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Ali McGregor Alchemy_headshotAli McGregor is a performer leading two lives. On one hand she’s an acclaimed opera singer but she also leads a double life on the international cabaret circuit. Her new show Alchemy has already been a hit at the Edinburgh and Adelaide Fringe Festivals, now she’s getting ready to head to Perth.

Alchemy sees McGregor combining all of her influences from Opera, Burlesque and trashy 80’s pop. The show sees songs by Madonna, Salt ‘n Pepa, Elvis and Radiohead transposed into new genres as if you’d been transposed to a club in Vegas in the ‘40s. OUTinPerth spoke to McGregor from her home in Melbourne.

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How did you first get into cabaret?

I was performing with Opera Australia doing L’Elisir d’Amore playing one of the three, what you would call – loose women. I went into the Spiegeltent; we’d go to gigs there after our show.

I’d heard a story in London a few years before hand about these opera singers who were in the chorus at Covent Garden in the mid 1800’s and they used to sing their opera, then go back stage, take their outer clothes off, keep their corsets, drawers and petticoats and then get in a carriage and go down to the music halls and sings their arias and get money thrown at them. It was such a lovely story about taking opera to the people.

Randomly I was at the Speigeltent and dropped a necklace down a grill at the bar, one of the men who came to my rescue was David Bates who owns the Speigeltent. So I got him a glass of wine to thank him and told him this story and he said, “Why don’t you after the opera come down to the Speigeltent and sing arias at the late night club?”

It’s exactly what I did, I got four people from the chorus, I got the props department to help me make a giant shell from a kid’s swimming pool and I appeared like the Birth of Venus singing an aria while the guys from the chorus fanned me palm fronds. It went down really well.

Cabaret and Opera are two really different kinds of performance aren’t they?

They are at different ends of the spectrum. I was talking to a friend at a master class about how I felt about the two different ways of singing. Singing opera is like driving a top of the range Jag, and singing cabaret is like driving a top of the range Harley Davidson. They both have similarities in their engine structure but they are very different. I think cabaret has made me a better opera singer.

Opera is an art form that people are sometimes hesitant to try out.

Rightly so, like a lot of art forms a lot of people have seen a lot of bad opera. There is a lot of bad opera going around. People have a lot of different views about opera and what it should be, some people think it should just be about the voice and that’s all that matters. Luckily we’re getting a lot of theatre directors in to do opera these days which makes it a little more real and accessible. I tell people who say “opera is boring” – that you may have seen a boring opera, but don’t write it off.

Perth has fallen in love with its Speigeltent very quickly, what do you love about these cabaret spaces?

They’re very easy to fall in love with, they really are quite incredible spaces and Perth’s Speigeltent in quite a small one which is very intimate. I’ve played in Speigeltents around the world and as soon as I walk into one I forget where I am, they really do transport you to somewhere else. They talk an audience’s barriers down. Audiences are suddenly very open to what you’re doing.

Do the songs of Radiohead, Madonna and Salt ‘n Pepa easily transfer to a different style?

I’ve always believed that a good song is a good song. The test of a good song is can it be sung in many different ways by different people. The music I listened to before I got into opera was the music of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the real jazz classics like Ella, Billie and Frank. I especially loved the women like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and Nina Simone. These singers were great interpreters.  

Ali McGregor’s Alchemy is on for seven shows only at the Speigeltent for Fringeworld from February 11 – 17.

Graeme Watson

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