Bien sûr, there was only one Edith Piaf. The Little Sparrow had more than a haunting vibrato and rafter-reaching vocal power; France’s national chanteuse had a soul she laid bare to her fans. In his eulogy, her close friend Jean Cocteau said it best: “I never knew anyone who was less protective of her spirit. She didn’t dole it out, she gave everything away.”
Piaf has lain at rest in Père Lachaise Cemetery for 55 years now, and most of us can only wistfully imagine what it was like to see the four-foot-eight-inch waif belt out emotion-drenched torch songs like “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” in the music halls of Montmartre and Pigalle. But we can at least get an inkling, thanks to French songstress Anne Carrère, who is set to come to the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.
The star of the multimedia concert Piaf! The Show has helped thousands of audience members across 50 countries experience some of the magic of the legendary French singer. And although she bears an uncanny resemblance to the icon on-stage, she does not try to be Edith Piaf.
“I’m just the interpreter, and I try to give the best to the audience,” she tells the Straight, calling from a getaway in the French Alps, where she’s on a brief hiatus from the Piaf! world tour. “I give my soul and my heart on-stage; I share all my emotions with the audience.”
Carrère’s connection to Piaf goes back to her preschool years, growing up in Toulon. The artist has strong memories of her grandmother playing Piaf’s records three decades ago, when Carrère was only three. “My grandmother saw Edith on-stage when she was just four years old, and she told me a lot about her experiences of Paris in those days,” Carrère says, and then admits: “I was not fond of Edith Piaf when I was a little girl.”
That changed later, in 2007, around the time she—and the rest of the world—saw the film La Vie en Rose, starring Marion Cotillard. Carrère began to take much more interest in the singer and her work. She had studied everything from jazz dance to piano as a kid, but it was singing the blues, she thinks, that helped her tap Piaf’s spirit. In 2014, director Gil Marsalla offered Carrère the role of Edith Piaf in the touring production of Paris! The Show, a concert of music from some of France’s legendary music stars. She was such a hit that they created an entire ode to Piaf around her the next year—the centennial of Piaf’s birthday.
To prepare for the part, Carrère made a connection with the Musée Edith Piaf and spoke to many of the chanteuse’s surviving friends. Through them, she was drawn most to the power and resilience of a woman who had survived growing up in both a brothel and a circus caravan, losing her only child, and later becoming addicted to drugs, booze, and younger men.
“They all told me that Piaf was a strong woman,” Carrère says. “There is a story I love: one day Edith was sick and the doctor said to her, ‘Don’t sing tonight, it’s impossible!’ And Edith Piaf said, ‘I do what I want and I am going to sing.’ And then she just goes on-stage alone without musicians and begins to sing! The musicians had to run to the stage to join her.”
Piaf! The Show is split into two 45-minute acts, following the singer’s rags-to-riches career from the streets and cafés of Montmartre to the great concert halls of the world, Carrère singing with four live musicians. Projected photographs and images of some of the iconic Parisian locations of the Piaf era add to the atmosphere.
In all her travels with the show, it’s “Hymne à l’Amour” that has become Carrère’s favourite to perform—a song her grandmother used to play all those years ago. “It’s a song of love and it makes me cry; you need a lot of emotion for this song,” she says.
And with that, Carrère backs up her theory about why the Little Sparrow is so adored no matter where she performs, from Hong Kong to New York City to Paris itself. “Edith Piaf is loved around the world as a woman who sings lyrics that touch people with love,” she says. “When people listen to it they cry, they have real emotions. All over the world people are—how do you say?—slaves to emotion. Even if you don’t understand all the lyrics.”
Piaf! The Show is at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Tuesday (March 19).