Let me freeze again to death: the texture of depression in an obscure 17th century aria restructured by a gentle alien


The next time someone asks me to describe depression, I think that I will simply send them the following lines from this song.

Let me, let me,
Let me freeze again
Let me, let me
Freeze again to death
Let me, let me, let me
Freeze again to death…

The gentle alien, Klaus Nomi, who fell to earth in southern Bavaria, at a time in the Second World War when the US began planning the allied invasion of France. He did not write this particular song he performed, but he was credited with bringing it back into the light. The Cold Song is actually an extract from Henry Purcell’s aria Scene of the Cold, from the third act of the baroque semi-opera, King Arthur. A semi-opera is a dramatic opera where the principal characters don’t sing–unless they are drunk or supernatural as is the case with Cold Genius, the Spirit of Winter, whose Let me freeze again is a reluctant response to Cupid’s invitations to awaken to Spring in the prelude to The Frost Scene.

Nomi’s interpretation is like the unearthing of an artifact, melted down and remoulded into the same form but now of a qualitatively unique substance–a feat of musical alchemy. No matter that Nomi is dressed in a costume more Elizabethan than Enlightenment. He is more time traveler than historian. The way in which this tenderly singular German immigrant reinterprets the 17th century Englishman’s aria moved me to tears the first time I watched it. I then watched it on repeat for about thirty more times. There is another, more produced version, but this live stage version finds more emotional reach. And yet his performance appears devoid of the dramatic motions and gestures of opera. Nomi’s body language; an angular staccato puppetry, almost robotic, is exaggerated by a stiff, close-fitting period costume and theatrical makeup. Yet, like Pinocchio, instead of disconnecting us from the feeling human quality, the combined effect of all this artificiality is to underscore his essential humanity even more evocatively.

What power art thou
Who from below
Hast made me rise
Unwillingly and slow
From beds of everlasting snow
See’st thou not how stiff
And wondrous old
Far unfit to bear the bitter cold…

Nomi renders the aria’s cry of besieged frailty with hyper-controlled intensity. A masque-like face, eyes like CCTV cameras scanning a distant horizon, thrust from a high ruffled collar. I later read that this collar was to hide the sores on his neck as his immune system began to collapse from complications from AIDS. Nomi had only two years left to live and yet here he is, offering his artistry crafted from journeys most would never dare or think to make.

The aria shows us a man not up to the task to which he is called, to awaken from inertia, from a dorsal deep freeze.

I can scarcely move
Or draw my breath
I can scarcely move
Or draw my breath

Nomi’s remarkable vocal capacities as a countertenor combined with his orphanic otherworldly stage presence fit perfectly with the poetic depth and technical complexity of the work. The song appeared on Nomi’s first album in 1981 and the 1982 single reached 23 in the French music charts.

Let me, let me,
Let me freeze again
Let me, let me
Freeze again to death
Let me, let me, let me
Freeze again to death…

This was not the first aria Nomi had performed. At his New York debut in 1978, at an event called New Wave Vaudville, he had sung Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix (my heart opens to your voice) from Camille Saint-Saens’s opera Samson and Delilah; a performance that propelled him to instant celebrity and which ended in a disappearing act into a storm of special effects. Joey Arias recalls: “It was like he was from a different planet and his parents were calling him home. When the smoke cleared, he was gone.”

What Nomi doesn’t sing is Cupid’s response to Cold Genius, as he gradually convince the Winter Spirit to wake up and let the Spring return:

Thou doting fool forbear, forbear!
What dost thou mean by freezing here?
At Love’s appearing, All the sky clearing,
The stormy winds their fury spare.
Winter subduing,
And Spring renewing,
My beams create a more glorious year.

Cupid’s message is of sexual coupling as the cure for Winter. As if the act of sex itself can somehow bring about the Spring, that the effect has agency before the cause. The chorus of Cold People dance and sing taking Cupid’s cue:
‘Tis Love, ’tis Love, ’tis Love
that has warm’d us.
In spite of the weather
He brought us together.
‘Tis Love, ’tis Love, ’tis Love
that has warm’d us.

From all accounts, although he was sexually active, Klaus Nimo did not have close relationships. He seemed to stand ineluctably apart, watching the world with a wide-eyed once-removed astonishment that became his trademark. And then, when the smoke had cleared, he was gone–a magical trick of the light incarnate.

About subincontinentia

writer and eternal optimist
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