In 1982, Klaus Nomi, emaciated and fragile, walked slowly up a flight of stairs and took center stage in front of thousands at Eberhard Schoener’s Classic Rock Night in Munich, Germany, where he gave his last, and arguably most brilliant, performance. To Nomi’s left, a large orchestra played swift staccato notes as he sung the aria of the “Cold Genius” from Henry Purcell’s 1691 opera, “King Arthur”. The audience sat in stunned silence as Nomi, clad in full Baroque attire, performed an entirely new interpretation of Purcell’s classic aria. After he finished, the audience erupted in applause (Klaus Nomi: “The Cold Song Live.” Youtube.com). On August 6, 1983, less than a year after returning from his European tour, he died at the age of thirty-nine from complications of AIDS.
Within the span of two years, Klaus Nomi influenced music, and had a significant impact on fashion and art. He also inspired me to explore various musical genres and to expand my understanding of music. I hope this paper on the life, music, and cultural impact of Klaus Nomi encourages others to listen to all types of music, and to do so without prejudice towards an artist’s approach to music.
Klaus Sperber, better known as Klaus Nomi, was born on January 24, 1944, in Immenstadt, Bavaria, Germany. As a child, Klaus listened to both Rock and Opera, and these two genres became inextricably linked in his mind. Later, this fusion would profoundly influence his singing career. Although Nomi received some formal opera training, he was mostly self-taught (Smith, Rupert. “Klaus Nomi.” Attitude. Volume 1. Number 3. July. 1994).
In the 1960’s, Nomi worked as an usher at the Deusche Oper, an Opera house in West Berlin. After the nightly performances, he entertained staff by singing arias on stage. In 1972, with dreams of becoming an opera star, Nomi moved to New York City. After finding an apartment in the East Village, Nomi began his involvement with the New Wave art scene and worked as a pastry chef to support himself (Smith).
In 1978, Nomi made his first public appearance during a four-night engagement at “Ann Magnuson’s New Wave Vaudeville Show” in New York City. He performed the aria, “Mon Coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” (My heart opens itself to your voice) from Camille Saint-Saëns’s opera Samson and Delilah. When the curtains opened, Nomi appeared under a spotlight sporting Kabuki-style make-up, jet-black hair styled in a unique inverted “W” shape, and a black skin-tight vinyl suit under a clear plastic cape. The performance finished with smoke bombs, rumbling sound effects and flashing lights mimicking an ascending spaceship as he backed away from the audience, disappearing into the smoke (Smith). Joey Arias, a friend of Nomi, recalled: “I still get goose pimples when I think about it... It was like he was from a different planet and his parents were calling him home. When the smoke cleared, he was gone.” Nomi was asked to perform again, and according to friend Kristian Hoffman in the documentary “The Nomi Song,” a disclaimer was given following every performance assuring the audience that Nomi was, in fact, singing and they were not listening to a recording. After his debut onto the New York music scene, Nomi and fellow performers formed a band and began performing in various nightclubs, traveling locally and throughout the Midwest (Author Hager, Steven. Art After Midnight: The East Village Scene. St. Martin’s Press, 1986).
Eventually, British pop star David Bowie caught wind of Nomi’s performances at “Ann Magnuson’s New Wave Vaudeville Show” and contacted Nomi’s managers. On December 15, 1979, Nomi appeared on Saturday Night Live as one of Bowie’s back-up singers. This was his first performance in front of a national audience (Smith, Rupert. “Klaus Nomi.” Attitude. Volume 1. Number 3. July. 1994)
This performance launched Nomi to a new level of notoriety and two years later, Nomi signed a recording contract with RCA records. Nomi’s original band split up and Nomi’s manager hired professional studio musicians to replace them (Smith).
In 1981, Nomi recorded his first, self-titled, album. The cover featured Nomi in his signature, triangular vinyl tuxedo with a large bow tie. Although his vocal coach, Ira Siff, had previously warned Nomi that he could not make a career out of being a countertenor, Nomi successfully blended pop and opera in ten tracks. One of these tracks was “Death”, an aria from Henry Purcell’s opera, “Dido and Aeneas”. Siff recalls, “… [H]e had a beautiful lyric tenor, but could also sing falsetto. At that time, there was no interest in men singing in high voices; the countertenor revival hadn't begun…So I advised him to concentrate on his tenor and forget the soprano, because no one would take him seriously. Fortunately, he didn't listen to my advice!” (Smith).
