Music

Death Becomes Her: The Dark Arts of Diamanda Galás

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When Diamanda Galás comes to New York City, she will bring death with her. The explosive performer is presenting her show Death Will Come and Have Your Eyes at Harlem’s St. Thomas the Apostle Church, a deconsecrated church she plans to fill with her fire-and-brimstone voice, on May 10, 12, and 14, for the Red Bull Music Academy Festival. 

Galás has traveled the globe with her operatic performances, her four-octave range rolling like a riptide over songs inspired by Greek odes, Spanish poets, and Italian letters. Despite the fact that she’s lived in New York for over twenty years, the city — and even America — seems to slip her mind, like an umbrella forgotten on a bus. “God, I don’t even know the last time I performed in New York,” said Galás. “I moved, I don’t know, to San Francisco, maybe? Back to San Diego, then to Europe. I wasn’t thinking about America. At some point, people said the same thing: ‘Why aren’t you playing in New York?’ And I said, ‘Why would I?’ ”

That search for freedom has pushed her forward for decades, starting with the release of her first album, in 1979. But it wasn’t until recently that the music world caught up with her work. It’s a complicated experience for Galás, who spent years in artistic isolation, fighting with curators and promoters to mount her complex, multilingual performances as she envisioned them. Her work is challenging both artistically and emotionally. “The main thing is that I like it,” she said. “And if I like it then it is good enough. And if I don’t, it’s not good enough, no matter what anyone says.”

Her new show features the singer alone with her piano and what she describes as “some electronics.” Trained in both jazz and classical piano and as a bel canto opera singer, Galás bends the boundaries of each form to create her own genre of moodily melodic darkness. It’s a skill that allows her to transform the Supremes’ “My World Is Empty Without You” into a hypnotic hymn. Her voice is beautiful but vitriolic, full of emotions that aren’t always pleasant (she is no stranger to letting loose bloodcurdling screams mid-performance). It’s a niche that few women seek to occupy. “Any women that are in the music industry and are innovators have had to really, really fight a lot of shit,” she said. “If you come up with something new, primarily people will laugh.”

No one is laughing at Galás now. She just headlined the Roadburn Festival, playing her songs based on suicide poems to a rapt audience of over 3,000 people. The center-stage attention comes after decades of what Galás considered paying her dues, flitting around the outskirts of recognition. “When I did Plague Mass no one would present it,” Galás said of her opus dedicated to AIDS victims. “And now people say, ‘Why don’t you do Plague Mass?’ and I’m like, ‘You son of a bitch. When I presented Plague Mass to you in 1990, what did you say?’ ”

That persistence was born of how seriously she takes her subjects. Where some artists with song titles like “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” “O Death,” and “Si la Muerte” might be doing it for show, Galas is not a Hot Topic–clad goth with a passing interest in the morbid; she has confronted death and suffering throughout her life. “I was very supportive during the AIDS epidemic of anyone who was sick and anyone who was deserted,” she says. After losing her brother to AIDS, in 1989, she wrote her opera Plague Mass, which points the finger at a hypocritical clergy who preach caring for the weakest while viewing AIDS as the wages of sin. She was condemned by the Catholic Church for blasphemy after performing the piece in a New York cathedral, shirtless and covered in blood. Galás has also written about and publicly supported other causes that are close to her heart: veterans returning from war, victims of genocide, mental illness, and Hepatitis C, which she herself battled for years. Her conversation and work are peppered with pleas to care for the downtrodden and the ignored.

Her New York show will continue these dark meditations, starting with the title, which comes from the poems of the luminary Italian poet Cesare Pavese. “They were discovered on his desk and they were written a few weeks before he killed himself,” said Galás. Other pieces dwell on lonely funerals and lost sailors. “These are very sad songs, but I am attracted to them, because there is a reality in them that I see very much,” she said.

That reality is particularly personal for Galás right now. She’s returning to the States not only to play these concerts, but also to care for her mother, who has been ill for several years. “[I’ve written] many songs about the crime of deserting one you love, so when it comes to my mother, I [must] be by her side and be the sergeant, in a sense. You can’t desert the person who is dying or who is getting older and needs you.”

For Galás, death is not transformative. It is simply an ending. “After you die, it’s over,” she says. “There’s none of this mysticism about it, and that is brutal. With that brutality comes an obsession with life.” While that finality would give some people a sense of nihilism, Galás is vehemently not nihilistic. “I always felt I was trying to understand things, so that I didn’t have to suffer as much by them,” said Galás. “Singing about these things keeps it away, because it’s a fear that you then address. You don’t try to avoid thinking about it, and then when you grab on to it as your own, you are free.”

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