ANNIVERSARIES: Klaus Nomi Born 70 Years Ago


The one-of-a-kind New Wave singer Klaus Nomi was born Klaus Sperber in Bavaria on January 24, 1944. Though his career effectively lasted just five years and he had no hits, he became a beloved cult artist and introduced people outside the realm of classical music to the glories of opera through stunning, highly stylized performances that crushed genre boundaries in a way that the many more calculated "classical crossover" acts since have been unable to achieve, no matter how many more records they may have sold.

Some sources say Nomi (adopted as a stage name as an anagram of "omni") was "classically trained" (though that could just mean piano lessons); Kurt Loder, writing for MTV, calls him "a true, if untrained, countertenor." (A countertenor is basically a male alto.) He did, in his youth, work as an usher at the German Opera in West Berlin, and informally sang there for an audience of his fellow workers. He would also sing opera arias in Berlin's gay nightclubs. In 1972 he moved to New York City; he achieved his breakthrough in 1978 as part of New Wave Vaudeville, a variety show put on by habitués of the downtown New/No Wave scene. Fortunately, there is video of this performance, in which he sang "Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix" from the opera Samson and Delilah by Camille Saint-Saëns:]

At the time of the performance, that aria was a little over one hundred years old. Nomi became a regular on the downtown circuit: Mudd Club, Pyramid, etc. He had met songwriter Kristian Hoffman at New Wave Vaudeville, and Hoffman soon began working with Nomi, putting a band together, writing songs for him, and choosing more modern material for him to cover, such as his infamous rendition of Sixties star Lou Christie's "Lightning Strikes."

At the end of 1979, David Bowie hand-picked Nomi to appear with him on Saturday Night Live. Bowie also may have influenced RCA to sign Nomi (again, sources differ). The band with Hoffman had broken up, but two of Hoffman's songs, "Nomi Song" and "Total Eclipse," made it to his eponymous 1981 debut LP, along with "Lightning Strikes" and a couple other pop songs: the strangest version of Chubby Checker's "The Twist" ever heard, and the Lesley Gore hit "You Don't Own Me," which oddly enough is used regularly on Rush Limbaugh's show. The highlight, though, is Nomi's rendition of "The Cold Song," adapted from an aria in Henry Purcell's 1691 semi-opera King Arthur.

"Total Eclipse" achieved further underground notoriety for Nomi through its use in the 1981 concert compilation film Urgh! A Music War (and on its soundtrack):

Nomi's singing and striking costumes were noted even by mainstream media, as this Channel 5 10 O'Clock News interview shows:

His second album, Simple Man (1982) featured classical material a little more, with four tracks adapted from two songs each by Purcell and the even earlier John Dowland, and Nomi's public appearances and costume began to emphasize the connection with that period. But the ruffled collar he wore was actually intended to cover the AIDS-related Kaposi's sarcoma lesions on his neck. He died at age 39 on August 6, 1983, and is often cited as the first celebrity killed by AIDS.