Is Opera Part of Pop Culture? Pretty Much Pop #15 with Sean Spyres

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Opera used to be a cen­tral part of Euro­pean pop cul­ture, Pavarot­ti was as big a pop star as they come. But still, it’s now the quin­tes­sen­tial art-form of the wealthy and snob­bish. What gives?

Guest Sean Spyres from Spring­field Region­al Opera joins his sis­ter Eri­ca along with Mark and Bri­an to dis­cuss oper­a’s place in cul­ture (includ­ing its film appear­ances), how it’s dif­fer­ent from music the­ater, the chal­lenges it faces and how it might become more rel­e­vant.

Some arti­cles:

Watch the Shaw­shank Redemp­tion opera scene or per­haps the Pret­ty Woman scene. What Is pop opera? Here’s Ranker’s list of artists. Paul Potts sings that famous song on Britain’s Got Tal­ent. Plus, check out albums from broth­er Michael Spyres. Yes, you can hear an opera-singer sing “Take Me Out to the Ball­game,” but you prob­a­bly should­n’t.

This episode includes bonus dis­cus­sion that you can only hear by sup­port­ing the pod­cast at This pod­cast is part of the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life pod­cast net­work.

Pret­ty Much Pop is the first pod­cast curat­ed by Open Cul­ture. Browse all Pret­ty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

Klaus Nomi: Watch the Final, Brilliant Performance of a Dying Man

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.

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.