Richardson — Her voice hovers in ghostly serenity—a melody displaced in space and time like a memory of music heard in another room.
Edith Piaf is the archetypal torch singer, a woman of outstanding and tragic complexity. She displays a full emotional range in every song and even in every note that she sings. She can soar into dizzying heights of joy and passion and fall to desolate lows of loneliness and longing within mere measures. But every note expresses her wonder and her capacity for life and love. Her performances give permanent lie to the stereotype of French complacency. She is both strong and stricken at the same time. And her style has informed every torch singer to follow from Billie Holliday to Blossom Dearie.
The difficulty for a modern generation of her always adoring fans is the distance at which Piaf dwells. She died in 1963, but her prime years were well before that. There are film recordings of her, but they seem to be gray and grainy pentimenti. Billie Holliday, roughly a contemporary, seems immediate and modern. Piaf, the Swallow of Montmartre refuses, to step fully forward into the present day.
I think the distance is a large part of her mystique. She placed herself one step beyond reach not only for fans but for those her knew her personally and intimately. She defied understanding and interpretation while being open and vulnerable with her life and her emotions. No singer has ever been so exposed and so shadowed at the same time.
How does a performer bring such elusiveness to life in a stage performance? Anne Carrere has been essaying this difficult task since 2015 in Piaf! The Show, a one-woman performance with instrumentalists. Originally designed to celebrate the Centenary of the legendary chanteuse’s birth, the presentation is one of the most popular French musical stage exports in the world. I caught up with Ms. Carrere as she completed the Chicago leg of the show’s current global tour and as she prepared for her North Texas premiere on Saturday at the Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts in Richardson. Assisted by the translation skills of Gil Marsalla, the show’s conceiver, producer and director, we talked about the performance, the songs and mostly the Swallow of Montmartre herself.
TheaterJones: How has the United States part of your tour been so far?
Anne Carrere: It has been wonderful. Chicago is a fun city and the audiences everywhere have been crazy. We have had sell-out theaters all over.
Have you been surprised by the reception that the show and Edith Piaf have received?
I did not think that Americans would know so much or be so excited about Edith Piaf, but the audiences have enjoyed and loved her so much. I think that her emotion and the beauty of her songs is universal. A lot of people recognize a tune like [sings from “Le Vie en Rose”] and when they realize that this is that singer they are excited and want to learn more.
Did it take you a long time to understand the role and the singer herself?
My grandmother loved Edith Piaf and had so many of her records. I have been singing the songs since I was 6. I practiced the way she made her emotions through the songs all my life. Then as we were working on this show, I was lucky to work with people who knew her, like Charles Aznavour [the great French singer and Piaf’s protégé]. He told me so many things that really helped bring her to life.
What did you feel as you learned more about Edith Piaf? Do you like her as a person?
Oh yes. She is a very beautiful person. A wonderful and mysterious personality. She lived a very hard life, but she also loved life and loved family so much. She loved people. And she was so strong at all times. Even during tragedy, she never let despair overwhelm her, at least not in her songs. There is always such beauty and comfort in her songs. I think that is what people respond to about her.
Are you finding that there is a mixed age of audiences at the performances? Is it mostly older people who might have heard her songs originally or are younger generations appreciating her?
There are certainly older people at the performances, but I think they may be looking at her and understanding her in a different way. Maybe they only knew a few of her songs. And there is a new generation that has become very interested, possibly because of the movie La Vie en Rose [2007, which earned a Best Actress Oscar for Marion Cotillard] that showed what a difficult and amazing life she lived. The exciting thing is that people in America are not only interested in Edith Piaf, but in all of French singing, since she is such an important part of that tradition.
All the songs you sing are in the original French, is that right?
Yes, I perform them as she did them, although it is obviously my voice (and my interpretation). Some of the early songs especially, when she was singing in the streets of Montmartre would be very difficult to translate into other languages from French. We were a little worried about that in places where they don’t speak or understand French, but the audiences receive the language well. I think that the emotion of the music and the way the words sound show the meaning of the songs so clearly, and Edith Piaf was so great at presenting the meaning through gestures and facial expressions. So even if they cannot understand all the words they can still understand the song.
It is so important to hear and appreciate a singer like Edith Piaf. She had so much influence and is such a beautiful and strong person that her music should be presented to every generation.