The most poignant moment of Celine Dion's new show, to many in the audience, almost didn't happen — and was a tortuous 15 years in the making.
The production, which recently launched a three-year run in Las Vegas, contains a number of revealing moments that Dion said would have left her feeling exposed in past years. Chief among them is a French dirge called "Ne Me Quitte Pas," a song so laden with sadness — and so revered — that she was long convinced that she couldn't pull it off.
Written by the late Belgian Jacques Brel, the song translates loosely to "Don't Leave Me," and is sung from the perspective of a man who realizes, too late, that he is losing the love of his life. Repeatedly, and in vain, he begs her to stay — promising her that he would mine the earth even after his death in order to cover her body with gold. Most famously, almost pitiably, the man asks for permission to just watch her from a corner — to be, he asks, "the shadow of your shadow."
The song has become a pop standard, translated into Finnish, Portuguese and other languages, recorded in French by Nina Simone and in English by Madonna, Brenda Lee and many more. It would seem a natural fit for Dion, who has often seemed more tranquil and contented singing in French than English.
René Angélil, Dion's husband and the engineer of her success, first asked her to sing the song about 15 years ago, when she was preparing for a show in France.
Dion, like many performers, is quite assured of her skill; in a recent interview she said she's in talks to play Maria Callas, the soprano, in a film. She added, unprompted, that she was fairly sure she'd win an Academy Award for the role. But "Ne Me Quitte Pas," she said, was unthinkable.
"I was too young," she said. "I was not ready emotionally. It's — it's heavy."
She turned down her husband then, and then again in 2003 and a third time in 2008.
This time, "I didn't say a thing," Angélil said. Ken Ehrlich, the mastermind of the Grammy Awards who had become the director of Dion's show, proposed it instead — without knowing any of that history.
"There was an opportunity here to make a statement," Ehrlich said.
"I didn't say a word," Angélil said with a laugh.
Dion rehearsed the song in Florida. "Everyone had chills," Angélil said. On the way home, Dion announced — again — that she couldn't do it. They bagged it, settling on another French-language song. "It was OK," Ehrlich said. "It wasn't 'Ne Me Quitte Pas.'"
Finally, during a car ride in January, Angélil gave it one more go. "I said: 'You're 42 years old. You can do that song. It's something great," he said. (Dion has since turned 43.)
Finally, she acquiesced. And for all the criticism she's faced over the years that her songs are technically sound but devoid of real emotional connection, that was a very real tear rolling down Dion's cheek when she finally sang it live.