The Enchanting Opera Performances of Klaus Nomi

After mak­ing one of the grand­est entrances in music his­to­ry on the stages of East Vil­lage clubs, the BBC’s The Old Grey Whis­tle Test, and Sat­ur­day Night Live, the­atri­cal Ger­man new wave space alien Klaus Nomi died alone in 1983, a vic­tim of the “first beach­head of the AIDS epi­dem­ic.” The dis­ease fright­ened Nomi’s friends away—no one knew any­thing about what was then called “gay can­cer” but that it was dead­ly. Soon after­ward, the immense­ly tal­ent­ed singer’s rep­u­ta­tion declined. Writer Rupert Smith pro­nounced Nomi “large­ly for­got­ten” in a 1994 issue of Atti­tude mag­a­zine, and made a case for renewed atten­tion. “Nomi,” wrote Smith, “remains rock music’s queer­est expo­nent, who out­shone the many acts fol­low­ing in his wake.”

But Nomi has since received his due, in a moment of revival that has extend­ed over sev­er­al years, thanks in part to many of those lat­er acts. In his own day, writes LD Beghtol at The Vil­lage Voice, “the under­ground punk-opera singer was most­ly unknown beyond his small cir­cle of friends and fans.” Nomi was “queer in mul­ti­ple sens­es of the word and stood well apart from his fel­low East Vil­lage bohos.

And he pos­sessed an unde­ni­able gift, a voice that surged up from a husky Weimar croon into the falset­to stratos­phere. Oper­at­ic coun­tertenors, though, were hope­less­ly déclassé. His pro­fes­sion­al options were few.” It’s also the case that Nomi’s opera expe­ri­ence wouldn’t have tak­en him very far. “As young Klaus Sper­ber,” writes Smith, “he had worked front-of-house at the Berlin Opera in the late Six­ties, and would enter­tain col­leagues with his ren­di­tions of the great arias as they swept up after per­for­mances.”

But with or with­out the résumé, Nomi had the voice—one audi­ences could hard­ly believe came from the strange, diminu­tive cabaret char­ac­ter with heavy make­up and tri-cor­nered reced­ing hair­line. At the top of the post, see Nomi’s 1978 debut at New Wave Vaude­ville, a four-night revue at Irv­ing Plaza. “Nomi,” Smith tells us, “was a smash.” Skip ahead to 2:14 to see Nomi’s musi­cal direc­tor Kris­t­ian Hoff­man intro­duce his per­for­mance of “Mon cœur s’ou­vre à ta voix” (“My heart opens to your voice”) from Camille Saint-Saëns’ 1877 opera Sam­son et Dalila. (See a full per­for­mance of the aria, in murky col­or, in the video fur­ther down.) After every sub­se­quent per­for­mance, Hoff­man says, the cabaret’s MC had to assure audi­ences that Nomi’s voice was “not an elec­tri­cal record­ing.”

Nomi’s voice and pres­ence attract­ed the atten­tion of stars like David Bowie, who hired him as a back­up singer for that SNL appear­ance in 1979 after he appeared on the cult New York pub­lic access show TV Par­ty. Glenn O’Brien’s intro­duc­tion of Nomi as “one of the finest pas­try chefs in New York,” above, is only part­ly tongue in cheek; that was indeed the singer’s day job. But in char­ac­ter, he wield­ed his oth­er­world­ly falset­to like a ray­gun. “Every song,” writes Pitch­fork in an appre­ci­a­tion, “includ­ed dra­mat­ic mul­ti­ple shifts in octave, where Klaus would rise to extreme highs and lows, han­dling both effort­less­ly. He would jerk his hands into karate chops with each chang­ing note, widen­ing his eyes every time he skirt­ed into high­er octaves.”

Nomi’s brand of opera-infused synth-pop and retro-futur­ist, shiny-suit­ed cabaret act—the “Klaus Nomi Show” as it was called—brought him noto­ri­ety in the New York art scene dur­ing his life­time, and has since made him a star, decades after his trag­ic death. As grat­i­fy­ing as that may be for long­time fans of Nomi’s work, we should also remem­ber that Nomi’s devo­tion to opera was no mere gim­mick, but a life­long pas­sion and unde­ni­able tal­ent. As we not­ed in an ear­li­er post, in Nomi’s last per­for­mance before his death—in a small 1982 Euro­pean tour—he sang the aria “Cold Genius” from Hen­ry Purcell’s 1691 opera King Arthur or, The British Wor­thy, a per­for­mance, wrote Matthias Rasch­er, “cer­tain­ly one of the most mem­o­rable in oper­at­ic his­to­ry.” Per­haps we might call it one of the most mem­o­rable moments in pop music his­to­ry as well.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

David Bowie and Klaus Nomi’s Hyp­not­ic Per­for­mance on SNL (1979)

Klaus Nomi’s Ad for Jäger­meis­ter (Cir­ca 1980)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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