Klaus Sperber was born in Immenstadt, southern Germany, in 1944. As a teenager, he discovered his love for opera and also pop music. In the early 1970s, he moved to New York and soon found many friends among the East Village artists there. Around this time, he started using the pseudonym Klaus Nomi, an allusion to the American SciFi magazine Omni and an anagram of the Latin word omni(s) (all, every). David Bowie discovered Nomi in 1978 and helped him sign with RCA records two years later. But Nomi’s musical career was cut short when he was diagnosed with AIDS — an illness virtually unheard of in those days. He died in New York on August 6th, 1983, at the age of 39 — two years before Rock Hudson’s death raised public awareness of this new illness. His ashes were scattered over New York City.
Klaus Nomi’s musical style was undoubtedly unique: he combined opera and New Wave pop music and performed his music in elaborate stage shows reminiscent of retro-futuristic Science Fiction visions of the 1920s: face painted white in Kabuki style, black lips, extravagant clothes and hairstyles inspired by Cubism. One of his most famous live performances is Total Eclipse from the music film Urgh! A Music War (1981).
The video above shows Klaus Nomi’s last performance before his death. Towards the end of 1982, he returned to Europe for a small concert tour and also performed at Eberhard Schoener’s Classic Rock Night in Munich, close to the place where he was born. He chose the Aria of the “Cold Genius” from Henry Purcell’s 1691 opera “King Arthur or, The British Worthy.” In the third scene of Act Three (The Frost Scene), the Cold Genius is awakened by Cupid and ordered to cover the landscape with ice and frost. The answer of the Cold Genius is sung by Klaus:
What power art thou, who from below / Hast made me rise unwillingly and slow / From beds of everlasting snow? / See’est thou not how stiff and wondrous old, / Far unfit to bear the bitter cold, / I can scarecly move or draw my breath? / Let me, let me freeze again to death.
This performance is certainly one of the most memorable in operatic history — Klaus Nomi conveys the message of the text with every fiber of his body (note in particular the movements of his hands and eyes). And as one YouTube commenter put it, the fact that Klaus knew that “he was dying of AIDS when he gave this performance (…) gives an added albeit unwanted poignancy to his performance.”
There are two other famous performances of The Cold Song: by Andreas Scholl and Sting. You can decide for yourself how they compare to Klaus Nomi’s interpretation.
Bonus material: In 2004, the documentary film The Nomi Song took a closer look at Klaus’s life and music (view the trailer here). YouTube also has two interviews with Klaus Nomi: Klaus Nomi on NYC 10 o’Clock News (c. 1981) and a 1982 interview from French TV.
By profession, Matthias Rascher teaches English and History at a High School in northern Bavaria, Germany. In his free time he scours the web for good links and posts the best finds on Twitter.