If you’re a reader of this site, it’s likely you known the name Klaus Nomi, the diminutive German singer who stunned New Wave audiences in New York with his angelic soprano voice and opera covers. If you know of Nomi, you likely know of Nina Hagen, who started releasing records in her native East Germany in the late 70s, mixing opera with punk, funk, and reggae and covering classics from Tina Turner to The Tubes “White Punks on Dope.” She became a major star, but her name does not come up often these days. She is long overdue for a revival.
Like Nomi, Hagen was a master of fright make-up and exaggerated, Expressionist faces. She did not, however, have an alien alter-ego or collection of spacesuits. What she had was a wholly original style all her own, full of eccentric vocalizations critic Robert Christgau compared to The Exorcist’s Linda Blair.
Her stage shows were what Hagen herself described as “indescribable.” She applied her “umpteen-octave range,” as Christgau wrote, without restraint to every imaginable kind of material, from cabaret to Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.”
Impossible to classify, Hagen was beloved by the likes of the Sex Pistols and the Slits. Less than a decade after her 1978 debut with the Nina Hagen Band, she appeared in Tokyo with the Japanese Philharmonic Orchestra in a concert broadcast to 15 countries, performing the songs of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. (See her that same year, 1985, sing from Carmen in Copenhagen, Denmark, just above.) She converted to Christianity later in life, frequently sings gospel tunes, and released an album called Personal Jesus in 2010 featuring a cover of the iconic Depeche Mode song.
Hagen emerged in 1978 alongside a number of theatrical female singers with preternaturally unsettling voices, debuting at the same time as Siouxsie Sioux, Kate Bush, and Diamanda Galas (who has received her own comparisons to Linda Blair). But her own journey was particularly unusual. “Listening to Hagen chat matter-of-factly about her life,” wrote The Irish Times in a review, “Madonna seems like Doris Day in comparison, while your pretender Lady Gaga is, in Hagen’s own words, ‘a pop prostitute who has more to do with bikini advertising.’”
Put more in more positive terms, the singer honed her theatrical “quick-change” persona through a “barrage of influences,” the New York Times noted. Critics were divided over her eclecticism. Rolling Stone called her 1982 solo, English-language debut the “most unlistenable” album ever made, an unfairly harsh assessment that didn’t stop her from experimenting with even more dissonant, disorienting sounds.
As Hagen herself tells her story:
I grew up in East Berlin, in a family of artists. I heard opera all day long. From the time I was 9 years old I was imitating the singers; later I studied opera. But we also got Western television and radio, from the Americans in West Berlin. When I was 11 years old, I turned into a hippie and gave flowers to policemen. And when I was 21 and left Berlin for London, I became a punk.
She became a punk diva, that is. Hagen’s vocal range—which you can hear demonstrated in the thorough video analysis above—over her band’s prog-like jams (as in “Naturträne), conjured up both angels and demons. She evokes dread with guttural growls and wide-eyed stares, she can look “childlike, sweet or terrifying,” or all three at once, and she never lacks the essential quality an opera singer needs to make it in rock and roll: a sense of humor.
Klaus Nomi Performs with Kraftwerk on German Television (1982)
Watch Klaus Nomi Debut His New Wave Vaudeville Show: The Birth of the Opera-Singing Space Alien (1978)
33 Songs That Document the History of Feminist Punk (1975-2015): A Playlist Curated by Pitchfork
How to Listen to Music: A Free Course from Yale University
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
Of course it was not 6 octaves, only a complete music ignorant could claim something so utterly absurd… That would mean her range should go from the low notes of the double bass till the high notes of an oboe
It could also be the range from an alto till a boiling kettle. There’s some human freaks that do achieve insanely high whistle notes, but I agree it’s not her case.
Oh but my dear it was… I can assure you. And verified. Yes, she is a prodigy.
Actually it includes squeaks and low gutturales, but it has been measured and verified. I remember as a child hearing about this incredible voice which defied natural law…. but she does hit them and it was measured by experts. This was a fantastic article. Thank you to the authors.
She’s a natural talent. A one of a kind artist. Every album she made is a unique experience and her voice is absolutely amazing.
And …she’s the only one who told the truth about Lady Gags
Listen to Naturetrane to hear her in all her glory.
Comme disait notre cher Coluche, “Quand on ne sait pas, on ferme sa g….” Nina chrétienne ?! Elle a même fait un album de chants védantiques ! Que sont les Védas ? Je vous propose de vous cultiver par vous même. Et elle n’a pas appellé sa fille Marie ! Il existe encore des livres papiers, des biographies que je saches. Il n’y a pas qu’Internet dans la vie. Il faut vérifier ses informations avant de rédiger un article et de le transmettre aux public. C’est tout de même la base ! Réveillez-vous !
Well the record lies with tim storms if i remember correctly. He is an insane bass with 10 octaves from G -5 to G 5 (0.79 Hz to 807 Hz). That being said 6 octaves do not sound that impossible especially as she can probably squeal/ whistle far higher then he would be able to.