Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 May 2019

A manifesto to life: Edith Piaf's life in songs comes alive at Dubai Opera

We speak to the two singers bringing a life of heartbreak, controversy and hope to the Dubai stage

Edith Piaf in the 1930s. AFP
Edith Piaf in the 1930s. AFP

It will be tough to find anything more romantic to do than listen to Edith Piaf songs live this Valentine’s Day.

The chanteuse and French national treasure began her career in the 1930s, cementing it, and winning hearts, right through to the 1960s, singing songs of love and loss against the backdrop of war and revolution.

Those lilting melodies will come to life on February 14 and 15 with Piaf! Le Spectacle at Dubai Opera. Over four shows, French singers Anne Carrere, 33, and Nathalie Lermitte, 52 – both celebrated as master performers of Piaf’s back catalogue – will take on the singer’s most enduring chansons in a show blending concert with theatre.

Presenting Piaf in this way was the only way, Carrere explains, as context is key when it comes to the legendary vocalist. “It is important to make it simply more than a recital, which I have also done before,” she says. “So the performance is split into two parts to show how Piaf started her career from the streets of France, to becoming one of the best singers ever. When it comes to the French, she is simply viewed as the top.”

Stranger than fiction

A lot of that appeal comes from Piaf’s life, which is arguably just as dramatic as her songs. It’s full of the stuff scriptwriters would consider over the top if it weren’t true. Born Edith Giovanna Gassion in 1915, she was abandoned by her mother and raised by her paternal grandmother in a brothel. She suffered from keratitis, inflammation of the cornea, which rendered her blind from aged three to seven.

At 14, she joined her father as part of a street theatre group. As a side hustle, she sang in the streets of Paris’s famed Pigalle district, and at aged 20, she was discovered by her first manager, nightclub owner Louis Leplee. Stunned by the voice that came from her slender frame, he named her La Mome Piaf – Parisian slang for The Little Sparrow.

Then came her acclaimed nightclub performances of the 1930s, which allowed her to rub shoulders with the French cultural elites, such as playwright Jean Cocteau and actor Maurice Chevalier. Transatlantic fame followed, with tours of the United States and South America, as well as a controversial period performing to German soldiers in occupied France during the Second World War. It was also at this time that she began to struggle with substance abuse.

But, despite all the drama – which also included experiencing her fair share of heartbreak – Piaf continued to perform. In 1949 she stepped on stage in New York City a few hours after being informed that her lover, boxer Marcel Cerdan, had died in a plane crash. He was on his way to see her from Paris.

More than a singer

It’s stories such as these that continue to inspire Lermitte, who has been performing Piaf songs internationally for nearly two decades. “That is what really touched me; that despite what happened, she always worked; she always sang to the best of her ability,” Lermitte says. “Part of her beautiful story is the fact that she was very professional and never took her career for granted. And that’s because she came from nothing.”

It also made for some inspiring lyrics for Piaf. While she is mostly renowned for her deep, stoic and quavering voice, many of the words to her biggest hits, such as her signature songs La Vie en Rose and Hymne a L’Amour were penned by her. Beautiful and haunting, they often expressed a joie de vivre that comes from living without expectations, yet they were laced with a creeping sadness.

La Vie En Rose, meaning Life in Pink, remains one of the greatest love songs ever made. Piaf’s lyrics express a devotion almost too good to be true; it’s about the love of a former street-girl who finally finds peace and stability: “When he takes me into his arms / he speaks to me softly / and I see life through rose-coloured glasses,” she sings.

For such personal material, both Carrere and Lermitte had to dig deep for their respective performances. “We are not imitating Piaf because there is only one of her. I remember the producer telling me that when doing this show I really had to bear my soul to the audience,” she says. “So the challenge is in trying to do that, and to be personal while respecting the original material.”

Lermitte agrees. Her take on these classics is as much about Piaf’s highs and lows as it is her own. “That’s what I need to do. All of these songs are large and full of emotions,” she says. “The ones that are full of joy, I bring my own joys to them. And the ones that are full of sorrow and tears, I bring that too from my life and experiences.”

Such an immersive approach can glean some useful life lessons. Lermitte experienced this through singing Non, Je ne Regrette Rien (No, I do not Regret Anything) throughout the decades. Released in 1960, three years before her death, it remains Piaf’s manifesto to life. “That song is so Edith Piaf,” Lermitte says. “It talks about living for the moment and the day. She didn’t think about yesterday or tomorrow. Her life has always been about the here and now. And you know what? She was right. She was so right.”

Piaf! Le Spectacle is at Dubai Opera on February 14 and 15. Shows start at 7pm and 10pm today and at 3pm and 8pm tomorrow. Tickets from Dh200 are available at www.dubaiopera.com

Updated: February 13, 2019 06:08 PM