Overlooked No More: Klaus Nomi, Singer With an Otherworldly Persona
This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.
A wide range of musical genres fueled New York’s nightclubs in the late 1970s and early ’80s, including new wave, no wave, punk and post punk. Klaus Nomi, who performed during that era, defied being categorized under any of them.
“I wouldn’t give it a label,” Nomi said of his sound in a Belgian television interview. “Maybe the only label is my own label: It’s Nomi style.”
His music combined opera, infectious melodies, disco beats, German-accented countertenor vocals and undeniable grandeur. He influenced everyone from the singer-songwriter Anohni to Lady Gaga; in 2009, when Morrissey was asked to select eight essential records for the BBC radio program “Desert Island Discs,” Nomi’s version of Schumann’s “Der Nussbaum” made the list.
Nomi’s stage look was equally eclectic, and inseparable from his sound. The gender-fluid mix included dark, dramatically-applied lipstick as well as nail polish, the occasional women’s garment and often a giant structured tuxedo top that suggested Dada as much as sci-fi. His style influenced the fashion world as well, in collections by designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Riccardo Tisci.
Nomi’s look was indisputably nonbinary, and a bit otherworldly. “He still comes across as an outrageously expressive and strange figure,” Tim Lawrence, author of the 2016 book “Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983,” said in a phone interview.
“There was something about his entire being, which seemed to be queer, around makeup and voice and music and dress,” Lawrence said.
Nomi — or Klaus Sperber, the name he was born with — moved to New York City from his native Germany in the early 1970s. He fell in with a group of creative friends and in late 1978 joined many of them to perform at New Wave Vaudeville, a series of quirky variety shows. The bill included a stripper, a singing dog and a performance artist dressed as a sadistic nun.
As the closing act, Nomi sang an aria from Camille Saint-Saëns’s “Samson et Dalila” while wearing a transparent raincoat over a shiny, fitted top and pants along with dramatic eye makeup and lipstick.
“He really blew people’s minds,” Ann Magnuson, who directed the shows, said in an interview. “He had all these snarky punk rockers out there who were speechless.”
With the performances came a new name, inspired by the name of a magazine focused on outer space, Omni.
“Klaus said, ‘I can’t go out as Klaus Sperber,’” his friend Joey Arias, the singer and performance artist, recalled by phone. “‘That’s not a star’s name.’”
Soon he was performing as Klaus Nomi at tastemaker Manhattan clubs like Max’s Kansas City and Hurrah, with a set list created with the help of Kristian Hoffman, a musician who served for a time as his musical director. The material included edgy originals and unconventional takes on well-known hits. Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” became an enraged dirge, for example; the chorus of “Lightnin’ Strikes” morphed into an aria. The thought was that pop songs would “catch the ear of an audience who isn’t ready for opera,” Hoffman said in an interview.
As The New York Times put it in a review of one of his performances, Nomi’s music was “positively catchy, in a strange sort of way.”
One night in late 1979, Nomi and Arias were at the Mudd Club, in TriBeCa, when they met David Bowie there. Nomi called him later — Bowie had asked him to, scribbling his phone number with a friend’s eyeliner — and Nomi and Arias were recruited to be Bowie’s backup singers for an appearance that December as the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live.”
For the show’s three songs, they wore clinging women’s Thierry Mugler dresses, purchased at Henri Bendel. The look was extremely provocative at the time, especially on national television. Throughout, the TV cameras’ focus seemed to be as much on them as on Bowie.
“It legitimized everything, because it had been sort of a private scene, and all of a sudden there it is, right in front of you on ‘Saturday Night Live,’” said Katy Kattelman, a designer who is known professionally as Katy K and who was a friend of Nomi’s.
Soon after, Nomi signed a record deal with RCA France. His debut album, titled simply “Klaus Nomi,” was released in Europe in 1981; a second album, “A Simple Man,” came out the next year. The records sold well — “Klaus Nomi” earned gold-record status in France — and he performed abroad to packed venues.
Nomi returned to New York toward the end of 1982, excited by the prospect of possible American tours and releases. But he arrived gaunt and exhausted — he had contracted AIDS. He died of complications of the illness on Aug. 6, 1983. He was 39.
Klaus Sperber was born on Jan. 24, 1944, in Immenstadt, a town in what was then West Germany. He was raised by his mother, Bettina, who worked odd jobs. A fling with a soldier, whom Klaus never met, resulted in his birth. When he was a child, he and his mother moved to the city of Essen, about 400 miles away. Opera music was often playing in their house, and it set Klaus on his path.
“The first time I heard an opera singer on the radio I said, ‘My God, I want to sing just like that,’” he said in interview footage that is included in the 2004 documentary “The Nomi Song.” As a teenager, he became equally fond of Elvis Presley.
He moved to West Berlin and worked as an usher at Deutsche Oper, where he sometimes sang for colleagues after the audience had left. But he aspired to sing professionally, and, Arias said, “he felt like he was at a dead end.”
“He wanted to come to New York because he felt like it would change his life,” Arias added.
Nomi settled in Manhattan’s East Village. He worked for a while in the kitchen of the Upper East Side cafe and celebrity hangout Serendipity 3 and started a baking business with Kattelman called Tarts, supplying restaurants with desserts made in Nomi’s St. Marks Place apartment.
Nomi was known to frequent after-hours clubs, like the Anvil and Mineshaft, where casual sex was commonplace. There were sexual encounters at home as well — Arias said he once arrived at Nomi’s apartment to find a naked Jean-Michel Basquiat toweling off.
To get a green card, he married a woman, Melissa Moon, a U.S. citizen, in 1980.
“I don’t think he was in any way being anything that wasn’t himself, which was pretty gay as far as I knew,” said the artist Kenny Scharf. “When you’re creating your persona, the sexuality part is obviously part of the persona. It was all part of his sense of style and him being an artist in every way.”