- A man with a singing voice that is higher than usual for a tenor and similar to a low female voice [Cambridge English Dictionary]
- The highest male adult singing voice (sometimes distinguished from the male alto voice by its strong, pure tone). [Oxford English Dictionary]
- The countertenor voice is a strange and liminal zone within and between the traditional Western classifications of voice types, where men are usually considered as basses, baritones and tenors, and women as contraltos, mezzo-sopranos and sopranos. [Mama Alto]
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This week Mama Alto and Miss Chief bring their acclaimed show “Mama Alto: Countertenor Diva” back to Melbourne for a three night run at The Butterfly Club.
The show toured Adelaide Fringe, Perth Fringe World and the Melbourne Cabaret Festival in 2014 and the duo have updated the script and rearranged the score to reflect the world in which they find themselves a year later.
I began this interview uncertain whether I should refer to Mama Alto (the onstage persona) or Benny Dimas (the offstage artist) but I soon realised that this distinction, like many others, is not conveniently black and white.
Mama Alto: Once there was a time when the everyday voice of Benny and the persona of Mama Alto were very different beings but nowadays the two voices have blurred together, and there is less distinction. In Countertenor Diva, I speak and sing as Mama Alto. I developed the onstage persona from that which was already in me.
I took the qualities which someone on the street might use to ridicule me: sexuality, effeminacy, race, gendered ambiguity, the high pitch of my speaking and singing voice. I acknowledged and transformed these qualities so that they became central to my narrative. Now they are empowering sources of pride and triumph rather than causes of ridicule or shame.
Mama Alto’s work invites closer inspection and deeper consideration. As an audience we join the exploration of gender, sexuality, race in music and society as a whole.
Cabaret Confessional: What does the word diva mean to you?
Mama Alto: In today’s world ‘diva’ holds a host of different, and sometimes pejorative, meanings. For some, a diva is the unreasonable and demanding prima donna type, overly dramatic, overly bossy, and overly entitled.
But let’s look a bit deeper. To me, diva has always meant an artiste who is the epitome of glamorous elegance, exquisite artistry, unbelievable talent and feminine power.
The diva is unafraid to authentically exercise her power and glamour, and use her talents to be a storyteller and an empath, reaching out to people’s emotions and lived stories through song.
I am sure that it is no coincidence that in a society ruled so heavily by old patriarchal values, the word diva is now more commonly aligned to the negative meaning. In a society that excludes and marginalises many in order to raise the value of some human beings above others, there is a certain misogyny implicit in encoding feminine divinity (such as the diva) with unreasonable self-interest.
I am interested in reclaiming this word to acknowledge and explore the power of femininity and femme-ness, which even now within some queer subcultures is derided and denigrated as a negative quality.
Cabaret Confessional: Who do you think of as divas?
When I look at my idols or icons, the divas I would identify begin with some of the fierce blues women of the early twentieth century - women such as Bessie Smith, the so called ‘Empress of the Blues,’ or Gladys Bentley, who infamously and fearlessly advertised her lesbianism and butchness.
There are great jazz icons who I love dearly, fine musicians including Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone. These extraordinary talents perfected the art of torch singing into a finely nuanced and subtle exploration of complex gendered and racial meanings.
Soul legends such as Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Etta James, Chaka Khan and the stars of Motown; pop and R&B icons including Whitney Houston, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Donna Summers; extraordinary interpreters of ballads and risqué cabaret fare, such as Lena Horne, Roberta Flack, Cleo Laine, Eartha Kitt, Marilyn Maye, Mary Wilson and Shirley Bassey… and of course some of our contemporary cabaret performers including Yana Alana, Paul Capsis, Meow Meow, Le Gateau Chocolat and Moira Finucane.
A diva is about more than the sequins and gowns. The diva embraces and empowers the fierce beauty, intelligence, empathy, power, love, emotional depths and triumphant endurance of femininity, and uses these attributes to reach out and touch the audience.
Mama Alto’s voice is beguiling. Listening to its tone and range I can hear both the innocence of a young boy, the passion of a seductress and the control of a master technician.
