Mama Alto: A Storyteller Swathed In Old Hollywood Glam

Mama Alto: A Storyteller Swathed In Old Hollywood Glam
Image: Mama Alto at the Victorian Pride Centre. Photo: Maya Britbart Ellazam

Mama Alto is a Melbourne cabaret and jazz icon. She is also a storyteller and a transgender activist, who creates spaces allowing LGBTQI+ people the safety to find power in their softer moments.

The cabaret extraordinaire tells Star Observer she fulfilled a lifelong dream when she stepped on stage at the iconic Joe’s Pub in New York City in February this year.

“I’ve watched performances there for the last fifteen years, and now to grace that stage myself really just blows me away,” she says. 

She made her American solo debut at the iconic NYC venue, which is best known for hosting the most legendary of singers, such as Adele and Amy Winehouse.

“The incredible pianist Isaac Hayward joined me and it was just…” she pauses. “I can’t quite describe the sumptuousness of it all.”  

An icon of Melbourne’s world-class cabaret scene with a deep reverence for golden age Hollywood glitz and glam, Mama Alto uses her abilities as an artist and storyteller to create a connective bridge between each human experience.

“We can come to understand each other’s lives and begin to close the gaps between us, just that little bit, through storytelling,” she says. “In some ways, it is the foundation of our humanity.”

The most powerful thing about a Mama Alto performance is that when she serenades you with beautiful torch songs, you are invited to be a part of her story – and what a sweet story it is.

Mama commands the stage adorned in a theatrically ruffled deep blue coat, her renditions of soulful classics like Autumn Leaves and Round Midnight inspiring feelings in a place beyond language. 

Mama Alto’s idols and cabaret legacy

Raised on the work of trailblazers like Sarah Vaughan, Gladys Bentley, Judy Garland, Frida Kahlo and Jackie Shane to name a few, Mama holds deep appreciation for those who have paved the way to make her art possible. 

“I really could talk forever about my idols; so many inspirations throughout history and mythology. Our lineage as artists and queer people and disabled people and people of colour stretching back in time immemorial.”

Cabaret is a vital space for Mama. She describes it as: “An artistic form that can encompass complexities and contradictions – a multifaceted, refracting prism of humanity in all our messy gloriousness and all our glorious messiness.”

“Cabaret is a space for those who are pushed aside to step into the spotlight and be recognised as central and vital and magical once more,” she says.

“And here in Melbourne, we are so very lucky to have such a beautiful, diverse and thriving cabaret scene.”

Advocacy through art, art through advocacy

Her desire to herald queer communities through art is remarkable. The multi-talented artist has a staggeringly impressive resume, and a remarkable number of achievements in her work as a staunch advocate for the LGBTQI+ community of Melbourne.

Mama was once the CEO of Transgender Victoria (an experience she considers one of the great privileges and challenges of her life), a board member of Switchboard Victoria, an ambassador for Public Libraries Victoria and the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and a Program Coordinator of Midsumma Festival.

Mama Alto at the Victorian Pride Centre. Image: Maya Britbart Ellazam / May As Well Productions

For Mama there is no divergence between art and advocacy when it comes to challenging gender norms and promoting queer rights. Rather, they are necessary neighbours; be it through singing or activism, she is always challenging gender roles or perceived societal norms. 

“The big secret that no one seems to want to discuss openly is that heteronormative gender roles harm us all.”

“The first and foremost thing that everyone must realise, accept, embrace and celebrate about transgender people is something shockingly simple: that we are human, too, just like you, [and that] there is no normal,” she says. 

“We are all diverse, not ‘normal’ and ‘other’ – and that’s part of the beauty of humanity. Once we all begin to embrace that, oh what a wonderful world we can make together.” 

“When someone steps outside of those ‘norms’ – revelling in and celebrating the ‘abnormalities’ – it can inspire and empower us to grow and change towards a better tomorrow. And maybe my singing can do that, for someone, in some small way.” 

For Pride Month, Mama Alto will be transforming the Victorian Pride Centre into an intimate cabaret lounge with her inaugural Pride Tea Parties, which combines her deep love of tea (as seen when she lounges inside a giant tea cup mid-show) with the desire to create a safe space for queer people. 

“For queer people, there’s something very special about a Pride event or space that isn’t solely dependent on dancing, on alcohol, on nightlife. Being able to sit together for an evening, enjoy a cup of tea (or two!) and share stories and songs is a very warm, inviting and welcoming experience.”

“It’s about bringing people together to wrap ourselves in queer love and community, to celebrate ourselves and each other, to counter the isolation and self-loathing that society has often ingrained in us.”

All images by Maya Britbart Ellazam / May As Well Productions

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