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A Well Crafted Line will Stand the Test of Time


Melbourne songstress Ilana Charnelle is known for her commitment to dressing up in vintage glamour get-up every day almost as much as she is for her 1940s inspired vocals. “Forget smart phones, skinny jeans and autotune - I’m here to take you back to the days of love letters, bathtub gin, slow dancing and smouldering jazz!” 


Except without her smart phone, Ilana wouldn’t be able to share her vintage discoveries on instagram. She looks at fashion the same way she looks at songs - by looking back you can see the music and outfits that stand the test of time. They show that they’ve been created by masters of their craft and possess a quality that makes them timeless. A well crafted line, whether it be the cut of a beautiful jacket, a beautifully poignant lyric or an evocative melody, will stand the test of time. 



I sat down with Ilana at The Kettle Black last week to talk about her passion for fashion and performing. But before we delved into that, we spoke about her ‘day job’ at Auslan Stage Left. 


She already knew sign language (Auslan) and so when a job opportunity came up a great company that helped make arts and cultural activities more accessible for hearing impaired audiences, she was excited to combine two of her skills.


“Learning sign language has definitely impacted my life a huge amount. When I communicate I want to sit directly opposite someone so I can clearly see their face. That level of eye contact can weird a lot of people out, but it’s a very ‘deaf’ thing to do.  When I’m communicating with someone I wanted to be absolutely invested in that conversation.”


To approach this interview from a fashion perspective was brand new for me so I asked Ilana to get me up to speed.


“In Melbourne there is a much bigger vintage and pinup community now than whenI first started dressing this way when i was 17 or 18. It’s really grown. A lot of the pinup fashions focus on the rockabilly look, tattoos and a big hair. But my real interest has always been in vintage day. I love how in the 1940s women would wear a pair of slacks and a nice knitted sweater. That’s the stuff I get inspired by because it’s really wearable.”


“A lot of people I pass in the street comment that I’m ‘dressed up’, but back in the day this fashion wasn’t considered dressy at all, it was just standard. Wearing a collared shirt and a pencil skirt, or simple mens’ style slacks with a knit top and sweater. I guess it’s the equivalent of today’s office wear.”


It was also the era of turbans. “I wear a headscarf almost every day. In the 1940s they’d wear a turban style that would cover the whole head with your hair piled on top.”

Ilana confesses to a ‘headscarf addiction’. “I have nearly a hundred scarves. I started collecting them by accident - and then I kept going because they’re cheap and easy buy.” She owns close to one hundred scarves and they are hung around her bedroom, check this blog post on how she designed her personal scarf storage system.


Most of what Ilana wears is sourced from op (opportunity) shops. “In op shops and charity stores you need to be really persistent. You have to be prepared to dig and think creatively when you see something and try everything on - it takes a lot of dedication!”


It’s a matter of deciding what era you want to style your outfit on and then capturing the appropriate silhouette.


In the twenties you’re looking for drop waists and a boyish square sihouette. 


By the 1940s you’re looking for more narrow styles and less detail. Of course at that time there was fabric rationing (due to WW2) and no big skirts. Instead they were narrower, well cut and very structured so they came in at the waist, or had big shoulder pads. 


Then in the fifties when the new look came in thats when it started getting into huge skirts and very very narrow hip to waist ratios and bright colours.



In Melbourne Charnelle shops at Savers in Brunswick or Fountaingate. “If you’re spending a weekend in the country, the country shops are the best because they’re not as accessible and are less scoured.”



Ilana is really interested in the “Teddy Girls” of the 1950s and their rebellious, underground movement. In the fifties there was a new wave of rebellious teenagers. Teddy Girls were a subset of that group, a bit alternative, and these girls would go to the charity shops which at that time stocked a lot of Victorian era (turn of the century) clothes.


“Of course nowadays we get a lot of seventies and eighties clothes in vintage stores, but in the fifties the op shops were filled with Victorian era fashions.” Teddy Girls bought bits and pieces from the 1910s-20s and you can find images of these teenagers wearing contemporary slacks or skinny pants and then they’d have these Victorian jackets or  they’d have walking umbrellas that they’d wear with long overcoats. 


“In this example of a photo from the era I love the classic lines of Victorian fashion juxtaposed with 1950s jeans, with shirts untucked and cigarettes dangling from her fingers.”



In terms of fashion icons, Ilana looks to golden era film stars, but rarely does she focus on their most celebrated glamorous outfits.


“I really like pedestrian street wear - thats a big inspiration for me. So instead of searching for movie stars on the red carpet I might look at Audrey Hepburn in a rehearsal room or Marilyn Monroe doing a script reading as opposed to being on set.”


“Marilyn is my number one vintage icon - I love the relaxed photo shoots when she’s at home, when she’s at a cottage wearing some slacks.”


