One thing I love about Fringe Festivals is getting to experience work by new artists. One of those artists I'm excited to be introduced to is Melanie Gall, who has created the show Piaf and Brel: The Impossible Concert which just finished a triumphant run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Piaf and Brel: The Impossible Concert combines the music of these two French musical icons. They sang songs of romance, heartbreak, hope and love. They lived lives of drama and passion. This impossible concert, featuring internationally acclaimed vocalist Melanie Gall, relives the adventure and inspiration of their lives and music. With "Amsterdam," "Milord," "La Vie en Rose" and other French classics.
Now, Melanie is bringing Piaf and Brel: The Impossible Concert to NYC to be part of The Fringe Encore Series (both NYC & Edinburgh) at SoHo Playhouse from October 4-19 (15 Vandam Street). Click here for tickets!
1. This October you are presenting an encore presentation of your show Piaf and Brel: The Impossible Concert as part of the Fringe Encore Series at SoHoPlayhouse. Your show was in Edinburgh Fringe. Before we get to the now, what was the best part about presenting this show at Edinburgh Fringe? What did you learn about the show from that run? Oh, the Edinburgh Fringe! A month of overcaffeinated exhaustion, gin and haloumi burgers. Let’s see…the best part of presenting the show at that Fringe was that the venue was so cozy, with so little separation between audience and performer, that it felt as if we were all in it together. It wasn’t merely the audience watching a show, it was more of a shared experience of music and theatre where everyone was intimately involved.
Now my best moment of the Edinburgh Fringe was when an older Scottish man approached me before a performance. He explained that his mother had been a huge Piaf fan, and that she had recently died. He had been so distraught at the time, that he had not thought to have the song "La Vie en Rose" performed at his mother’s funeral, and he now felt as if he had failed her in some way. He then asked if I wouldn’t mind dedicating the song to her in the show. Well, I did. And he sat there in the front row (less than two feet from where I was standing), in tears, the entire time. And after the show, he came up to me, gave me a giant hug, and said that he finally felt closure. Being able to do that for someone. Being able to affect peoples’ lives through my music and my art – now, that was the most special moment of my Edinburgh run.
What did I learn about the show? Two major things: First off, people in the UK are just as crazy about Piaf and Brel as they are here. And second, don’t ask the audience a question (as part of the show), unless you know what the answer is going to be. There’s a part of Piaf and Brel: The Impossible Concert, when I announce Piaf’s signature song just before singing it, and prompt the audience to provide the title. In North America, they all called out, "La Vie en Rose!" In the UK, they responded with: "Non, je ne regrette rien!" Another of Piaf’s hits. The first time this happened, I just stared at the full theater and burst out with, "What? No, it’s not?!" (It was possibly not my finest moment).
2. Now, what excites you about bringing this show to NYC? How do you think the audiences will respond to the show here as compared to Edinburgh? I’m incredibly excited to finally present one of the shows that I love performing in my favourite city. I have studied and then lived in New York City for almost 15 years. And yet, most of my solo performances are overseas. I secretly think that my classical colleagues suspect that when I tell them that "I’m going off for a solo tour," that I’m really going to jail or something.
I have sung the music of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel all over the world – from Zimbabwe, to Brunei, even in Sudan. This music seems to be something to which such a wide range of audience can relate to. With such a musically sophisticated and culturally diverse audience here in New York, one which is likely quite familiar with the source material, I suspect the show will have a very positive response during the run in SoHo.
3. You are bringing two French icons together for one evening of incredible music. How did you narrow down their music catalog into this one evening? Narrowing down music for a show is always a challenge. There are the songs that I particularly love to sing. And then there are the songs that audiences expect to hear. Some of Piaf’s best songs are ones that are almost unknown, and I have sung some of the most popular songs hundreds of times. Also, the songs in the show each relate to a relevant anecdote. So, narrowing down the songs for the concert involved making a list of all the songs I *wanted* to sing, and all the songs I *had* to sing. Then I started matching them to the stories I wished to tell about Piaf and Brel, and worked to balance the different music styles of the songs. Of course, after that, the list was still about 30 songs long. So I mercilessly cut it down to the sixteen songs that worked best, wiped away my tears, and went off to Pinkberry to eat my feelings.
4. How has Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel influenced and inspired you? Both Piaf and Brel succeeded against incredible personal and professional odds. They challenged musical and societal conventions, and both of them sold themselves as performers just as much as the songs that they sing, and connected personally with the audience, through their music. That, in particular, is something that has very much inspired me.
