Fine Art

Mama Alto – Countertenor Diva


This article was originally published in Lot’s Wife Edition 5: Identity

AD: Where did Mama Alto come from?
As a child I felt so at a loss in this world because for so many reasons, my identity did not fit into the mainstream – along racial lines, gender lines, sexuality lines… When to me it seems lines don’t need to be drawn in that way. Mama Alto was the nickname given to me in high school choir, because I was like a mother hen (not to mention bossy) and because of my high singing voice (in an alto, or countertenor, range). And eventually that became the name of all of these energies inside of me that had been restricted by society – the feminine energy within a male body, the queer energy within a ‘straight’ society, and the person of colour within a neo-colonial state… Mama Alto was the performative identity I stepped into on stage, as a jazz singer, as a cabaret artiste, and as a countertenor diva. And people have embraced that…

AD: How much of Mama Alto is a character, how much is just a part of Benny?
I would never think of Mama Alto as a character… She’s me. I would say in fact, I’m more Mama Alto than Benny… I feel free and I feel truly myself when I am Mama Alto.

AD: Where was Mama Alto’s first break?
At The Butterfly Club – a fantastic Melbourne institution. It’s a quirky, intriguing and sensual home for cabaret, burlesque, comedy and kitsch. And it’s an incubator for emerging artists and a platform for established ones, and the place and people there are so supportive of all that occurs within art and life.
Looking at some photos on your FB page, you’ve got some pretty heart-warming feedback from some elderly fans, has the response been surprising? I was incredibly surprised… I never expected elderly people to “get” what I was about, but they have embraced my gendered identity more than anyone else. I have had beautiful audience members in their eighties and nineties tell me that my gender identity didn’t matter, when their middle-aged children weren’t interested in discussing that after the show, they were just there for the pretty songs. The most touching experience has been a 90 year old holocaust survivor who told me: “You are beautiful. A beautiful woman or a beautiful man, or neither – I don’t really know, but I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that no one can decide that for you. Never let anyone choose for you. Only you can choose.”

AD:What was the biggest ‘wow’ moment on or off stage?
Every time you make a meaningful connection with an audience member, that is the wow moment.

AD: Do you resist trying to define your gender or your act as ‘drag’ or ‘gender bending’?
I think so. I went make up shopping with a friend the other day, and the shop assistant almost used the word “drag” – I thought my friend was going to slap her! As a genderqueer person – with a gender identity that lies between the two ‘traditional’ binary oppositional gender constructions of male and female – I don’t really see myself as a drag artist – although I have a lot of respect for the subversive and political elements of drag performance. To me, though, it isn’t putting on an act – it’s just releasing what is already inside of me. I’m more of a gender transcender than a bender – because I just can’t see gender as a rigid thing, it’s a fluidity which can be transcended or traversed.

AD: How is it living off of the gender binary – any advice for those coming to grips with gender fluidity?
Let’s be honest, it is difficult. Every trip to a public bathroom is defined by strangers who draw battle lines across your gender identity – too male for the female bathroom, too female for the male bathroom. Just the nerve of people that they think they have a right to comment on, or pass judgement on, your gendered identity and that people waste so much valuable time and energy trying to make others fit into their narrow, restricted world views… My advice would be, find your people. Find people that get you. Find people that are willing to know and love the real you. But that advice holds true to anyone.
AD: Establish your cred, who are your influences?
That’s the infamous question that always gets asked, isn’t it! Jazz queens, soul divas and cabaret chanteuses are my biggest influences – including legends such as Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Lena Horne, Roberta Flack, Cleo Laine, Mary Wilson, Nina Simone, Bridgette Allen, Meow Meow, Yana Alana, Paul Capsis, Le Gateau Chocolat, Moira Finucane… The list goes on forever.

AD: Who are you listening to currently?
At this very moment, I’m listening to some Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston, another two idols of mine…
If you could appear in any ABC TV show from your childhood, which one would it be in and why? Although it only screened on the ABC and wasn’t produced by them, I loved the retro episodes of Sesame Street – they had guest stars like Lena Horne, Ray Charles, and Patti LaBelle who would come in and sing duets with the Muppets. That is the TV show I would appear in.

AD: Any plans on taking Mama Alto abroad?
One day! One day. I would love to do Edinburgh Fringe… But you know, I always like to think big.
What’s coming up in the near future – where can our readers go to see you? My next big project is only as a director, not a performer – a cabaret interpretation of The Velveteen Rabbit at Monash Uni Student Theatre, on campus August 22-30. And my next performances are at The Butterfly Club, September 24 – 28, with Sassy: Mama Alto sings Sarah Vaughan.

To find out more about Mama Alto and upcoming performances, head to;

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The Museum Of Old And New Art

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We’re on the ferry to MONA and it feels a little like we’re being taken to some secret, evil lair.  As we reach the jetty, staff in stiff black coats usher us up over 100 stairs cut into beautiful faces of natural sandstone. We are given iPod touches and a quick tutorial on how to use the MONA ‘O’ app, then take a spiral staircase through a bed of rust- and sand-coloured stone to the basement level of the museum.

Since MONA opened in January 2011 it has received critical acclaim from around the world and become a drawcard for tourists in Australia. The museum is architecturally stunning, and full of works that are confronting, disturbing and sometimes breathtakingly beautiful. Tasmanian millionaire and gallery owner David Walsh has described MONA as a Disney Land for adults; it certainly includes all of the entailed thrills and stomach churning moments.

Nearly 400 artworks are displayed, each without text – a technique which encourages a plurality of readings of the works. Guests can utilise a GPS on the iPods to ‘find’ the works they are near and tune into interviews with the artists, and read short tweet-length ‘ideas’ about the works and theoretical essays listed in the category of ‘art wank’. Basic details such as the name of the artist and where and when each work was created are also included.

There is a certain ambience generated by the partial darkness and exposed construction of the gallery space. Guests move about in their own bubbles of consciousness as most have headsets on and are enjoying the freedom of feeling their way through the gallery at leisure. Drawcard works are the controversial The Great Wall of Vagina by Jamie McCartney and Cloaca Professional by Wim Delvoye. The reputation of these works precedes them; they are colloquially known, respectively, as cunt wall and poo machine. We have already heard about each from our taxi drivers.

Other pieces fulfil the promise of the title of the museum, combining ‘old’ and ‘new’. Cabinets of old coins and subtle ceramics are lit in such a way that each artefact glows poetically in the dark. The presence of cutting edge contemporary art and ancient artefacts reinforce the juxtaposition of life and death confronting the spectator at every turn in the collection.

A standout work for me, a second-time visitor to MONA, is the sound work The Two Sisters, by Susan Philipsz. Maybe it is because I have come to Hobart with my twin sister, someone I don’t see very often, but this work moves me greatly. Another reviewer described this work as “evocative and harrowing,” which is fitting given that the inspiration is a morbid 1956 Scandinavian folk song The Twa Sisters, which tells the tale of a woman who remorselessly drowns her younger sister in an act of sexual jealousy. Regardless of the backstory, this work is composed to emotively affect the listener. I stand between two tall speakers and close my eyes, and am immediately enveloped by the subtle beauty of strings arrangements composed as two channels of sound which are different but harmonious.

There is a huge amount to see as we travel up through rock and the three stages of the gallery. From Bit.fall, a clever combination of engineering, information technology and art by Julius Popp (pictured), to Jannis Kounellis’ Arte Povera installation work Untitled, which references Picasso’s Guernica and utilises everyday materials to evoke themes of resistance, MONA is bursting with works that make you think and respond. For some visitors that response is a feeling of nausea or disgust; for many the experience is an enlightening one.

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