John T. Gates vs. Klaus Nomi (Case Study No. 6)

As a bass soloist in Germany, John T. Gates (Lawrence Visiting Assistant Professor of Music) sang more than 1,000 performances over a period of thirteen years. His appearances were often accompanied by multimedia elements ranging from a simple boom box switched on and off to video feedback projections to add a feeling of sensory overload and push the limits of the traditional opera form. His academic research examined communication in modern opera and romantic dualism in Schumann. We worked with him a couple years ago to make a 16 mm black-and-white short film (music video?) of his performance of Franz Schubert's "Fruhlingssehnsucht" juxtaposed with his ruminations on romanticism. Student Wil Herbon had the impulse to dress in a bunny-suit that term so we included him skipping through the freshly fallen snow.  Dish soap suds became a mask and close-ups of John's face conveyed a sense of inner torment that seemed an apropos to the content.

The  Nomi Song: The Klaus Nomi Odyssey (c. 2004, 96 minutes), a documentary by Andrew Horn, reflects on the life and art of the self-taught German performer Klaus Nomi. Using vintage archival footage and interviews with Nomi himself as well as friends and collaborators tries to understand how it all went down. Nomi appeared at a pinnacle cultural moment when new wave was truly new and considered avant-garde and Nomi's "alien persona" resonated with counter-culture types in New York, France and oddly, the Midwest. In interviews featured in the film, Klaus spoke of singing along with Maria Callas records and dreaming of being a singer while a boy in Essen, Germany. Nomi came to New York City in the late 1970s where he took his countertenor voice (which some believe is in the  tradition of the Castrato) into a lower east side night club context. Our friend Stanley Ryan Jones photographed Nomi when he performed in Milwaukee. Stan wrote us in a recent email that: "Klaus was very professional and serious as were the people with him. It was a strange occurrence in a strange time. Jaded jaws did drop when he took the stage at the Starship. Nobody knew what to think. It just didn't fit into any box. There was a party after the show where I got my good shot. I got the impression he would have had more fun at this party if I would have photographed him all night long. Of course he only had that one expression. He seemed like a sweet man in over his head but so was I." Just as Nomi's "alien charisma" was nearing its pinnacle complete with television appearances, a record deal and European concert tours booked, he became increasingly ill. On Wikipedia and elsewhere the following dismal factoid is noted: "Nomi was one of the first celebrities to contract AIDS. He died in 1983 at the age of 39 as a result of complications from the disease." His performing career and life, like those of many artists of the era, was cut short and we are left to contemplate the ways he made something old new wave again.

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