In classical music, there is often a clear separation between performer and audience, for myriad reasons (ranging from physical distance, to the text often being in foreign language, to the recent tradition of setting classical music apart from popular culture). B ut I’ve learned that when this separation can be overcome, there is a very strong connection to be forged through the singer and the audience, and both Piaf and Brel were masters in doing this. Also, they did not apologize for their art. They did not try to please through their music. They unabashedly wrote or sang songs that they loved, and found success on their own terms. All of these things are inspirations for me, in my career.
5. Singing such well known songs, people come with their own hopes and expectations of how the songs will be performed. How did you make these songs your own? That’s a good question, and one that I carefully considered when first developing the show. I wanted to present the songs as a tribute to Piaf and Brel, but not singing AS Piaf or Brel.
I worked with Bennett Paster, a New York Jazz pianist, to redevelop the instrumentation of the pieces in a subtly different style. Also, I come from a classical music background, and so some of the songs are sung in a somewhat more classical manner. I definitely emulate the vocal stylings of Piaf and Brel somewhat, however I mix this with my own style. And luckily, many of these songs have been covered by such a varied range of artists – from Pavarotti to David Bowie – that audiences are used to approaching them with wide expectations.
6. Both artists sang songs of romance, heartache, hope, and love. Which of their songs symbolize these emotions for you and what was happening in your life when you pinned these songs to these feelings? The thing with these songs, is that even though they are about romance, heartbreak, hope and love, they can also be pinned to a plethora of other feelings. For me, I tend to pin songs more to experiences.
Brel’s song, "La Chanson des Vieux Amants," I first heard in 2011, in a scruffy hotel in Ecuador near the Columbian border. I’d just finished a pretty nasty bout of food poisoning, and I spent the day sitting in a sunny wicker chair, alternately moaning that I’d never eat again, and picking songs for the first version of "The Impossible Concert." I was clicking through the music online, and I heard that song, and I thought; "That’s it. I love it. It’s mine."
Piaf’s hit "La Vie en Rose" will always bring back memories of Trinidad, where I first performed the song. The noisy streets, the blinding sunshine, and a creased piece of looseleaf where I’d scrawled the lyrics which I wandered around desperately trying to memorize before the concert.
And then there’s "Amsterdam." I toured the show with another artist initially, and for me, his version of "Amsterdam" is the one that comes to mind when I think of the song. Whenever I sing the piece, it brings back the memory of sitting onstage in Edmonton, on a stool that was slightly too high for me, listening to the song being performed and wishing I could take a stab at singing it, too.
And then there’s "No, je ne regrette rien." I have sung it for years, but the memory that sticks when I hear or sing it, is of a concert I performed last year in Khartoum, Sudan. There was a roomful of people attending this concert. I began to sing the song, and…everyone started to sing along. In SUDAN! It just proved to me the universiality of the music, and I can still feel the sand from the streets on my feet, and the prickly heat and searing sunlight on my skin whenever I sing the piece.
7. They also lived very dramatic and passionate lives. How do you keep the drama out of your life and on the stage? In addition to acting/writing, what are some of your other passions? Well, the good thing about being a solo artist, is that one is alone much of the time, and one can only stir up so much drama with oneself…
But seriously, I live for performing. When one is doing something that she loves this much, there isn’t a lot of room for drama. Of course I get frustrated, but as long as one doesn’t take things too seriously, frustrations can become really funny stories. For example, in Edinburgh I had set a light cue for "La Vie en Rose" (Life in Pink), that the light cue would change from a subtle warm wash to pinker lighting for the duration of the song. But during the first performance, instead of changing to pink, the entire stage became washed in a virulent blue. After the show, we re-programmed the cue, but somehow the next day the board reset and it happened again. And again. And AGAIN. And yes, it could have been frustrating, but instead this immensely inappropriate lighting choice became a joke that I integrated into the show. And when I performed it the next week in Vancouver Canada, and the pink light was actually pink, I admit, there was a frisson of disappointment.
My other passions…well, they are varied (and likely quite strange to the casual observer). I host a popular knitting podcast, The Savvy Girls Podcast, which has been running for over six years and which has thousands of listeners. I love baking, and recently discovered that green tomatoes taste like apples if one dumps enough sugar on them. And…well, last year I fostered an abandoned baby sparrow from the Wild Bird Fund here in NYC. The bird grew up and decided that a life of napping on my laptop and watching YouTube Bird Videos for Cats was to her liking. So now I am a Single Girl With Sparrow (which may or may not be worse than Single Girl With Cat…)
8. In studying these two iconic artists and putting your show together, what did you learn about your own performance style? For me, as an opera singer, classical technique always took precedence over artistic decisions. Listening to the way that Piaf interprets songs – from word painting to phrasing to acting – has taught me that even though vocal technique is integral to singing any style of music, interpretation is so much more than just standing on stage making beautiful sounds.