Nomi recorded his second album, “Simple Man”, while touring Europe to promote his first. He made several television appearances performing live for French and German audiences, and made several music videos for singles from the record. According to Tony Frere in the documentary “The Nomi Song,” during this time, Nomi began to experience a series of colds he could not get rid of. To alleviate the symptoms, he took large doses of antibiotics and received injections to “bring his voice back.” At the launch party for the “Simple Man” video, Frere recalled that the band had to play more quickly than usual, because Nomi was unable to hold his notes as long as he should have. At the end of the performance, while the audience was celebrating Nomi’s success, few realized that he nearly collapsed offstage.
Nomi’s handlers apparently knew he was sick, but ignored his health in an effort to keep him touring. Kristian Hoffman recalls Nomi stating, “I kept telling them I was sick, and they wouldn’t let me stop.” While it is uncertain whom Nomi was referring to, it is clear from this statement that someone from his management team was exerting tremendous pressure on Nomi to continue performing, even as his health declined (Gdula, Steven. Eclipsed: “The best of Klaus Nomi.” The Advocate. 14 Sept.1999).
Upon returning to the United States, Nomi’s condition worsened. He developed Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a form of cancer associated with the AIDS virus, which caused painful lesions all over his body. Shortly after this, Nomi entered the hospital. Because AIDS was a relatively new disease, doctors were helpless to treat Nomi’s condition, and he was released. Nearly all of Nomi’s friends abandoned him. Joey Arias recalled Nomi reminiscing as he watched videos and looked at photos of himself, saying, “Look at this, this is what I did–now it’s all gone”. Eventually, Nomi’s condition became so severe that he was rushed to the hospital again. This time, Arias was present with Nomi in the hospital as his health continued to decline. Arias noticed, “[Nomi’s] manager was making him sign all these papers, like we’ll give you $500 if you sign your life away one more time”. A few weeks later, on August 6, 1983, Nomi passed away in his sleep. He was one of the first prominent performers to die of AIDS (Smith, Rupert. “Klaus Nomi.” Attitude. Volume 1. Number 3. July. 1994).
Although Nomi’s career was relatively short, and ended without financial success, his persona and music have influenced filmmakers, artists, fashion designers, and musicians in the United States and abroad. French director Maurice Pialat used Nomi’s version of the “Cold Song” in his 1983 film, “À Nos Amours”. In 2005, Andrew Horn directed a documentary film about Nomi’s music career titled, “The Nomi Song”. The film featured a life-sized Klaus Nomi mechanical doll created by sculptor Pat Keak, who previously displayed the piece in Boston’s DeCordova Museum in 1996.
Nomi’s impact on the fashion industry can be seen on numerous runway shows by prominent designers such as Boudicca, Givenchy, and Paco Rabanne (Limnander, Armand. “Alien Status.” New York Times . 27 Aug. 2006). Nomi influenced French designer Jean Paul Gaultier in his spring couture line and chose “Nomi Song” as the runway music during the show (Limnander. “Men’s Fashion: The Ghost of Klaus Nomi.” New York Times. 26 Jan. 2009). In an interview with for BBC News Entertainment, pop singer Lady Gaga told reporter Mark Savage that her fashion was inspired by Nomi’s signature style. In her music video “Telephone,” she wore a black and white striped costume similar to Nomi’s trademark vinyl tuxedo.
In addition to his impact on the fashion industry, Nomi has had a significant influence on Pop and Opera music. British pop icon Morrissey listed Nomi’s version of the song “Death” as an influential song in his compilation album titled, “Under The Influence”. Eberhard Schoener composed an album dedicated to Nomi called, “Short Opera”. Nomi opened doors for Kazakh-American tenor Timur Bekbosunov who was named “The Reform Tenor” in the 2011 issue of LA Weekly’s Best of LA People (Wrightson, Erica. “Timur Bekbosunov: The Reform Tenor.” LA Weekly. 19 May. 2011). Timur and his band The Dime Museum recorded Nomi’s “Total Eclipse”, and later performed a special version of the song featuring composer Kristian Hoffman (www.theoperaoftimur.com).
