Diamanda Galas is in the midst of a rant, and a range of expletives fly as she airs her views on political correctness.
Just as the musician and activist is about to launch into a new diatribe, she stops cold, then lets out a piercing shriek and announces more urgently: My espresso is burning on the stove! This always fucking happens!
Much clattering around in the kitchen of her New York home is down the phone line. The espresso drama resolved, she charges back to the phone and, without missing a beat, continues her tirade about how furious liberals make her, describing them as flaccid and flatulent.
Then the hilarity of the moment hits her, and with a shriek of laughter she proclaims, see, I am the consummate professional -“ I can continue an interview while checking on the burning fucking espresso on the stove.
An interview with Diamanda Galas is unlike most chats with soon-to-visit world music artists. There are no perfectly prepared sound grabs about her approach to her material or what she hopes Australian audiences will get from her show. Diamanda doesn’t seem to have time for that.
She would much rather talk about a wide range of issues, like the gentrification of New York’s artistic lower east side where she lives, her perceived injustices of past and present Turkish governments, her defiance in the face of threats against her, the Bush regime and her hopes for a better future with gay and lesbian world leaders at the fore.
It is the passionate mixture of social issues with Galas’s unique musical talent that have made her a favourite on the world’s musical festival circuit. Critical descriptions of her talents have included such terms as a vocal terrorist and she has been described as singing like a demon going to war.
Described as the Queen of Scream for her opera-trained four-octave vocal range, hers is a voice that sears from guttural and gravelly shrieks to searing high notes.
Born to Greek parents in San Diego, Galas, 49, is returning to Australia for her third visit, her first since 2001.
She begins her tour at Melbourne’s Arts Centre with one performance of Defixiones: Orders from the Dead on 7 October, and one of Songs of Exile on 10 October.
She then tours the show Guilty, Guilty, Guilty to Brisbane and Adelaide before playing at Sydney’s State Theatre on 21 October.
Defixiones: Orders from the Dead tells of the forgotten Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocides that occurred between 1914 and 1923. The tale is based on witness accounts of the atrocities and told through music, drama and narrative.
Songs of Exile is a song cycle that follows the flight of poets and authors forced to live in exile and as outlaws. Sung in six languages, the show features Galas’s original compositions set to the worlds of poets like Vallejo (Peru), Celan (Romania) and Michaux (Belgium).
Guilty, Guilty, Guiltyis a program of tragic love songs and death songs, presenting an eclectic repertoire including O. V. Wright’s Eight Men and Four Women, Edith Piaf’s Heaven Have Mercy as well as I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry by Hank Williams.
I think of myself as a documentary performer -“ I am a forensic composer, she says.
I discuss events as they take place, not in the parlour room of my own life. I do masses, in which I take specific events, as Defixiones with the genocides or as Plague Mass did with the AIDS crisis.
In that sense, I am not being inventive as far as the material is concerned. I am doing non-fiction, as the people who have written masses for centuries have. They discuss the events they feel there has not been enough response to.
Creating her works of searing passion and political outrage does come at a cost, as not everyone likes the comments Galas makes.
Creating these things has always been very ugly, and the resistance I have had to them has been ugly, she says.
You can’t imagine the insults you get when you do this kind of work. It scares my family because they don’t know what might happen. But I always say to them I am living in America and here I feel relatively safe.
That said, she is not too thrilled about living under the continuing reign of George W. Bush as the US President. The current political climate hardly promotes freedom of expression, but Galas says she is not about to turn quiet.
I might have been scared, but it has not stopped me, she says.
I believe, as an agnostic, that I only have one life and I want to tell the truth while I am here. What can people do, really? They can call me a fucking arsehole, they can call me all kinds of things, but unless they kill me, there is not that much they can do.
Then she thinks for a moment and adds, except not to publish me (or let me perform). That is the most terrifying form of censorship.
One of her most famous works was Plague Mass, her response to the AIDS crisis. A 1991 performance of the show in New York’s Cathedral of St John the Divine saw her smeared with blood, stripped to the waist and strung up on a cross. Her playwright brother Phillip died of AIDS, and Diamanda has the words we are all HIV+ tattooed across the knuckles of one hand.
Having survived that time, Galas has brighter hopes for the future, with a great faith in the emergence of gay and lesbian leaders around the world to bring together conflicted and disparate cultures into some kind of working harmony.
I think the people who have the greatest potential are going to be the gay and lesbian populations, she says.
They are born outlaws in every culture. The people who are the biggest outlaws, who have nothing to lose, are the ones born to lead. They have no other choice. If they can get out of the basements the governments have hidden them in, then they have a chance of changing the world.
For more information visit the Melbourne Festival website.