The Incredible Six-Octave Vocal Range of Opera-Singing Punk Diva Nina Hagen

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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Comments (8)
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  • César Viana says:

    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

  • Paulo says:

    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.

  • Elea O says:

    Oh but my dear it was… I can assure you. And ver­i­fied. Yes, she is a prodi­gy.

  • Elea says:

    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.

  • Luca says:

    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

  • Zack says:

    Lis­ten to Nature­trane to hear her in all her glo­ry.

  • ROUGERON says:

    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 !

  • Jakob says:

    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.

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