Night in Munich, close to the place where he was born. He chose the Aria of the “Cold Genius” from Hen­ry Pur­cel­l’s 1691 opera “King Arthur or, The British Wor­thy.” In the third scene of Act Three (The Frost Scene), the Cold Genius is awak­ened by Cupid and ordered to cov­er the land­scape with ice and frost. The answer of the Cold Genius is sung by Klaus:

What pow­er art thou, who from below / Hast made me rise unwill­ing­ly and slow / From beds of ever­last­ing snow? / See’est thou not how stiff and won­drous old, / Far unfit to bear the bit­ter cold, / I can scare­cly move or draw my breath? / Let me, let me freeze again to death.

This per­for­mance is cer­tain­ly one of the most mem­o­rable in oper­at­ic his­to­ry — Klaus Nomi con­veys the mes­sage of the text with every fiber of his body (note in par­tic­u­lar the move­ments of his hands and eyes). And as one YouTube com­menter put it, the fact that Klaus knew that “he was dying of AIDS when he gave this per­for­mance (…) gives an added albeit unwant­ed poignan­cy to his per­for­mance.”

There are two oth­er famous per­for­mances of The Cold Song: by Andreas Scholl and Sting. You can decide for your­self how they com­pare to Klaus Nomi’s inter­pre­ta­tion.

Bonus mate­r­i­al: In 2004, the doc­u­men­tary film The Nomi Song took a clos­er look at Klaus’s life and music (view the trail­er here). YouTube also has two inter­views with Klaus Nomi: Klaus Nomi on NYC 10 o’Clock News (c. 1981) and a 1982 inter­view from French TV.

By pro­fes­sion, Matthias Rasch­er teach­es Eng­lish and His­to­ry at a High School in north­ern Bavaria, Ger­many. In his free time he scours the web for good links and posts the best finds on Twit­ter.

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Comments (16)
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  • nurseaaron says:

    Amaz­ing. Anoth­er great dis­cov­ery for me facil­i­tat­ed by this won­der­ful web­site.

  • Miguel says:

    Impres­sive! Sub­lime! Thanks!

  • Scott says:

    The Nomi Song is avail­able through Net­flix. It is not, unfor­tu­nate­ly, on Instant Play but is well worth a watch!

  • Bernie says:

    Fas­ci­nat­ing. Looks like the The Nomi Song is avail­able in full length on Hulu. Look­ing for­ward to watch­ing it!

  • Richmonde says:

    That’s an amaz­ing per­for­mance. That aria is hard!

  • Hang says:

    Thanks so much for intro­duc­ing Nomi. His per­for­mance is so intense. Tru­ly touch­ing and astound­ing at the same time! I’m so hap­py now to know about him and enjoy his music.

  • Shadow says:

    The nomi song was a great movie
    klaus nomi was and still is the best opera artist ever, and his style was and still is real­ly special!!forever klaus nomi unfor­getable!!

  • Louise Holmes says:

    But I don’t real­ly under­stand the real mean­ing of those words.
    I mean , I under­stand what does that mean , but what’s the real mes­sage of Pur­cell ?
    I’d like to have a kind of analy­sis

  • paok says:

    bolch­es yarbo­c­los pa todos.

  • fkerm says:

    what is the source of this video? Is there a record­ing of the entire per­for­mance avail­able?

  • Alex says:

    Eber­hard Schoener’s Clas­sic Rock Night in Munich was aired on Ger­man TV. There were a lot of artists per­form­ing that night so I assume Klaus Nomi per­formed only one song. The above video would be his entire set.

    @Louise Holmes
    There is a “Cold Song Analy­sis” on http://klausnomicoldgenius.blogspot.de/2011/12/klaus-nomi-cold-genius-by-vanzell_03.html, it may help you.

    If any­one is inter­est­ed in more Infor­ma­tion about that par­tic­u­lar Nomi per­for­mance or some back­ground on the artist, just vis­it that site!

  • oley says:

    The oth­er song that Klaus Nomi per­formed that night was “After the fall”, also avail­able on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HOl_Drd42SQ

  • The raven whisperer says:

    Thank you for post­ing this and keep­ing it avail­able for view­ing all these years as I’ve nev­er seen it. I knew Klaus. He worked a day job as a pas­try chef—not only one of the most phe­nom­e­nal per­form­ers (his voice still brings me to tears, always has), but deli­cious pas­tries if you were lucky enough to grab one before they were all devoured! Miss him and so many oth­ers dear­ly😢. Thank you again, a bit­ter­sweet find. 💔 Raven

  • Frederic Harris says:

    After his return from Europe, Klaus did one more show at the Mudd Club in 1983. I should know, I was his key­board play­er.

  • Anon Amos says:

    Is there video from that show?

  • Anon Amos says:

    That was won­der­ful❤

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