“There’s a lot of great street style to be discovered from college year books. “There are a few vintage blogs that post yearbooks from the 1940s and 50s and it’s amazing to look at these young girls who are doing their own hair and have incredible style - really simple shirts and sweaters, nice brooches. That’s achievable. I can go out to an op shop and buy a nice white collared shirt and a nice cardigan. I don’t think those classic basics ever go out of fashion.”


In 2013 Ilana was invited to perform as part of the Hollywood Costumes exhibition at ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image). She sang the songs of another film icon, Judy Garland.


At this year’s Melbourne Fringe, Ilana Charnelle is channelling her ‘inner Garland’ for the second time in Sophisticated Lady: A Nightcap with Billie, Judy & Ella, collaborating with Mama Alto (who plays Billie Holiday) and singer-songwriter Satta (Ella Fitzgerald).


Mama Alto and Ilana both studied at Monash University and were involved in student theatre. Friends told Ilana that they should meet and weeks later when they finally met they got along like a house on fire and have been close ever since.


Charnelle and Mama Alto share a passion for vintage fashion. 


“My grandfather was a tailor when he came to Australia after the second world war. He worked for a label called Los Angeles which was under the bigger label Leon Phillips. When my grandmother was alive, she would pull bits and pieces out of her wardrobe and show me the label saying ‘this is what Zayde made’. Then I was in an op shop once and I found a Leon Phillips coat. I wondered if my grandfather had made it - so I bought it. Then one day I got a phone call from Mama Alto out of the blue asking ‘what was the name of the label your grandfather worked for?’ He asked if there was a picture of a fifties woman with a big circular skirt featured on the Los Angeles label and when I said ‘yes’, he said ‘Great I found you a coat. I’m buying it for you!’ It’s a beautiful black and white coat with lining in red. So now every time I go into an op shop I check the label of every coat in the store.”


Ilana’s two favourite songs from Sophisticated Lady are “The Man That Got Away” and “Love For Sale”. 


“I’ve loved The Man That Got Away ever since I first heard the recording of Judy singing it. I love how much emotion is embedded in that song.”


“Mama Alto performs a really beautiful version of ‘Love For Sale’. I first heard the Julie London version of that song and it’s so clever and beautiful whilst it has an underlying bitterness and sadness to it. But when I listen to it I don’t feel sad, just entranced.”


Sophisticated Lady: A Nightcap with Billie, Judy and Ella plays at The Butterfly Club September 23-27 as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival.


An additional Auslan interpreted and mobility aid accessible performance will be held at Hares & Hyenas on September 29.


For bookings, visit: / /


See more of Ilana’s vintage selfies at

her blog at 

or keep up with her on Facebook at





Matthew Carey founded Cabaret Confessional in 2009 to promote cabaret artists to the world at large and to archive just some of the amazing cabaret performances that happen around the world every year. 

His new initiative is The Business of Performing - helping performing artists learn and develop the business skills to turn their passion into a sustainable career. To sign up to the mailing list and get a free copy of ‘12 Social Media Tips to Sell Out Your Next Show” click here.






countertenor (noun)


  1. A man with a singing voice that is higher than usual for a tenor and similar to a low female voice [Cambridge English Dictionary]
  2. The highest male adult singing voice (sometimes distinguished from the male alto voice by its strong, pure tone). [Oxford English Dictionary]
  3. 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]


 - - - - - - - -

Photo credit: Stephen Heath

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




May 1 & 2 (9pm), 3 (8pm)

The Butterfly Club, Melbourne 



Rise Up Singing

On Monday evening an intimate and wonderfully eclectic audience gathered in an upstairs room to be treated to the season launch of a wonderful new festival.

The Festival of Mama Alto (my term, not hers) is a concept that strikes me as ingenious, audacious and a total ‘no-brainer’ all at the same time. 

Much in the same way as a theatre company might launch their entire schedule for the year with a major event and program - Mama Alto has launched a beautifully designed booklet announcing her nine major engagements of 2015 and a few sneaky bonuses as well.

The event, held at Melbourne’s swank restaurant Entrecôte was hosted by Ilana Charnelle and featured a performance by Mama Alto and her musical partner in crime, pianist Miss Chief (Tiffani Walton).

Mama Alto is an icon in the making. Her presence and performance transcend the stereotypes of gender, sexuality and typical musical categorisations. Her voice and breathtaking range beautifully echo the soulful and bluesy tones of divas such as Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. Her visual aesthetic leans towards vintage style gowns and all sorts of shimmery glamour. Mama’s performance is intimate and captivating.


Events in the program include:


  • A return season of Mama Alto: Countertenor Diva May 1-3 at The Butterfly Club
  • Sassy: Mama Alto Sings Sarah Vaughan May 22-24 at Chapel off Chapel as part of the Stonnington Jazz Festival  
  • Lady Sings the Blues (One Hundred Years of Billie Holiday) July 4 at the Melbourne Recital Centre Salon
  • Sophisticated Lady: A Nightcap with Billie, Judy & Ella performed in collaboration with Miss Chief, Ilana Charnell and Satta


 plus others which Cabaret Confessional looks forward to profiling as they draw nearer.

