In 1990, Diamanda Galas presented her acclaimed requiem for the sufferers of AIDS, Masque of the Red Death Plague Mass. In 1992, she followed with the companion piece, Vena Cava, which explored AIDS-related dementia and schizophrenia. I first saw Galas perform at the Warfield Theater -- a birthday present for a demanding friend who knew I could get tickets. I had been, at best, irritated by Galas' recorded shrieking, and didn't expect much from a live rendering. I was wrong. The stage was drenched in red candlelight when Galas stepped out, wrapped in a sarong, barefoot, and bare-breasted. She opened her mouth and howled. It was a spine-cracking sound that constricted intestines like a Victorian undergarment. It caught everyone's attention. Which is not to say that everyone liked it. By the time Galas had initiated the sixth round of her vocal assault, her hair was matted with pig's blood and the whites of her eyes had become too large ... and suddenly I got it. Galas was not giving us "performance art." She was mentally slicing herself open in public and scraping her bones with sandpaper because she really needed us to understand. She had actually managed to harness dementia. It was completely brilliant, and not a little scary. A large number of folks scuttled for the exit, looking behind them as if the nightmare could still catch hold. They missed what could have been the most intense vocal display of their lives. Standing dead-still in the middle of the stage, Galas splintered into four separate personalities -- mother, patient, doctor, and priest. She signified the changes in character with a slight pivot of her head while making full use of her impressive four-octave range. The voices whispered, talked, cried, accused, and screamed at each other with increasing violence, until they melded into a fifth voice that was only an anguished Galas. It was the closest I've ever come to an exorcism. Later, when I was invited to meet Galas, I could not shake the disturbing vision of this woman standing onstage, her head spinning, her voice morphing, blood everywhere. "Don't worry," my friend said, trying to assure. "She says that she works all of that stuff out onstage." This time around, Galas will be presenting a night of laments, dirges, and spirituals titled "Malediction and Prayer." The show includes pieces borrowed from or inspired by the works of Johnny Cash, Son House, Willie Dixon, Charles Baudelaire, Miguel Mixco, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. It should be interesting, at the very least. The show begins at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 20, at Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft & Telegraph, Berkeley. Tickets are $14-26; call (510) 642-9988.
-- Silke Tudor