It is by now a well-worn cliche that a particular artist “defies all categories.” But in the case of Diamanda Galas, that description seems overwhelmingly apt. The fact is that Galas has based a 20-year solo career on performances about resisting categories, regarding them as “the confining ways that the dominant order names you, isolates you and then oppresses you by speaking for you.” And nobody speaks for Diamanda.
The internationally renowned vocalist–whose premiere of Insekta literally rocked the house at Lincoln Center’s Serious Fun! festival in New York in August–claims that her work “has always been devoted to fighting all forms of mental oppression, and dedicated to people who are isolated, powerless and available for experimentation. Loud and relentlessly assaultive, Galas makes art that speaks volumes by cranking up the volume: Mixing her own pumped-up version of Gounod’s 19th-century Sanctus with a pastiche of Psalms, Job and Revelations, she delivers a strobe-lit rant in Insekta that proves once and for all that she is one performer who is not about to go gentle into that good night.
lnsekta was developed at The Kitchen, the well-known New York City center for experimental performance where Galas is the first ever artist-in-residence. Billed as “an electro-acoustic monodrama,” the piece, like Galas’s previous work Vena Cava, explores the intersections of mental illness, sexual abuse and extreme alienation. Wearing a harness of microphones and employing a wide range of vocal pyrotechnics she has a much-touted three-and-a-half octave range–Galas unleashes an acoustical onslaught of prerecorded industrial sounds, animal slaughters and onstage incantations. In a levitating cage of chainlink fence (the only levity of the evening), Galas by turns flails about on all-fours, dances a soft-shoe to “You Are My Sunshine” and stares at the audience, seemingly possessed, intoning repeatedly: “What is my name?”
Galas explains her febrile form of dramaturgy: “The Victim knows by heart the speech of the Perpetrator. I am not playing either part but portraying the mind of the person in this enclosed space. Part of that mind’s makeup are the different voices, so you can’t at any point label who I am in Insekta.”
One thing that can be labeled in all of Galas’s work is a healthy dose of anger. Since 1974, she has deliberately resisted “placating entertainment,” collaborating instead with members of the Living Theatre and performing for schizophrenics in mental institutions as well as at major music festivals in Europe and the U.S. Trained as a classical pianist, Galas later discovered the shamanistic possibilities of free jazz, and decided that her voice would be the “vehicle that expresses a vision of the whole spectacle of theatre.” (In this respect, Galas calls to mind Maria Callas, another Greek diva who also flexed her voice to effusive extremes.) In 1979, she performed the leading role at the Avignon Festival in Vinko Globakar’s opera Un Jour Comme une Autre, playing a Turkish woman arrested and tortured to death for treason.
Since then, Galas’s oeuvre has been of the “hard to swallow” variety. “My work is not therapeutic, thank you very much, and can be very aggressive,” remarks the creator of such pieces as Wild Women with Steak Knives. Much of her solo performance has centered on the subject of AIDS, which claimed the life of her brother, playwright Philip-Dimitri Galas. Her searing Plague Mass–soon to be performed in its entirety in San Francisco–has been developed and performed in sections since 1984 (the newest section, titled There Are No More Tickets to the Funeral, was performed in 1990 at New York’s Cathedral of Saint John the Divine). “I was calling AIDS a plague at the beginning, when people said, ‘You can’t say that. You can’t call it a plague.’ Now look where we are!” Ever-resistant to restrictive categories, Galas does not separate her performance from her political life. Her body is tattooed with the legend “We are all HIV Positive,” and she was arrested in 1989 when ACT UP staged its much-publicized “die-in” at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
There are few performance artists who deal with AIDS in the same unflinching manner as Galas. “David Wojnarowicz was the only one I know,” she says, naming the author and visual artist who died of AIDS last year. “Wojnarowicz was like me because there was a similar combination of high emotion with a calculated, almost-scientific aim in his work.” In Plague Mass, Galas is trying to “show a geography of the plague mentality,” and she dedicates the mass to those “who fight to stay alive in a hostile environment that tells them on a daily basis that they most certainly shall die.”
For all Galas’s Greek roots, she is quick to point out that her theatre owes a greater debt to Artaud (her “primary influence”) than to Aristotle. All the same, Galas thinks her trance-like performances extract the “true essence of tragedy,” and fie The Poetics. “There’s a certain clarity achieved when you perform an extreme emotional state. You attain this sort of sardonicism that is more at the heart of tragedy than cheap, parlor-room sympathy.” But Galas is not so sure that spectators can always enter into her states of Diamanda Praecox. “My energy level is very high, and I don’t know if audiences can match it at every show. I hear that some people actually get quite terrified at my performances.”
Offstage, Galas’s persona is anything but terrifying–she exudes a quicksilver charm. Although she insists that she’s not tired of being angry (“that’s like getting tired of breathing to me”), Galas genially reflects on a possible future performance that would be all sunshine and daisies. “I’m sure that if the occasion presented itself–one where I felt the emotional commitment to a ‘nice’ work–it would be so damn flowery it would probably nauseate the entire audience,” she says, sustaining a long laugh. Then, suddenly turning on the sass, the ever-Delphic diva reminds me: “Honey, I don’t do anything half way.”