‘Playing for the MSO at Hamer Hall is my final at the MCG’: Ali McGregor’s uncanny knack for turning trashy songs into treasures

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‘Playing for the MSO at Hamer Hall is my final at the MCG’: Ali McGregor’s uncanny knack for turning trashy songs into treasures

Ali McGregor
Words by Joshua Jennings

Australian cabaret artist Ali McGregor says it’s exhilarating how the same song can be entirely different in the hands of a different performer.

Not only that. She marvels at how the same song can have a completely different life in the hands of the same performer between shows too — not to mention between years and decades.

McGregor, a much-loved star of Australian cabaret and opera, speaks from vast experience. It was a decade ago that she released Alchemy, a genre-fluid album that features her laterally expansive interpretations of hits from pop and rock acts including Madonna, Salt-n-Pepa, INXS, Fine Young Cannibals, and Foo Fighters. Making and touring this record has been an opportunity for McGregor to microscope the elements of these household heritage songs and see them in an entirely new light.

“I was amazed that, some nights, a certain song would just hit a different resonance,” McGregor says of touring Alchemy previously. “That could be from the energy I was getting from the audience, or what the band were putting in, or just something that happened that day. I endlessly find new little ways and new nuances to the song. It’s kind of wonderful rediscovering them.”

A decade on from Alchemy’s release, McGregor is re-visiting the record through a special live performance. Although she has toured Alchemy globally, her forthcoming show at Hamer Hall (Friday May 26), alongside the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, will mark the first time the record has had the backing of a full orchestra in a live setting.

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According to McGregor, this is pretty much her version of what an AFL-loving kid growing up in Melbourne would experience getting to play a grand final on the MCG.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to do this again. For me, as someone who came up through the ranks of classical music in Melbourne — and then all aspects of the industry, from cabaret and jazz and comedy and all of that — playing for the MSO at Hamer Hall is my final at the G, and I want to throw everything at it.”

A lot has happened in McGregor’s career since she studied music at Australian National University and the Royal Northern College of Music (UK) in the 1990s. She spent the first five years of the 21st century as Opera Australia’s principal soprano. In that time, she performed and understudied over 25 roles, won prestigious awards, and worked with international opera’s best.

Today, McGregor continues to divide her time performing opera and cabaret. She’s a regular performer with the Victorian Opera and Opera Queensland, and a familiar face at the annual Melbourne International Comedy Festival. She has also starred in hit cabaret show La Clique (La Soiree).

All of this helps explain why McGregor’s deconstructions and reconstructions of familiar songs such as Radiohead’s Creep and Salt-n-Pepa’s Push It sound so extraordinary in the reincarnations she avails them. There’s a universal appeal at the core of these songs that transcends the limits of labels, McGregor says.

“I think sometimes we get tied up in the industry too much on genre. I think that can be super limiting sometimes, because I think songs, like poems, transcend being put into a box. I understand that, as humans, we need to categorise stuff. It’s like an innate animal instinct we need to do. ‘Where does this fit? It’s a jazz song. Or it’s a pop song, or it’s a rock, or a punk’.

“But when it comes down to it, you can find joy in any music, if it hits the right note at that right time in your life, or the right time of your day.”

When McGregor performs Alchemy with the MSO, she’ll also be performing songs from her Helpmann Award-winning cabaret show Yma Sumac – The Peruvian Songbird, along with new  opera music from Lorelei and The Call.

In celebrating the life of Yma Sumac in Yma Sumac – The Peruvian Songbird, McGregor got to immerse herself in the life of Sumac, to the point of joyful obsession.

She got to indulge her passion for Sumac even further after an online encounter with the late Sumac’s previous personal assistant. McGregor struck up a friendship with the man, travelled to LA to meet him, and bought some memorabilia and artefacts through Facebook.

“I remember opening it up (her box that came in the mail), and I could smell her, and I could smell her perfume. It was a really major moment for me, and I just felt like suddenly I had this connection.”

As much as McGregor’s upcoming show is shaping up to be an all-time highlight in her career as a performer, she has plenty more on the horizon too. This year, she is the beneficiary of one of eight Australia Council Fellowships, which run for two years.

McGregor applied for the fellowship to better enable her to develop and workshop more contemporary Australian opera through her opera concept creation company, Fluxus.

McGregor’s previous concept creation work as founder of Fluxus includes Lorelei with Victorian Opera and The Call (alongside Kate Miller-Heidke) with Opera Queensland. She says there’s a limited amount of investment into contemporary Australian opera, along with a limited inclination to discover new ways to find and present opera.

“So, that’s my mission, for the next couple of years,” says McGregor. “I’m going to London and also New York to talk with some people who are working in this space already, to try to figure out how they make it work financially, and how their model works.”

Ali McGregor performs at Hamer Hall with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on Friday 26 May, 7:30pm. Tickets are available here.

This article was made in partnership with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.