In her final year as Artistic Director of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Ali McGregor stars in a new show about 1950s Peruvian songbird Yma Sumac. Sumac, likened to historical operatic superstars such as Isabella Colbran, Maria Malibran, and Pauline Viardot, had a voice of great range, becoming famous for her exotica and mambo albums as well as her larger than life personality. Here McGregor talks about her personal journey with Sumac, as well as why the singer’s life is particularly relevant this year. 

Ali McGregor. Photo © Adelaide Cabaret Festival

Where did you first come across Yma Sumac?

In the late 90s, where there was a sort of swing music revival going on. Capra Records actually released a whole bunch of its back catalogue and got DJs to remix them, so there was a lot of electro lounge going about. Someone had recorded some for me, which is how I heard her voice. At the time I didn’t know if it was a human voice or an instrument or computer trickery because it was all mixed up in this remix. I remember being intrigued by it but because it was on a mini disc there was no track listing and it wasn’t until I did some digging around that I figured out it was indeed a singer.

Yma Sumac

And then over the next few years I just kept hearing her voice in different places, like on soundtracks and sampled in hip hop. And then in 2008 I read her obituary and realised she was actually a really huge star in the 1950s. I hadn’t realised quite how successful she was, and I guess I’d always thought she was a bit of a novelty act like Carmen Miranda. Reading this obituary, there was so much more to her, so I think that’s when I really started to delve into her life. She was the highest selling recording artist for Capitol in the 50s, which is incredible because they had Bing Crosby on their books. She was a huge star.

As well as being intrigued by her voice – because I was starting to play around with my own – I think I was intrigued as a woman at the start of a career. The idea that this woman had been so famous but was soon forgotten after exotic music fell out favour – I’d been to Los Angeles a few times and you do see these older women and wonder, “what’s the story behind her?” I guess I was interested in the fleeting nature of celebrity, and how we might see these people as characters but they are actually real people with real stories. I love her music but am also intrigued by her as a person, which is why I’m now doing this show all about her life.

Is the program all Yma Sumac?

It’s all Yma Sumac. I concentrate a little more on the music she made after she came to America, as it’s probably the music that spoke to me the most. I really love her Mambo! album. She also loved opera and I think always hoped to be in an opera herself, so I’ve included an opera aria in the program. We also do a little bit of the Peruvian music as well. But the music that’s really had the greatest popularity in the last few years is that mambo music and it’s just so much fun to play live, so I have a live, six-piece band with a great horn section that suits that kind of style really well.

So do you tell her story in between the songs?

Absolutely. I tell her story in my own voice, particularly my personal journey discovering her and feeling like I know her. The real story starts when I befriended her former assistant who I’ve since become good friends with, and bought a lot of her costumes and jewellery. I bought a box of her belongings off her assistant. There was a bunch of her everyday wear as well as her costumes. That’s when I started to feel like I really knew her because I opened this box and had this really visceral moment where I pulled out a shirt she had worn and I could see little stains on it. It just made me so emotional.

All the jewellery I wear in the show is hers – I even have her support pants. So yes, the show is very much me telling the story of my discovery of her and then telling that story with her music.

Is it a show you’ll tour?

Absolutely, that’s the plan. It means a lot to me and it’s a real passion project. I think everyone involved feels very buoyed – we did a couple of previews in Melbourne and the feedback was beyond anything that we’d ever expected. I wasn’t sure how many people would know her or even be interested, but it turns out there are a lot of hidden Yma Sumac fans around the place, and a lot of people who connect with the story.

At the heart of it, it tells a story about a woman who loses her agency. When she reached her use by date, she got left behind. It’s been a year of thinking about female agency I think, and how we can have ownership over our work and lives. I feel lucky that I have a sense of ownership over my own life and career, but a lot of women didn’t and don’t. Yma certainly didn’t for a huge part of her life, so that’s become an interesting story to tell.

Ali McGregor’s Yma Sumac – The Peruvian Songbird is at Sydney Opera House, May 3 & 4 as part of Festival UnWrapped