Nomi’s short career has spawned an astonishingly large sphere of artistic and musical impact and he remains an icon, even thirty years after his death.
Cold Song Analysis
“My whole thing is that I approach everything as an absolute outsider. It’s the only way I can break so many rules.”–Klaus Nomi (Platt, Alan. Adix)
Klaus Nomi was a rare and gifted musician who was not afraid to break the traditional rules of classical music by combining pop and opera. Nomi’s innovative approach to music is most easily seen in his dramatic interpretation of Henry Purcell’s “Cold Genius” from Act Three of “King Arthur”. In this scene, Cupid awakes the Cold and commands him to freeze the land. Cold responds:
What power art thou, who from below
Hast made me rise unwilling and slow
From beds of everlasting snow?
See’st thou not how stiff and wondrous old
Far unfit to bare the bitter cold
I can scarcely move or draw my breath
Let me, let me freeze to death.
Nomi’s interpretation of this aria reveals that he is in a class occupied by few other performers; that of the Genius. There are several differences between Purcell’s original composition and Klaus Nomi’s famous interpretation that illustrate this point.
First, Purcell originally composed this aria for a bass singer. Nomi, on the other hand, was a countertenor. This is important because it is exceedingly rare for a countertenor to attempt an aria composed for a bass. Within the spectrum of male voices, countertenor is the highest, sounding similar to a female mezzo-soprano or soprano. Countertenors have a highly developed “head voice,” or falsetto, and their voices are light and ethereal, compared to basses, who have well-developed “chest” or modal voices and are able to sing in lower registers. When singers transition between “head” and “chest” voice, there is usually an audible change in the timbre and quality of the voice, known as the “vocal break” (www.Naxos.com)
The first three lines of the Cold Song feature a slowly ascending scale, consisting mainly of half steps. While this scale would sit squarely in the modal voice of a bass, it spans nearly the entire range of a countertenor. In order to sing this ascending scale properly, any countertenor would be forced to switch from “chest” to “head” voice, which would generally result in an audible “break” (Naxos). Incredibly, Klaus Nomi is able to sing the scale, seemingly in full chest voice, with no audible break, and no change in timbre and quality. In no subsequent recording of the Cold Song is any singer able to sing this scale with the same precision and control, and without an audible voice break.
Another significant difference between the Cold Song as written and Nomi’s interpretation is that Purcell’s original phrasing consists of a legato approach. Legato, in Italian, means “smooth,” and sounds similar to the slurred lines of Gregorian chanting. In previous performances of the aria, the lines were sung smoothly, and were connected to evoke a slow and laborious Cold. However, Nomi sung the notes staccato, from the Italian word “detached,” wherein the words are sung in a short, clipped fashion (Naxos). Nomi’s interpretation conjures the image of an immediate, shivering Cold.
By examining the differences between Purcell’s original composition and Nomi’s interpretation, it is clear that he was an extremely creative and thoughtful artist. The creative liberties he took with the song were radical, but at the same time were both powerful and appropriate. Even before one examines the singular and inexplicable brilliance of Nomi’s final performance, his technical approach warrants a great deal of respect.
“The aria, of course, I always try to make as moving as possible…I do kind of transcend the song and give it a different meaning. There are moments in my show which are very moving as well as amusing... I take a familiar experience and put it in an alien environment."–Klaus Nomi (Platt, Alan. Adix)
In his final performance in Munich, Germany, 1983, Nomi effectively became Purcell’s Cold. Unbeknownst to the audience, Nomi was severely ill. As he took the stage, and overlooked the audience, Nomi’s piercing dark eyes were so focused that he appeared to be in trance. He slowly and stiffly moved his arms back and forth while turning from left to right, and then he began to sing: “What power art thou, who from below, who hast made me rise unwilling and slow?” These lines signified the beginning of Cupid’s confrontation with the Cold. They illustrate Cold’s disbelief that a force exists which is strong enough to wrench him from his slumber. “From beds of everlasting snow? See’st thou not how stiff and wondrous old. Far unfit to bear the bitter cold.” Here, Cold seems to remember both his true power, and his enemy’s inherent inability to withstand it. Nomi portrays this moment beautifully by steadily increasing the volume of his voice as the scale ascends. A close reading of this text in the context of Nomi’s performance reveals there are two unique but simultaneous dramas unfolding. While it is possible to view this performance simply for Nomi’s incredible personification of Cold, there is obviously a powerful subtext; Nomi is confronting death itself.
