High Jinks: Andrew Watts sings Klaus Nomi

Andrew Watts Andrew Watts - © Pete Jones
Posted: Wed Feb 8 2012

Unafraid of letting it all hang out, Andrew Watts has performed in fake boobs, a schoolgirl outfit and in the buff. The countertenor tells Time Out about celebrating Klaus Nomi

If any classical singer was cut out to pay tribute to the outrageous cabaret performer Klaus Nomi, it is surely Andrew Watts. The countertenor is uneasy with the compliment. 'I am a bit of a show-off and quite gregarious,' he admits, 'but I wouldn't say outrageous.' Anyone who has witnessed Watts in action, however, and observed the relish with which he embraces the eccentricities of his roles, might disagree.

The singer laughs guiltily as he is presented with the case for the prosecution, namely his recent London opera appearances - starting with Torsten Rasch's 'The Duchess of Malfi' (English National Opera and Punchdrunk) in which he wandered around a disused office block naked and covered in blood. Before that he was attired in a gold leather suit as a camp Prince Go-Go in György Ligeti's 'Le Grand Macabre' (also for ENO). In Harrison Birtwistle's 'The Minotaur' he was a Snake Priestess with a towering serpentine body complete with breasts. Then there's the schoolgirl outfit in Gerald Barry's 'The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit' (Almeida), which made the tights and high heels (Schnittke's 'Faust Cantata' at the Royal Festival Hall) seem rather tame.

As the list demonstrates, Watts has enjoyed an unusual career as a countertenor. While his peers are wedded to baroque repertoire, he has sung a huge amount of modern work. For example, when we
catch up, he is commuting between Oscar Strasnoy's 'L'instant' (2008) in Paris, and Aribert Reimann's ' Lear' (1978) in Hamburg; his next London opera is Judith Weir's 'Miss Fortune' at the Royal Opera House in March. It is just one of an impressive 40 roles that have been written for him. But then he is an exceptional talent - a high, robust voice, solid musicality and a natural performer with a taste for the absurd.

Though he likes the challenge of contemporary music, he still loves the baroque. In fact, he feels overlooked with regard to singing it - ironic, perhaps, as it is music that keeps him grounded. 'It doesn't matter what piece I'm doing,' he reveals, 'the first thing I do when I go home is put on some Handel or Puccini just to clear my head.'

The 44-year-old grew up in Hammersmith and now lives in Bow - 20 minutes from Covent Garden and ENO, and just ten from the Guildhall School of Music, where he teaches. Coming across as an
intelligent, humorous individual who appreciates his lot, he hails from a small, close, non-musical family. His singing career began as a boy soprano at school, but having played clarinet from the age of eight, it was that he chose to study. Fortunately, in his second term at the Royal Academy of Music, his teacher said: 'I heard you sing last night. You were very good, so may I suggest that you put that back in its box and never blow it again.'

So began a singing career involving often outlandish productions. He has no regrets. On being asked to sing naked, he deliberated for ten minutes, deciding that: 'I was going to be in a very badly lit room and I wasn't completely naked - I had a pair of boots on.' It was an experience he found fun and hugely liberating. 'The first person I saw was my mother when I took my clothes off,' he laughs. 'And all she said was: “It has grown since I last saw it, when you were ten.”'

As for 'Le Grand Macabre', 'The gold leather suit was fabulous,' he enthuses. 'You get to show off and behave like a child. And it was great to be able go to back to ENO and say: “Hello, this is what I am still doing - I am 40 and behaving like a complete twat.” And they pay me, which is extraordinary.'

So next Saturday's 'Hommage à Klaus Nomi' concert seems a perfect vehicle for him. The nine songs are arrangements by Watts's friend, Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth. 'I think Olga is a genius,' he exclaims, 'and what she has done with these songs is that you get the basis of them but with little extra flavours thrown in; these are really clever, wonderfully crafted musical gems.'

Nomi (born Klaus Sperber) was a gay German cabaret singer who died from Aids in 1983 after wooing the Paris and New York nightlife scenes dressed in his signature white make-up and triangular vinyl tuxedo, singing both pop covers and opera arias in his male soprano voice. Watts became aware of him at 20 when someone gave him a tape because they thought Nomi sounded like him. 'I thought it was slightly wild and fun,' he remembers. 'What he did for the cause of us boys that sing high is a quite extraordinary thing… It was going to be seen as either great art or a terrible drag show, and he
was able to smear the edges of it for it to be a must-see event.'

Though classically trained, Nomi's choice to develop an outré alter-ego, Watts believes, was simply his rebelling against parental pressure to find a respectable career. It's something he can relate to: 'As my father said, God rest his soul, “Isn't it about time you got yourself a proper job, Andrew? Enough of this singing-in-the-nip business.”'

Andrew Watts sings 'Hommage à Klaus Nomi' as part of London Sinfonietta's 'In Portrait: Olga Neuwirth' concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Feb 11 2012. www.southbankcentre.co.uk