Also, I have always been terrified of looking silly on stage. But…I mean, have you ever seen the video of Brel singing "Bruxelles?" and that ridiculous little dance he does? And people thought he was incredibly sexy. So if Brel can dance like a monkey and get all the ladies, why shouldn’t I take some physical chances, too?
9. As much as we try to keep the drama on stage, it does creep into our lives at times and sometimes we say hurtful things to people we care about. If there was someone out there, reading this interview, whom you've hurt and someone who hurt you, who would you ask forgiveness from and who would you want to apologize to? What would you say to each of them now that some time has passed? Wow that one is really hard. I’m sure I am hurtful and insensitive at times, and have probably hurt several people in my life. I really do try to be careful with other peoples’ feelings, though, because I know what it is like to be hurt by someone. I’m not sure a public forum is the best place to be naming names, but to anyone I have inadvertently hurt, I am sorry.
As for people who have hurt me – and there are a few who immediately come to mind – I’m pretty easy to find, and always open to talk. I have tried to approach friends who have hurt me to discuss and hopefully rectify the situation, and it seldom goes well. But if a former friend wanted to contact me, I would at the very least listen to what they had to say and open a dialogue with them.
10. On "Call Me Adam" I have a section called One Percent Better, where through my own fitness commitment, I try to encourage people to improve their own life by one percent every day. What is something in your life that you want to improve by one percent better every day? I would like to be able to put down technology and to spend time with actual people. I spend so much time planning and promoting and writing emails and planning more and then following-up from the emails, and then doing more promotion, that I feel as if I’m constantly tied to the computer. Also, since I’m on the road so much, much of my contact with other people is online. And you know what? I miss having actual connections. All the emails and all the chatting in the world don’t make up for a nice afternoon with a friend.
So I think I’m going to really try to spend more time each day improving the quality of my interactions, even just 1% more each day, so I am not largely communicating with friends through a screen. I’m going to commit more time towards social interactions with people I enjoy. Face-to-face.
Melanie Gall is an internationally-acclaimed vocalist. She has traveled to Africa, South America and the Caribbean to perform solo classical recitals and to sing at events for the Semaine de la Francophonie, and she is a regular performer at the American Spring Festival in the Czech Republic. Melanie’s opera roles have included Gilda, La Fée, The Queen of the Night and Lima Energelly in the North American premiere of the Hebrew Opera And the Rat Laughs. She is based in New York City, and has sung at both Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.
Melanie has completed several advanced music degrees: University of Alberta, University of Western Ontario, Glenn Gould School of Music, the Mozarteum in Salzberg, and Brooklyn College and Manhattan School of Music in New York, as well as training programs with singers and coaches from the Metropolitan Opera in Italy and Israel.
She has written and internationally toured several award-winning solo shows. These include: My Pal Izzy, based on the early life of Irving Berlin, The Sparrow and The Mouse and Piaf and Brel: The Impossible Concert, about French chanteuse Edith Piaf, In the Mood for Love, with songs from American Songbook, women composers, Opera Mouse, a children’s introduction to opera, Red Hot Mama: A Sophie Tucker Cabaret, and two shows: More Power to Your Knitting, Nell! and A Stitch in Time, featuring "lost" knitting music from WWI and WWII.
She has won several awards for her work. More Power to Your Knitting, Nell! was awarded the CBC Award for Best Musical at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, as well as the Orlando Fringe Audience Choice Award and the Most Outstanding Female Performer award at the London Fringe. Melanie has also received awards in several international voice competitions, including the Sembrich Voice Competition and the Strauss Society Competition, and she received an Honourable Mention in the prestigious Metropolitan Opera National Council Awards.
Melanie has recorded several albums, including Knitting all the Day, a CD containing WWI-era knitting music, and the recently-released Sweeter in a Sweater, with songs about knitting from WWII. Other recordings include Piaf and Brel: The Impossible Concert (music of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel), Min HaLev (Hebrew and Ladino melodies) and La Nuit en Rose (songs from the cabarets of France).
In 2013-2014, Melanie toured several countries that were under-represented theatrically (Zimbabwe, Algeria, Morocco, Zambia), where she both performed (in English and French), and led outreach programs for children and young artists in local schools and orphanages. In addition, Melanie has worked with many First-Nations Communities (Canadian ‘Native Americans’) in Northern Manitoba, fostering a love of music and building performance skills in youth.
Melanie is the leading expert in historic songs about knitting and spinning. She has collected, researched and recorded several dozen of these songs, and has lectured about this music in the colloquium series at New York University, as well as at conferences in Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, and New York, at the National Museum in Luxembourg, and at the WWI and the Mediaconference in Chester, UK. In addition, Melanie hosts The Savvy Girls Podcast, an extremely popular knitting podcast.