One can only imagine the intense pain he must have experienced during his performance. Even in the face of his physical deterioration, Nomi skillfully belts out the finishing line, “Let me freeze again to death,” holding the word “death” in excess of ten seconds. This is an example of sostenuto, from the Italian “to sustain,” which means to hold a note longer than it is written (www.Naxos.com). In this moment, Nomi transcends not only the written value of the note, but death itself. By holding this note ad infinitum, he stretches the boundaries of the song. Indeed, here Nomi stretches the very boundary that exists between life and death. When one views the video of this performance, one can see the ravages of disease on his face. His gaunt face and sunken eyes reveal the suffering of a dying man. However, at the moment Nomi sings the word “death”, his eyes widen, suddenly infused with vitality and defiance. Through sheer will, Nomi wrestles with the note, refusing to let it defeat him. At the end of this feat, the slight and dignified upward inflection of Nomi’s head indicates to the viewer that he has won.
As brilliant as his performance was, one shouldn’t be surprised that this unusual man chose an unusual aria for his final song, ending his career with a casual bow; a polite way of saying, “That’s all folks”.
I remember the first time I saw Klaus Nomi’s performance on the internet. At first, I could not take him seriously, with his ghostly make-up and Baroque attire. He looked like a clown, and I assumed his singing would be even more amusing than his appearance. However, when he opened his mouth and began to sing, I was immediately moved by his vocal control and technique. I soon found myself in what seemed like the “Twilight Zone”. It was as if the orchestra and audience had suddenly disappeared, and only Nomi remained, singing the aria of the Cold Song, as if in a vacuum. Despite his strange appearance, I could not deny that I was watching a brilliant performer. I saw neither his make-up, nor his unusual clothing. I heard only his beautiful voice.
After conducting further research, I was astounded to learn Nomi was dying at the time. Watching the video again in this context, his performance was terrifying and moving, but ultimately perplexing to me. What would compel a dying man to continue touring? Nomi could have returned home in his condition. Did he continue because he did not wish to break his contract, or was he motivated to obtain wealth and fame? Or, was it because Nomi loved the craft so much, he simply could not walk away? It is apparent to me that Nomi, aware that it would be his last stage performance, wanted to leave audiences with a piece to remember him by. Through his love for music, Nomi somehow found the strength to continue.
Nomi inspired me to venture outside my normal sphere of listening to Hip-Hop and R&B music. Previously, I thought it unusual for black people to listen to Opera. While I once thought Opera sounded similar to a farm full of dying animals, it has quickly become some of my favorite music. However, I could not truly appreciate it until I set my prejudice aside, and looked not at the artist’s ethnicity or genre, but listened to what the artist said and how they said it. It is my hope that everyone will endeavor to listen to music in this manner.
It is apparent to me after viewing his performance of the Cold Song that Klaus Nomi could have been among the world’s leading operatic performers, and could have helped to usher in new audiences from various musical backgrounds if he had lived. I challenge readers to listen to his music and draw their own conclusion about him. Perhaps you will be surprised by what this “outsider” had to say.
”…you don’t wanna say that [his death] was appropriate… [but] it’s sort of the perfect coda to everything…it was like the end of this crazy, lavish opera in a way.”- Tony Frere (Horn, Andrew, dir. “The Nomi Song.” Palm Pictures. 2004. DVD)
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Interview with Tony Frere. Andrew Horn, dir. “The Nomi Song.” Palm Pictures. 2004. DVD.
Klaus Nomi “The Cold Song Live.” <www.Youtube.com>
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<Laweekly.com/2011-05-19/la-life/timur-bekbosunov-the-reform-tenor> 16 Nov. 2011
Wrightson, Erica. “Timur Bekbosunov: The Reform Tenor.” LA Weekly. 19 May. 2011.
<Laweekly.com/2011-05-19/la-life/timur-bekbosunov-the-reform-tenor> 16 Nov. 2011