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.