Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Diva for the dead


Diamanda Galas brings 'Defixiones' to Yerba Buena Center

Diamanda Galas. Photo: Austin Young
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"I only aspire to one thing: membership to the pantheon." Known for her haunting vocal epics, singer/composer Diamanda Galas may get her wish.

In a Bay Area premiere, her first San Francisco performance in 10 years, Galas brings her 2004 solo show, Defixiones, Orders from the Dead, to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theatre Oct 19 and 21.

A theatrical spectacle scored for voice, piano and tape, and five years in the making, this haunting mass excavates the Armenian, Assyrian, Anatolian and Pontic Greek genocides of 1914 and 1923. A descendent of the survivors, Galas considers this her most personal work.

With a chillingly beautiful three-and-a-half octave voice and virtuosic piano technique, Galas sings various texts in eight languages. With methodically researched material and a passion for exposing forgotten events, Galas reaches shamanically into the depths of history to resurrect the dead.

In conversation, Galas is serious when discussing her subject matter, but jovial and raucous as she dismisses critics, like one Melbourne, Australia reviewer who panned her show without having seen it.

Those who misunderstand her work have typified it as having Satanic elements. One album, The Litanies of Satan (1989), led to such early categorization. Masque of the Red Death includes the expansive "You Must Be Certain of the Devil." According to B.A.R . writer Michael Flanagan, who assisted her research for Plague Mass, after a 1990 concert in Italy at the Palace of the Medicis, Italian government officials called her performance "more scandalous than Madonna" and "true blasphemy."

"Some people want to perceive [my work] as satanic rituals," said Galas. "I'm not selling that." Instead, Galas uses demonic terminology to confront the more real evils of the world: mendacity, homophobia, and political corruption.

An avowed atheist, Galas, 51, considers her work as liturgy, often using text from various faiths. By using iconic or ancient text, Galas music requires some homework to truly appreciate. But even those new to her work will find a blunt if not unnerving relevance to modern times.

Having just returned from Paris and Ghent (Belgium), where she performed other works, Galas will perform in Santa Cruz and Los Angeles later this month. But the Yerba Buena shows are the only West Coast performance of Defixiones, in which her Greek heritage plays prominently.

Born and raised in San Diego, the daughter of an Anatolian father and mother from Sparta, Galas studied classical piano as a child among a musically talented Greek Orthodox family. Galas made her performance debut in 1979 at the Festival d'Avignon in France as the lead in Globokar's opera, Un Jour Comme Une Autre, which deals with the death by torture of a Turkish woman. As she charmed New York's downtown arts scene in the 1980s, Galas began touring the world with her solo shows.

Galas' brother, Philip-Dimitri Galas, who died of AIDS in 1986, was a handsome playwright known for his "AvantVaudeville" style which anticipated a trend toward a new style in performance art and theatre.

While others took to more sentimental remembrances to commemorate the loss from AIDS, Galas used her personal grief to create dark, chilling anthems to confront AIDS and apathy toward it. Vena Cava is based on her brother's writings as he suffered from AIDS-related dementia.

Mass intensity

Galas' Plague Mass is possibly most widely known among gay fans for its bleak and frightening musical depiction of the suffering of PWAs. Considered her breakthrough performance for American audiences, Galas' October 1990 concert at New York City's Cathedral of St. John the Divine stands as a peak moment for AIDS-related art. Coated in blood and topless for a portion of the work, Galas combined ululating shrieks, whispers and howls with an intensity that left the audience stunned.

"I used real blood for a long time," said Galas of Plague Mass. "The reason I stopped was quite frankly that artificial blood looks better on stage than real blood. Real blood turns brown."

Ten months before that pivotal show, Galas was one of 111 people arrested inside New York City's St. Patrick's Cathedral in the largest protest organized by the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP). This was also where I got to know Galas, who said she still retains a connection to the memory of ACT UP. "I gained 10 years of youth from being in jail with those boys," said Galas.

The St. John the Divine performance remains nearly unique for another reason. "Ask me how many churches I get to perform in," said Galas. "Just one in Berlin."

Galas prefers churches not only for their thematic parallels to her work. "It'

Diamanda Galas. Photo: Austin Young
s the best acoustic space for me, for the resonance," she said. "My work is liturgical, with strong concepts of faith, and of those who back up their faith. You have a belief and you back it up. What else is faith?"

Nevertheless, few churches have allowed her access to perform. In Liepsig, where she was scheduled to perform in a church, producers abruptly moved audiences via bus to a nearby factory, where the show was restaged.

Sung in multiple languages, and performed in a solemn black robe, the 90-minute Defixiones mourns those exiled or massacred by religious and political bigotry. "I wanted to use very specific text about the genocides and the treatment of people who were considered to be infidels," said Galas. "It's a very obvious nod to the way the Assyrians are being treated today in Iraq; also about the invasion of Cyprus."

Galas sees Christian influence as covering up the roots of most pagan-based faiths. "African Yoruba, their idea of polytheism; it remains in the culture," she said. "It's replaced by whatever the new gods are. There's no Greek who's not gonna tell you they're no longer pagan."

Even without knowing these background details (text translations are provided in the work's CD), Galas' performances can be enjoyed for her unique singing. How does the singer maintain her nearly four-octave vocal range?

"Try to stay away from parasites," she said. "By this, I mean human parasites: people who want to take your soul, benefit from it and eat it. Also, don't hang out with chain smokers in disco bars. I keep training. I drink about nine espressos a day, so I'm not an ideal citizen for voice training. You're supposed to drink water, but I don't, much."

Galas said her strong vocal range helps, too, by "effectively resting one part of the voice while using another. I use my voice in a lot of different ways."

Despite the cultural specificity of Defixiones , the concept of a violated grave applies, obviously, to recent and current events. Galas performed Defixiones in 2005 at Pace University's Schiller Auditorium (blocks from Ground Zero) as part of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's series What Comes After: Cities, Art, and Recovery .

"It was so hard to present in New York," she said. "No one would produce it." Having lived in Manhattan's East Village for nearly two decades, Galas remains strong in her opinions about the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the treatment of its victims' memory.

"What makes me really sick are these people from outside New York who think it's really hip to call these people symbols," she said. "See somebody die burned alive, and tell me how you can make a symbol out of them."

She calls the terrorists who crashed planes into the World Trade Center "overeducated, middle-class men" who "prematurely ejaculated," missing their intended targets by crashing the buildings too early in the day. "They killed secretaries and immigrant workers instead of the executives. They didn't even off the people they were trying to kill."

Personal struggles play into her work as well. Galas also dealt with a years-long bout of Hepatitis brought on by her former IV-drug use. She cited her treatment and recovery as a strange influence on her work.

"The drugs make it a desert; you see nothing," she said. "When you're on Interferon, everything is gray, like being the living dead. It was really a difficult time, mind-taxing. But I went on tour [while taking] it. I had to pay the rent. It made my performances wild."

Not that she hasn't heard that description before. When Galas performed Plague Mass in 1991 at the Lycabettus Ampitheatre on a hilltop overlooking Athens, the audience of 3,500 Greeks "definitely got it," she said. "Some of them were crawling onto the stage. They saw it as a work of Greek tragedy, which was always political. The protagonist is given a choice. He knows what's going to happen. That is essentially how he defines himself, which choice he makes."

Galas has chosen to make difficult themes her life's work, turning tragedy into stunning performative catharsis.

Diamanda Galas performs Defixiones: Orders from the Dead, Thurs., Oct. 19, & Sat., Oct. 21 at 8 p.m. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theatre, 700 Howard St., SF. Tickets ($21-$35, student/senior discounts): 978-ARTS.

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