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MUSIC : Ferociously Yours : Diamanda Galas has made AIDS her subject, to both worldwide criticism and acclaim. Call her a singer, composer, musician or even activist. Just don’t call her a performance artist

<i> Jan Breslauer is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

Diamanda Galas is curled up on a couch in a private room at the Regent, the chichi hotel where all the rock stars stay. Fresh off a plane from Switzerland, she is here on a press stop before heading on to Norway.

She has been blitzing around Europe this way for weeks now. Through Yugoslavia, Slovenia, Austria, Amsterdam, Brussels and other stops, Galas has performed two different bills of her distinctive musical and vocal performance, juggling her “Plague Mass” and “Judgment Day” on alternating nights.

Even if her art wasn’t so physically demanding, the pace would be relentless. And that’s not a bad word to describe Galas herself.

The composer-performer combines moral and artistic ferocity with a classically trained 3 1/2-octave operatic voice. She is best known for a series of music-based performance works that focus on people’s pain, particularly of those with AIDS.

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New York-based, San Diego-born Galas, 41, has been creating this body of work since the late ‘70s. She has moved from the tiny art house circuit to playing for large houses worldwide. Her recordings are released on Mute Records, home of Depeche Mode and other big-dollar acts. Her 1993 tour arrives in California this month: On Tuesday, she performs “Judgment Day” at UC San Diego’s Mandeville Auditorium, and on Friday, UCLA’s Royce Hall hosts the California premiere of “Plague Mass.”

A blend of music, theater and spectacle, Galas’ confrontational work has sometimes been called performance art, although that’s a term she hates.

Whatever the label, her eclectic, large-scale, electronically amplified sound-and-word sculptures hark back to forms as different as Antonin Artaud’s theater of cruelty and Greek tragedy, with shards of opera, dirge and the blues thrown in. Passages of original and borrowed text and song--from Baudelaire to the Bible, from Gounod to Poe--pepper the compositions.

Yet it’s especially the tragic forms that signal the content.

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“When I decided to do something like a plague mass, I wanted to (explore) the state of living with something that everyone refers to as a mandatory death sentence,” Galas says. “How do you live with that? That’s a question I ask myself every day.”

She isn’t really after answers, though: “The parallels of what were previously considered certain mental illnesses are strong, but I haven’t wanted to water down the work by saying you too can relate to this if you point to your own miserable past. I wanted to say it’s a plague mass. And no, I don’t mean metaphorically.”

Galas’ work draws heavily on the iconography and vocabulary of Christianity, with biblical excerpts and gospel music sprinkled throughout her performances. “Plague Mass,” in particular, is largely original text, although segments of Leviticus, Job, Revelation and the Psalms are incorporated as well, and the work as a whole is structured in the format of the Mass.

In one part of “Plague Mass,” Galas appears onstage, naked from the waist up and covered with what looks like blood. This section, titled “There Are No More Tickets to the Funeral,” makes an analogy between AIDS and the Crucifixion.

Not surprisingly, this material has offended some. The Italian government, for example, as well as numerous newspapers there, called her work blasphemous or sacrilegious. Yet not all factions of the church have opposed Galas: The recorded version of “Plague Mass” was made during a performance in New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

On the fingers of her left hand is tattooed “WE ARE ALL HIV+.” Her tiny frame is dressed casually but all in black save for the violet-tinted prescription glasses she wears, even indoors on a drizzly London afternoon, to protect her light-sensitive eyes.

The look is intense, even without the onstage war paint. But it’s tame next to the passion with which she talks about what it takes to keep making this kind of art.

Galas first began writing and performing about AIDS when she was living in San Francisco in 1984. Almost immediately, people tried to steer her away from the topic.

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“They said, ‘Why do you want to do this? It’s suicide,’ ” recalls Galas, who is a member of the AIDS activist group ACT UP. “I dissociated myself from a lot of people in that time because there was little understanding. I started out doing something that was hardly designed for the market anyway.”

As far as Galas was concerned, she had no choice.

“I am limited in that I can only write something that interests me,” says the artist, whose brother, San Diego-based playwright Philip-Dimitri Galas, died of complications of AIDS in 1986. “I can only perform what I believe in.”

Yet that’s not an easy row to hoe. Galas has been both hailed and reviled for the AIDS-related content of her work, but she hasn’t wavered from this course.

“It’s my job to articulate things in a way that I feel is the most honest,” she says. “So maybe I have to have more power onstage because the music is a little more sophisticated than a lot of people would want it to be.”

