Watch Klaus Nomi Debut His New Wave Vaudeville Show: The Birth of the Opera-Singing Space Alien (1978)

Giv­en the his­to­ry of New York’s East Vil­lage as the first for­eign lan­guage neigh­bor­hood in the coun­try after waves of Euro­pean immi­gra­tion, per­haps it’s only nat­ur­al that Klaus Nomi, opera-singing Ger­man per­for­mance artist who made a name for him­self in the punk clubs of the late 70s, would find a home there.

By his time, the ten­e­ments had giv­en way to oth­er demo­graph­ic waves: includ­ing Beat­niks, writ­ers, actors, Warho­lian Fac­to­ry super­stars, and punk and New Wave scen­esters, whom Dan­ger­ous Mind’s Richard Met­zger calls a “sec­ond gen­er­a­tion” after Warhol, “drawn in by that Warhol myth but doing their own things.”

Even amidst the thriv­ing DIY exper­i­men­tal­ism of Post-Warho­lian art, fash­ion, and music, of a scene includ­ing Talk­ing Heads, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Kei­th Har­ing, Nomi stood out. It was the way he seemed to inhab­it two time peri­ods at once. He arrived both as a cabaret per­former from Weimar Germany—a trag­ic clown with the voice of an angel—and as a thor­ough­ly con­vinc­ing inter­galac­tic trav­el­er, tele­port­ing in briefly from the future.

No one was pre­pared for this when he made his New York debut at Irv­ing Plaza’s New Wave Vaude­ville show in 1978, evok­ing an even ear­li­er era by singing “Mon cœur s’ou­vre à ta voix,” from Camille Saint-Saëns’ 1877 opera Sam­son et Dalila. After his stun­ning per­for­mance, he would dis­ap­pear from the stage in a con­fu­sion of strobe lights and smoke. East Vil­lage artist Joey Arias remem­bers, “It was like he was from a dif­fer­ent plan­et and his par­ents were call­ing him home.”

Oth­er acts at New Wave Vaude­ville, a four-night East Vil­lage vari­ety show, were “doing a punk ver­sion of Mick­ey Rooney, ‘We’re going to do a goofy show,’” says Kris­t­ian Hoff­man, the musi­cian who became Nomi’s musi­cal direc­tor. In came Nomi with “a whole dif­fer­ent lev­el of accom­plish­ment.” MC David McDer­mott was oblig­ed to announce that he was not singing to a record­ing. You can see Nomi debut at New Wave Vaude­ville above, in a clip from the 2004 film The Nomi Song.

The sig­nif­i­cance of these ear­ly per­for­mances goes far beyond the imme­di­ate shock of their first audi­ences. At these shows, Nomi met Hoff­man, who would form his band and write the songs for which he became best known. Pro­duc­er and direc­tor of the New Wave Vaude­ville show Susan Han­naford and Ann Mag­nu­son were also the own­er and bar­tender at Club 57, where Nomi would help them orga­nize exhibits by artists like Ken­ny Scharf.

See­ing Nomi’s debut can still feel a bit like watch­ing a vis­i­tor arrive from both the past and the future at once. And it is lucky we have this ear­ly footage of an artist who would to on to per­form with David Bowie and become a gay icon and pio­neer of the­atri­cal New Wave. But we should also see his arrival on the scene as an essen­tial doc­u­ment of the his­to­ry of the East Vil­lage, and its trans­for­ma­tion into “a play­ground,” as Messy Nessy writes, “for artis­tic mis­an­thropes, anar­chists, exhi­bi­tion­ists, queers, poets, punks and every­thing in between,” includ­ing opera-singing aliens from West Berlin.

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Enchant­i­ng Opera Per­for­mances of Klaus Nomi

Klaus Nomi Per­forms with Kraftwerk on Ger­man Tele­vi­sion (1982)

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

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

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