On the Couch with Mama Alto

Mama Alto_ONC_Photo_Natasha BlankfieldWho is Mama Alto?
Mama Alto is a countertenor diva, jazz singer and cabaret artiste. A unique songstress, with an identity and voice that transcend gender. I am all about the enigma – the ambiguities of identity, sexuality, race and gender – and all about the voice – the power and fragility, the strength and the vulnerability, the expression and communication which all intersect within the singer and the song.

What would you do differently to what you do now?
This is a tough question! I always say to myself, if I did one thing differently, it would be to be less busy. But that’s life in the arts – if you’re not busy, you’re outta the job! Sure, I get busy, and I get exhausted, but it is worth it to do what I love. I always imagined if I wasn’t an artist, if I wasn’t a singer, maybe I’d run a little second hand shop full of treasures, antique books, all that… But I don’t think you’ll get me off the stage any time soon.

Who inspires you and why?
I am inspired by the great torch singers, divas and chanteuses such as Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and Nina Simone who achieved glamour, power, elegance and validation through embracing their alterity. I am inspired by the musicality of cool jazz queens such as Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae and Peggy Lee. I am inspired by artists whose work touches and astounds me, people like Bridgette Allen, Mary Wilson and Roberta Flack.

I am inspired by the provocateurs and crooners who are their own creations of exquisite and raucous talent, including Yana Alana, Paul Capsis and Meow Meow. I am inspired by my friends and family, their passion, their love, their drive, their motivation, and their talents, including Geoffrey, Susan, Elisa, Waluya and Valerie. And I am of course inspired by the incredible Australian cabaret and burlesque community of producers, artists, creators and audiences…

What would you do to make a difference in the world?
I endeavour to be true to myself, and to the idea that standards of normality society imposes are often false constructions which oppress. When you are demarcated as Other – be it through gender, through sexuality, through race, through ability, or what have you – the personal becomes political.

By striving to be yourself, and refusing to compromise your identity, and embracing and celebrating your alterity – by saying, the feminine is powerful, the queer is valid, black is beautiful – we change the world, slowly but surely. And of course, when you have a captive audience for an hour, you can really impress your politics upon them! No, no, I joke… But really. You have to give all of yourself. Spread love, always.

Favourite holiday destination and why?
I love New York – stereotypical answer for a cabaret artiste, I know! – because there are so many layers of culture, high and low brow, so much art and music and history, and always new worlds to discover. Some of the most incredible places are there, it can become like a pilgrimage of the performing arts… I do also love Venice, because of its sheer beauty.

When friends come to town, what attraction would you take then to, and why?
Definitely to The Butterfly Club. The most established and longest running of all Melbourne’s cabaret venues, this intimate club is a sparkling gem, an Aladdin’s cave of kitsch treasures, home to some of the most inventive bartenders and devilish cocktails, an incubator for performers, and host to some of the best shows in town.

What are you currently reading?
I’m about to start on I’m Talking – Kate Ceberano’s autobiography – and I’m in the midst of revisiting two of my favourites, the Lady sings the Blues memoir of Billie Holiday, and the dissertation Torch Singing by Stacey Holman-Jones.

What are you currently listening to?
At the moment, I can’t get enough of the clips they have released from After Midnight – the Broadway show featuring the Jazz at the Lincoln Centre Orchestra! Of course, I’m listening to my constant touchstones, Billie Holiday and Carmen McRae, some Motown classics, as well as the live album of Mary Wilson’s… and then my guilty pleasure, some Beyoncé every now and then!

Happiness is?
Love… Love between lovers, between friends, between family. Love of your work. Love of your hobbies. Loving what you do. Loving the sun shining, the birds singing. Loving that which fulfills you and seeking it. For me, it includes my relationships with my partner, my family, my friends, my pets; the delight of singing, of sequins, of satin and feathers; of connecting with others… If you make someone else feel something good, that’s happiness.

What does the future hold for you?
After my Melbourne Cabaret Festival show, Mama Alto: Countertenor Diva, I will be directing a cabaret piece for Monash Uni Student Theatre in August, and presenting some jazz sets at The Butterfly Club in September – Sassy: Mama Alto sings Sarah Vaughan. Down the track, we’re looking at touring An Audience with Billie Holiday – the Art Events Australia show I did in May at Chapel off Chapel.

And of course, to close the year, I return to The Butterfly Club in December for The Third Annual Mama Alto Christmas Special! We do it every year, with special guests and vintage Christmas songs, and every year it gets bigger and bigger!

Mama Alto is a countertenor diva, jazz singer and cabaret artiste. Drawing on the legacies of vintage torch singers and from her own identity as a queer person of colour, Mama Alto’s vocal and visual aesthetic – described by various critics as haunting, ethereal and intoxicating – transcend gender, disrupting and discomforting societal constructions of dichotomous boundaries.

Mama Alto will be starring in her show, Mama Alto: Countertenor Diva at The Butterfly Club as part of the 2014 Melbourne Cabaret Festival. For more information, visit: www.melbournecabaret.com for details.

Image: Mama Alto – photo by Natasha Blankfield

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