Benny has always had the modal, or ‘natural’ countertenor voice. At the age where male voices are expected to ‘break’, Benny’s instead transitioned from high soprano to mellow alto and then filled out into the mezzo-soprano it is today.
Mama Alto: Countertenor has been the term applied throughout history to men with higher pitched voices who are not easily classifiable within the traditional male voice types. They typically have higher pitch within the ‘natural’ modal voice, the ‘castrati’ voice (created as the name suggests through deliberate prepubescent castration), or a cultivated and highly trained falsetto (sometimes referred to as ‘falsettist’ or ‘sopranist’ countertenor). Today we have a handful of acclaimed classical countertenor artists including men such as David Hansen, who have wide appeal travelling the world within opera and art song contexts.
How does your voice tie in with how you identify yourself?
My personal relationship with the term countertenor has sometimes been a problematic one, because to accept the traditional division of voice types - the male bass, baritone, tenor, the female alto, mezzo-soprano, soprano, and so on - you have to accept the traditional construction of gender and the subsequent gender roles - in singing and in life - as a dichotomous binary system. As a genderqueer person, this is something I have always found worrisome in our society. In today’s Australia especially the reinforcement of gendered norms and gender roles, linked to ideas of heteronormativity and misogyny, have caused terribly worrying social movements and expectations that ultimately do harm to women, men, as well as trans* and GSD (gender and sex diverse) identifying people.
The fact that having a higher voice - the alto or mezzo-soprano range - usually assigned as feminine, in a body which is usually assigned as masculine, confronts gendered norms is something which ties in intimately and provocatively with how I identify myself as a genderqueer person. I am often read in public situations as different genders - sometimes greeted with “ma’am” when I enter a shop, sometimes with sir - and that my voice, and singing particularly, transcend gendered expectations is integral to what I do on stage and in life. To expand on that, queerness asserts itself by displacing the heterosexist and binary gender expectations of human bodies and personalities, and in my voice, I perpetuate, embrace and celebrate queerness.
Meanwhile, as a person of colour, being able to sing the songs interpreted and made renowned by many of the great African American singers gives me a sense of pride and power in a political climate where brown people are met with fear, suspicion and discrimination - when we look to recent events including Reclaim Australia and their antecedents such as the Cronulla riots, the current abuse and mistreatment of asylum seekers and the blatant disregard for Indigenous Australian human rights, and the worrying continuous undercurrent of “white Australia” patriotism.
Singing with my voice enables me to reaffirm for both myself and my audience that feminine can be powerful, queer can be valid, brown can be beautiful.
Whilst cabaret is enjoying a resurgence in Australia with festivals around the country, The Butterfly Club in Melbourne remains the nation’s only full-time cabaret venue.
Mama Alto: My experiences with iconic Butterfly Club go back several years, to their original South Melbourne premises. Since then - through eight or nine shows of my own with them, guest appearances in five or six others, and their move from Bank Street South Melbourne to Carson Place in the CBD - my relationship with them has been continually characterised by their overwhelming love and support. The Butterfly Club team - including Simone, Nicole, Xander, Adele, Tom, Dirk, Alex and Craig - are a beautiful and incredible group of people, and without their friendship and their professional support my career as an emerging cabaret artist would never have gotten off the ground. Their amazing business model nurtures independent artists and fosters a strong community of cabaret makers, in diverse forms from jazz, music theatre, comedy, burlesque and more. I have nothing but appreciation, gratitude and applause for this amazing venue. They make a mean cocktail, too.
Cabaret Confessional: What do you consider to be the defining moment of your career to date?
Every time that an audience member waits to see me post performance and tells me that the show touched them in some way or meant something to them, affirming something in their lives or changing their mind about something they had never considered before - those are the defining moments.
‘Mama Alto: Countertenor’ opens this Friday night at The Butterfly Club. Tickets can be booked through the club’s website. You can also discover more about Mama Alto on Facebook, twitter @MamaAlto and at www.mamaalto.com.
MAMA ALTO: COUNTERTENOR DIVA
May 1 & 2 (9pm), 3 (8pm)
The Butterfly Club, Melbourne