World-renowned singer Julia Migenes bids adieu with nostalgic French popular songs
Victoria Kirsch (at piano) and Julia Migenes / Enci Box

LOS ANGELES—Grammy-winning opera singer Julia Migenes travels back to the Paris of Edith Piaf, Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway in this evening of nostalgic French chansons by Charles Aznavour, Léo Ferré, Jacques Brel, Michel Legrand and others. Accompanied on piano by Victoria Kirsch and directed by Academy Award-nominated director Peter Medak, La Vie en Rose marks her farewell series of concert performances.

Adieu? Farewell? No, no, it can’t be! Perhaps at this stage of her career she doesn’t master the breath, range or stamina for Carmen or Lulu, but let’s focus on what she can do, and does so excruciatingly, so movingly well. Migenes is the chanteuse the world needs to bring fresh insight to the body of Parisian cabaret songs that have carved out a unique place in the repertoire—not quite pop, not quite classical, but intimate, interior portraits of characters in distress.

Four years ago Migenes blessed her L.A. fans with her interpretation of Kurt Weill songs. Having sung in all the great opera houses of the world, and having lived for extended periods in both Paris and Vienna, she is fluent in both French and German.

For this recital performance (seen Nov. 7), which called upon her considerable acting and dance skills, she chose 11 numbers for her just over one-hour-long gift. Migenes opened her program by saying her choice was difficult, as the repertoire of truly wonderful songs could have kept her on stage for the next four days. I thought to myself, “Well, I could cancel all my other plans for this.”

The evening began with on old phonograph on stage playing a recording of Edith Piaf in her most famous number, “La Vie en Rose” (sometimes translated as “Life Through Rose-Colored Glasses”), the song which lends its title to Migenes’s show. It was a clear statement that this collection of songs, and their interpretation, owes everything to the little songbird of Paris. Not that Migenes was trying to impersonate Piaf, but rather summon up her spirit, her passion, her grief poured into song, her art.

Milord,” perhaps Piaf’s second best-known song, was written by Georges Moustaki and Marguerite Monnot (1903-61). It’s the song of a working woman inviting a passing gentleman into her room for some comfort and ease with “a girl from the port, a shadow of the street.” Monnot was an extraordinarily talented songwriter and a close friend of Piaf, most famous for the songs she wrote for the musical Irma La Douce.

But on the Migenes program, curiously, with the exception of that number, all the other songs were written by men, both music and lyrics. Nevertheless, they capture a certain psychology, a certain attitude of world-weary acceptance, that we associate with French womanhood. But maybe it could be expressed the other way around: Was it precisely this repertoire of songs (by men) that helped to define that emotional state for women—one of resigned toleration for the abuses and excesses of their lovers and partners?

What else can we make of the all-forgiving lyric in Migenes’s opening number, “Mon Homme” (“My Man”), composed by Maurice Yvain to the words of Jacques-Charles and Albert Willemetz?

“He’s not much for looks / And no hero out of books / Is my man. / Two or three girls has he / That he likes as well as me / But I love him! / I don’t know why I should, / He isn’t good, he isn’t true. / He beats me too. / What can I do?”

This song was popularized in America by Fannie Brice and later Billie Holiday and many other singers.

Several numbers in Migenes’s evening addressed the oh-so-French theme of “La Bohème” (the title of one of Charles Aznavour’s songs), the romanticizing of youth and freedom, mistakes and regrets of a would-be artist’s bygone life—and the draw for so many free spirits of the world to live a liberated life in Paris. It was only in her third number, Aznavour’s “Hier Encore” (“Yesterday Still”), with a similar nostalgia for “my days fleeing in time,” that I understood the singer’s choice on such a small stage, to use a microphone. She was able “to sing as softly as I wish and even whisper when the word or mood calls for it,” as she writes in her program note.

In many of her songs, Migenes used a half-spoken, half-sung technique that erases the boundary between acting and singing. With all the movement, dance and personal reflection she includes in her evening, it is no wonder she chose to perform in a theater, not a more formal concert hall setting.

Each piece Migenes performed was a highlight, but there were several that were especially high, such as “Avec le Temps” (“With Time”), by Léo Ferré, another song dripping with nostalgia: “With time goes everything, goes away, / We forget the face and we forget the voice, / The heart when it beats more. /It’s not worth going further / You have to let it go and that’s fine.” Migenes prefaced this number hilariously recalling a slinky Parisian stage performer dressed in ostrich feathers with a troupe of boy back-up singers. I thought her story had something to do with this song and its original singer, but now I’m not so sure. Written as recently as 1971, it seemed a little late for ostrich feathers.

Ferré also composed “Tu Ne Dis Jamais Rien” (“You Don’t Say Anything”), a stream of consciousness set to an icy piano accompaniment, in which Migenes affected a kind of monotone shell-shocked affect. She prefaced this with recall of her historic performance in Alban Berg’s atonal opera Lulu to show the vast range of techniques between that end of the vocal repertoire and these chansons. The sound technician played excerpts of her Lulu as Migenes lip-synched like an untethered twelve-tone Harpo Marx. She shared that the opera was so other-worldly and difficult that when she returned to her dressing room she would routinely play an easy-listening Doobie Brothers tune to unwind and come back to earth as she reassembled herself into her street clothes.

In this sense this was so much more than a recital, but rather a hour of profound insight into a personality who once lit up the operatic stage and is still now, at 70, with us in a new repertoire, as well as a glimpse into the lives of the characters depicted in each song, and finally the blurred intersection between singer and song.

Migenes put all her dance moves to work in “Les Paumés du Petit Matin” (“The Early Morning Hangers On”) by François Rauber and Jacques Brel, a French equivalent to the Stephen Sondheim song from Company. “They wake up at the time of the shepherd / To get up at tea time / And go out at the hour of nothing / The little ones in the morning. / They, they have arrogance / Girls with breasts / They have this insurance / Men who we guess / That dad was lucky / The little ones in the morning.”

It was with this song that an aperçu came to me: Here was the exception, a song about women of a certain privileged standing, who like the others have their problems and passing love affairs, but who can afford to gather with their friends and socialize at cafés with a dance band. The other songs on the program, and really the ones we most associate with the genre, bring out the essentially working-class character of women whose lives don’t afford them a wide array of choices—for example, to get up and leave the man who beats them and has other lovers on the side.

The final two songs were more upbeat and romantic, “La Valse des Lilas” (“The Waltz of the Lilacs”) and “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”), both with music by Michel Legrand.

Julia Migenes wore a simple, silky black pantsuit that permitted her maximum movement and contained all of our audience projections as to what kind of woman was performing for us—diva, lover, victim, survivor—unforgettable in every disguise. She was masterfully accompanied on piano by her longtime collaborator Victoria Kirsch, who did a solo fantasy on the familiar “Un Homme et une Femme” (“A Man and a Woman”).

Performances of La Vie en Rose continue through Dec. 14 on Thurs., Nov. 14 and 21 and Dec. 12; Fri., Nov. 29 and Dec. 6; Sat., Nov. 16 and 23 and Dec. 14; and Sun., Dec. 1 and  8, all at 8 p.m. The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles 90025. Information and tickets are available at (310) 477-2055 ext. 2, or at the Odyssey website. Some dates are designated as $10 ticket nights.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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