Spending a Friday night at the Sydney Opera House is already a wonderful experience. Spending it watching Yma Sumac: The Peruvian Songbird with Ali McGregor and her ethereal, five-octave operatic voice, was entertainment at it's best.
Admittedly I had not heard of this 1950s Peruvian exotica performer and her trio, Inca Taqui Trio, but I won't be forgetting them anytime soon. Ali McGregor's mesmerising voice, along with her intertwining stories of Yma Sumac's life, was amazing. McGregor is a natural storyteller with a voice you have to hear, she brings Yma Sumac to life with a poignancy the audience can feel.
The band accompanying McGregor has us tapping and swinging along to the Latino and Mambo beats. One particular song, Chuncho, from Sumac's childhood living in the Peruvian mountains, McGregor purrs, growls and trills from a low baritone to an incredibly high and almost imperceptible whistle. The audience remains in awed silence when she finishes singing. She assures us the sounds are human.
Yma Sumac, along with her husband Moises Vivanco and cousin Cholita Rivero, formed the trio and their fame catapulted in 1949 after moving to New York and working small clubs and bars for five years. Post-war Americans were treated to this Latin-American exoticism after Capitol Records signed them. A move to Hollywood saw three smash-hit records outselling another Capitol artist, Bing Crosby.
As her star was rising professionally, the wandering eye of her husband fathered a son (with Cholita) and twins (with the help). Her personal life cascaded into a Hollywood soap opera, with drama at every turn and even a public brawl between Sumac, her husband and Cholita, reported in the entertainment section of the LA Times.
Many things unravelled for Sumac, including finding herself in her forties, single and with not much to show for her talents. Unfortunately, her name was not used on any of the bestselling records so proceeds went to Vivanco and producers. At the same time, something else was happening in the music industry, the rise of Rock 'n' Roll. Lounge music and exoticism was "just not cool anymore" to quote McGregor's words.
Sumac passed away in 2008 but her story is kept alive by her long-term assistant through a website. McGregor met with the assistant and this show is her tribute to this extraordinary performer. She even invested in the last box of her belongings being sold by her assistant, some of which are featured in the show.
Although Sumac's story is sad, this show is uplifting and inspiring. McGregor, through her superb singing and storytelling, unpacks the myths behind this Incan Princess, to show a woman of strength and character. Yma Sumac was more than a novelty act buried under Hollywood fantasy, her story deserves to be told.
After the show McGregor is generous with her time as her adoring audience buy CDs, take selfies and admire the jewels once owned by Sumac. I know I have taken away a lot more than just a story from this show, McGregor's voice is amazing and one I hope to experience hearing again.
Yma Sumac: The Peruvian Songstress is part of the Festival Unwrapped short, independent theatre festival showing at The Sydney Opera House. Tickets are on sale now, for more information and how to purchase tickets click here.