Diamanda Galás in a tent? You can't say no, really, can you? Especially when it's no ordinary tent, but the elegant and reassuringly solid Spiegeltent, a kind of travelling theatre which has arrived in New York, and pitched itself, for a limited time only, on a pier on the Hudson river, almost beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Among the motley assortment of vaudeville turns and burlesque shows which are the Spigeltent's usual fare is none other than Diamanda Galás, who is appearing in a short series of matinee slots, before the main performances start. It's unusual to see Diamanda in such an intimate, informal settting. We normally only get to see her in such high-end concert venues such as the Royal Festival Hall, when she's touring with one of her opera-diva-of-the-apocalypse shows. But this, I suppose, counts as a local gig; a chance to play a few favourite musical moments without giving it the full Die Walküre treatment.
Having said that, even when she's being informal, Diamanda Galás is still a bit of a challenge. Especially as this particular performance encompasses, according to the programme blurb, "Songs from the Greek underworld, Armenian Udi Hrant, and other songs by Diamanda Galás using texts from the French poets maudits and Galás' vocal prowess in the amanethes of Asia Minor." Well, I'm not sure I follow all of that, but I think we can be fairly certain Diamanda won't be leading us through a chorus or two of 'Knees Up Mother Brown'. Still, she seems relaxed and almost cheery as she sits down behind an impressive grand piano, and the show begins.
Diamanda Galás has a voice that can curdle milk, stop traffic, and reverse the flow of blood in your veins. Even when, as here, she's keeping it all low key, her natural command of drama means that you just can't drag your attention away. That writhing vocal wraps its tentacles around you, and you're caught up and mesmerised before you even know it. The songs themselves are dark, dangerous things; or at least, that's the way they sound, even if the meanings, and the languages in which they're sung, remain obscure. Frankly, I doubt if anyone in this audience, sitting rapt on hard wooden chairs as if attending Sunday school, has the faintest idea what Diamanda is singing about, but that's not really the point. The only thing you can do is allow yourself to become immersed in that voice, that elemental sound, as it ebbs and flows, as implacable as the waters that lap Manhattan Island. Listen to Diamanda go - the way she'll swoop and roar, as she pounces on a lyric like a bird of prey that's just spied a rabbit from a mile up. Then she'll suddenly drop to a croon, a deceptively seductive sound that will suddenly turn and bite as she revs it up again. All this, over her stalking, plangent piano accompaniment, creates a definite atmosphere.
What was that I was saying about Sunday school? With the evening sun gleaming through the Spiegeltent's stained glass windows, it's almost as if we're attending chapel - although I wouldn't like to guess which denomination Diamanda represents. Something decidedly non-conformist, that's for sure.
For more photos from this gig, find Diamanda Galás by name here.