This week the Royal Festival Hall was a refuge for the outcast minority of Londoners who aren’t mesmerised by the spectacle of hearty people running around and throwing things. In they came, black-clad, tattooed, scurrying from the evening sun, to sit in darkness watching a woman let loose a piercing series of wails that ricocheted around the auditorium like angry banshees. Diamanda Galás – for it was she – was opening the Meltdown festival.
The cult New Yorker with the wild voice owed her presence at the Southbank Centre to another cult New York singer, Antony Hegarty. The Antony and the Johnsons frontman is Meltdown’s guest curator this year. Born in the UK, raised in the US, owner of a rococo vocal style developed in the Lower East Side’s 1990s gay demi-monde, Hegarty has devised an intriguing line-up for the festival, whose past curators include Jarvis Cocker and Patti Smith.
Hegarty’s focus is on outsiders, from mavericks such as Lou Reed and Marc Almond to transgressive relics of downtown Manhattan’s performance art scene. While Olympic athletes push the capabilities of the human body on the other side of town, the Southbank is hosting performers who represent a more deviant side of the body – its aberrant appetites, its capacity to shock.
Which brings us to Galás. For more than three decades the 56-year-old has strained her diaphragm to the limit, producing an outlandish array of noises in the service of avant-garde art. At the Festival Hall she sat alone, spot-lit at a grand piano, dressed in the requisite black, warbling, shrieking, ululating, growling and letting loose an amplified upper note so intense my tympanum threatened to shut up shop and go on strike.
Her songs are not on the jolly side. A Greek-American, she sings about genocide, tragedy, suffering, madness, sexual violence. The night’s songs, played solo by Galás at the piano, were adaptations of poems about death and love by authors ranging from Pavese to Cavafy.
The opening number had a Chopin-like air, played with solemnity by Galás. Initially she sang a relatively straightforward soprano, before descending into a deeper, more dirge-like register. It wasn’t so much a parody of classical repertoire as a dull pastiche, Galás play-acting Maria Callas as a gothic diva, indulged by her audience. When a fan made the error of shouting his love for her, the response was imperious: “Do you know who you are talking to? Shut up!”
Galás is basically a confrontational Weimar cabaret singer transplanted into the post-punk era. “Man and Woman Go Through the Cancer Ward”, by the German poet Gottfried Benn, became a magnificent expressionist melodrama. Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” was dispatched with the throaty haughtiness of Marlene Dietrich. Best of all was “O Death”, a blues song in which reverb-treated vocals swirled like evil spirits and Galás transformed the Festival Hall into a theatre of cruelty. The anti-Olympians in the stalls lapped it up.