Part of Galas’ task in the early years was facing down the resistance:

“You get up in front of people who boo you off the stage, who say things to you or make it so that you can’t hear yourself, who don’t know what the work is about, and you learn from that. You have to go through a lot of standing up in front of your enemies. You bang your fist into the wall and you get angry. It doesn’t mean it’s going to change what the artistic work is.”

And still, Galas is obviously an artist who is determined to have people--many people--hear what she has to say.

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“There’s a dialectic between the (unwillingness to tailor the message) and certainly wanting people to see the performance,” she says. “It’s like extroverting something that you’re not supposed to say, but extroverting it so that it’s an art, not just sniggering in the corner or saying things that you think people think are forbidden. It has to be speaking honestly in a definitively non-elitist manner what you know about life or yourself.”

In any case, she has learned to feed off the resistance when needed.

“It’s going to affect me spiritually that people would say I was limited, but I heard that when I started doing this work anyway,” Galas says. “I’ve always said somewhat laughingly that as an artist you have to learn to embrace your limitations.”

Galas, the daughter of Greek immigrants, began her musical training at age 5, thanks in part to a gospel choir her musician father directed at the college where he taught.

She debuted at 14 as a pianist with the San Diego Symphony and went on to study music performance at UC San Diego, where she cultivated an interest in jazz.

During the ‘70s, Galas concentrated on piano, although she soon began to realize that voice was to be her instrument of choice. Accordingly, she set out to train her voice and develop a stage persona.

“I started out doing the training because I felt it would be a lie if I could only do what I was physically limited by,” she says. “Then you repeat yourself over and over again because of physical limitation.”

Flying in the face of performance art stereotypes--which sometimes glorify a rawness of craft--Galas has always put stock in technique. Known for the amalgam of shrieks, screams, babblings and operatic sounds that she emits during performance--as well as her more traditional singing, piano playing and oratorio--she has always been rigorous about maintaining her instrument.

“What’s happening on a physical level takes discipline over a long period of time,” Galas says. “Honesty makes me push myself. I push hard because I don’t want to sing something I’ve heard myself sing before. Certainly I know where I’m going with a work each time I perform it, but still there’s this other imperative to push it further each time, and that forces me to keep this level of training going. Especially because I’ve got to do this in 20 years.”

In 1979, Yugoslav composer Vinko Globokar cast Galas in what turned out to be a breakthrough role, as the lead in “Un Jour Comme Un Autre,” an opera based on Amnesty International reports about a Turkish female torture victim.

In the early ‘80s, Galas felt ready to focus on her own performances, including “Wild Women With Steak Knives” and “Tragouthia Apo to Aima Exoun Fonos” (“Song From the Blood of Those Murdered”), a paean to people tortured in the wake of the 1967 Greek military coup.

Galas also began to put out her first records during this time--another way in which she has diverged from the typical performance artist operating procedure. Although she shares a subject matter--AIDS--with many of the artists who have come under right-wing attack for their public funding, Galas has applied for a grant only once in her life, in 1984 from the National Endowment for the Arts. It was turned down. “I don’t know anything about applying for grants,” she says.

Galas has instead found a way to combine the avant-garde aesthetic with a commercial packaging route, touring and releasing albums on the Mute label.

“I wondered how I was going to survive, and some musicians from Europe told me about record companies,” she says. “So I went and lived and recorded in London and Berlin and other places. I lived everywhere since 1980. Especially between 1985 and 1989, I lived horribly in bed and breakfasts. I was living out of a suitcase for a really long time. It was awful.”

In 1990, Galas moved to New York, which puts her close to her management and just a plane ride away from what has been an easier market for her to crack.

“There’s a certain seriousness about art-making that is encouraged in Europe that isn’t encouraged at all in America, except in certain rarefied institutions,” Galas says. “When I go to Finland, my name and face are on the bus. In Yugoslavia, I performed for 1,400 people. It’s very different when you go to Europe: What is considered extreme eccentricity (here) is encouraged there.”

The “Plague Mass” Galas will perform at UCLA, for example, is her best-known work. It was seen in 15 cities in 1990 and recorded in New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Yet it’s only now getting many bookings in States.

“I would have loved to perform ‘Plague Mass’ four or five years ago in Los Angeles, but then it was not possible,” Galas says. “I’ve survived since 1978 doing this work, and more people see it now than they did before. But it’s not because I’ve suddenly changed the direction of the work. There is more acceptance now.”


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