To stay up to date with Mama Alto’s upcoming performances visit her facebook page or visit the website at to download or request a physical copy of the program booklet and see listings for each show.



Showtunes and Sneakers


I guess when you’re married to your musical director that little voice that sits on your shoulder and says “why don’t you put together your own show” also sits on your sofa and hangs out in your kitchen.

Melanie Kann’s husband (pianist, composer and musical director Jason Loffredo) had been on her case for ten years, asking when she was going to make her cabaret debut. It wasn’t until she found herself at a loose end after a bunch of summer gigs fell through that she set to work on Songs for Square Pegs which debuted last September.

The decision was actually made after having drinks with another composer friend who said “You should do your own show.” When she went home and told Loffredo he threw his hands up and said “I’ve been telling you for years!”

The New Yorker’s experience playing at the Metropolitan Room was a very positive one. “It was so much fun, I have no idea what I was so afraid of”, she says. “I knew some people who’d done shows there and so I emailed them.” The venue is always so supportive of their artists. “They’re always asking themselves: What else can we do? How else can we highlight the people that we have? They keep us in the loop constantly, ‘hey we’ve got these dates, who’s got a show?’ and then help you fill the house.”


Melanie was invited to be part of the Metropolitan Room’s New Year’s Marathon Variety Spectacular 

“The World Record thing was wacky! I saw a lot of acts that I probably wouldn’t have seen ordinarily. That was kind of fun. I definitely didn’t expect to be up after a woman who did unmentionable things with a balloon animal balloon. But why not?” 

Songs for Square Pegs is returning to the Metropolitan Room this Wednesday. There aren’t any major changes to the show since it’s initial outing last September but it comes out a bit differently every time. “You’re always in a different place when you sing the songs and I’m finding that they have a different meaning now than they did three or four months ago. I’ve swapped out one Billy Joel song for another and stuff like that, but it worked really well the first time around and I’m keen to see what happens now I officially know what I’m doing.”

Melanie enjoys the variations that come with each new performance. “I think my favourite part is interacting with the audience and all the unplanned things. I’m an OCD OMG Virgo through and through but I think my specialty is having a plan then abandoning it and just letting whatever happens happen. Every time you sing a song it lives a little differently and I like that.”


When she’s not acting and singing, you’ll find Melanie running. “I’ve run 15 marathons and an ultra.” She’ll receive her running coach certification soon and has just started working with a great youth organisation called Run for Fun - with little ‘teeny tiny’ kids. She’s also looking at starting a blog called Showtunes and Sneakers.

“I just left my job of nine years with Weight Watchers so I’m excited to throw myself back into performing and identify myself as an actor. An actor who runs a lot of miles.”

Ultimately Kann would like to play Songs for Square Pegs in various rooms around New York and tour outside the city. “My parents live in Georgia. They’re always saying ‘you should bring your show down here - we’ve got lots of friends who’d love to see you.’” 

“I’ve got a lot of inappropriate jokes that I’m going to have to re-think.”


Visit Melanie Kann’s website and follow her on Twitter.

If you are passionate about cabaret - subscribe to our free email updates here.  

Songs for Square Pegs
Metropolitan Room NYC
Wednesday Mar 11, 2015 9.30pm
General Admission $22.50
VIP Silver & Gold Packages available



Laugh Until I Cry

Melbourne cabaret darling Emma Clair Ford returns to The Butterfly Club this week with a brand new series of musings on the bewildering undertaking of adulthood.

Between slumber and consciousness, Emma delights in crystal clear revelations and nostalgic wanderings, then delves into personal uncertainty of seemingly catastrophic proportions.

Join this super songstress as she navigates her way through a night of hope, fear, love, expectation, and poorly constructed to do lists.

Emma’s previous shows have been narrative based, ‘Lila Gray’ was character driven and ‘Butterscotch’ was a fantastical coming of age story.

But as she describes the new show - “Laugh Until I Cry is quite personal, centering around my experiences with anxiety and the expectations we have of what our ‘grown up’ life should look like. But I approach it with a sense of humour - focussing on the fact that the niggly, nasty thoughts that sometimes keep us awake at night don’t make us crazy, they make us human.”

Emma has also placed a heavier focus on the music in this show, which she has developed with the amazing Vicky Jacobs.
With a blend of sharp storytelling, evocative prose and sumptuous jazz inspired songs, Laugh Until I Cry features music by George Gershwin, The Beatles, Adele, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and more. 


Emma Clair Ford’s ‘Laugh Until I Cry’

The Butterfly Club - Carson Place, Melbourne

Wednesday March 4th - Sunday March 8th, 2015 (8pm Wed/Sun, 9pm Thurs/Fri/Sat)

Tickets: or 9663 8107 

$30 Full, $26 Conc, $25 Preview (Wed), $24 Group (8+)