Born Klaus Sperber in Bavaria, Klaus Nomi (1944-1983) worked as an usher at the Deutsche Oper in West Berlin. He moved to New York City in 1972 and became involved in the East Village arts scene, primarily as a singer. He had an extraordinary countertenor vocal range and a distinctive sound, used in repertory that ranged from pop and cabaret standards to opera arias, and modeled his appearance after David Bowie, including a copy of Bowie’s stylized tuxedo. Influential on filmmakers, artists, and fashion designers, as well as other pop musicians, Nomi died 11 years later, of complications from AIDS; his ashes were scattered over New York City.
“Klaus Nomi appeared on the NYC scene suddenly, leaping from his spectacular debut at the New Wave Vaudeville show (where the astounded audience had to be told repeatedly that the voice was truly live) to spearhead a futurist movement of militantly fashionable avant-misfits before and beyond any new romantic notions occurred to Spandau Ballet and after Bowie abandoned the future as an archaic concept,” Kristian Hoffman wrote in an obituary for the East Village Eye. (Hoffman was Nomi’s music director and wrote several of Nomi’s signature numbers.)
“Klaus rose quickly, independent of the critical machine. He was never ‘cool,’ and was resented by some who thought Fame should have hipper tastes. He gained a following in New York and used it as a springboard to even greater success in Europe. He dearly loved New York, felt it was his true home, and was distressed that he couldn’t work here more. He requested that his remains stay here despite family ties in Germany.”
Nomi was a childhood idol for Olga Neuwirth, an Austrian musician who studied painting and film as well as composition in San Francisco, before continuing her studies in Vienna. (Where her thesis was on the music in Alain Resnais’ film L’amour à mort.) In addition to orchestral and chamber music, she has written a number of theatrical pieces, including an opera version of the David Lynch film Lost Highways and a new interpretation of Berg’s opera Lulu.
In 1998 she began working with songs from Nomi’s repertory, arranging four of them in the first version of her homage to the counter culture icon. Ten years later she created a “songplay in nine fits” from that material, adding five more songs; the newest version was completed in 2013. (Her arrangements include sampled backing vocals.)
The nine songs cover the gamut of Nomi’s interests, with some title changes. “So Simple” is “Simple Man,” Hoffman’s title song for Nomi’s second French RCA album. “Last Dance” (aka “Total Eclipse”) is also by Hoffman, and “My Time” is based on “Wasting My Time” by Scott Woody, who played guitar in Nomi’s band.
Neuwirth includes two of Friedrich Hollaender’s cabaret-styled film songs. “Wünsch dir Nichts” was used in the 1931 film Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht and later popularized by Marlene Dietrich, who also sang “Can’t Help It” (better known and often covered as “Falling in Love Again”) in Der blaue Engel (1930).
Also represented by two songs is the great English Baroque composer Henry Purcell. “Remember” is the famous ground-bass aria “Dido’s Lament” from Dido and Aeneas, and “Awake from Winter” is from King Arthur.
Rounding out the cycle are “I Like to Be Free,” from “You Don’t Own Me,” the Jay Madara and Dave White girl power anthem that was a hit for Lesley Gore in the 1960s, and “The Witch,” an over-the-top finale interpreting “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead” (Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg) from The Wizard of Oz.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Associaion.