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CRITIC'S CHOICE

POP MUSIC
Time out for Celine
Success doesn't equal happiness for Celine Dion. Her personal life remains filled with soap opera plots as her professional stature continues to soar.

Dion, 30, among the most successful singers of this decade, is expected to retire for two or three years after her final concert performance on Jan. 1 in Las Vegas. She recently took a sabbatical from touring to help care for her husband/manager, Rene Angelil, who underwent surgery for skin cancer in April. Her plan is release an album in November, finish her tour, and then spend time with her husband, who is 26 years her senior.

The time is right, she says, for a break from show business. "I think the timing is super-good for us to stop at the end of the year and to find ourselves with the people we love," she said last week at a press conference in Montreal. "We are going to go for picnics. We are going to try to have a child. We want to be there for each other."

Dion has a way of touching emotions in her music. She is best-known for her weepy ballad "My Heart Will Go On" from the movie "Titanic," which sold millions of CDs and this year won Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Her album "Let's Talk About Love" was another best seller and established Dion as a superstar in the 1990s.

Things seem to be looking up for Dion and her family. "There is no cancer in me now. I feel great," Angelil told reporters in Montreal, near Dion's hometown in French Canada. On her new album, "All the Way," Dion will sing a computer-aided duet with the late Frank Sinatra on the title track. The CD will also include eight new songs, plus eight of Dion's biggest hits. She was due to play Buffalo last spring, but the concert was postponed because of her husband's illness. Dion returns to make up that date with a live performance Monday at 7:30 p.m.

-- Anthony Violanti

OPERA
A touch of Russia
Artistic Director Richard Bradshaw is opening the 1999-2000 season of the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto's Hummingbird Centre on Thursday by conducting the first of six performances of a brand-new production of Verdi's "La Traviata." There will be a decidedly Russian tinge to the production, as Bradshaw has engaged stage director Dmitry Bertman, set designer Igor Nezhzny and costume designer Tatiana Tulubieva, currently the hottest creative team in Moscow, to set this new "Traviata" on the Hummingbird stage. In addition, the title role will be sung by soprano Svetelina Vassilieva, who scored a smash in 1997 as Liu in the COC's "Turandot." She will be singing opposite Canadian tenor Gaetan Laperriere as her lover Alfredo in this tale of self-sacrifice for the sake of a family's perceived honor. The five additional performances extend through Oct. 8.

Running in repertory with "Traviata" will be a bel canto delight, Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love." Spotlighted will be Canadian tenor Michael Schade as Nemorino, a hapless peasant who aspires to the hand of the aristocratic Adina, sung by Henriette Bonde-Hansen. Schade was last seen hereabouts in the title role of the COC's sensational staging of Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex" in 1997. The production will be conducted by Maurizio Barbacini and directed by Paolo Montarsolo, whom Bradshaw feels will infuse the stage action with the same kind of magic he generated when he was striding the stage as a legendary buffo baritone. There will be six performances, opening next Friday and running through Oct. 9. Both operas will be sung in Italian with English Surtitles.

-- Herman Trotter
READING
In the ring
"I grew up in a working-class city," says Ishmael Reed, the literary favorite son of the Buffalo projects. "That helped me get to the ripe old age of 61." It's a good thing, too. When a novelist, self-proclaimed apostle of "neo-hoodooism" and inveterate literary pugilist gets into the intellectual ring as often as Reed (who called one of his collections "Writin' Is Fightin' "), you need to know how to bob and weave and take a punch. In the introduction, for instance, to his exceptional anthology "Multiamerica," he lambasted the "one-sided racial discussion of ethnicity and multiculturalism by the national media." In his novel "Reckless Eyeballing" (among other places), he brought down the wrath of feminists by pounding away at the feminist image of black men.

Good professor that he is (in Oakland, Calif.), he regrets, on the phone, that "the tabloid food fights of popular culture have entered the university." He also says that some of those perceived to be his enemies -- Alice Walker, Michelle Wallace -- have come around to his way of thinking.

Still, when you talk to Reed on the phone, it's like going a couple of tune-up rounds with Sugar Ray Leonard. As fast as you can ask questions, he jabs out answers at least twice as fast. With all his supposed rapprochement with feminists, he'll still tell you matter-of-factly that "the feminist movement never did much for poor women" and that black men get "a fairer deal from right-wing women than our supposed progressive allies."

That's the beauty of Ishmael Reed. He likes it out there on the margins. When his amazing early fictions ("The Freelance Pallbearers," "Mumbo Jumbo") threatened to make him the toast of New York, he immediately picked up and moved to Oakland. Courtesy of Just Buffalo, he returns to read some of his new poetry and spar with anyone who wants to at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Langston Hughes Center.

He still cherishes Buffalo, and not only because his mother lives here. "Buffalo was very important in African-American history," he is quick to remind you. William Wells Brown, for instance, "the first African-American novelist, lived on Pine Street in Buffalo. You just can't pick up a book about black history without reading about Buffalo."

To a lot of current Buffalo, the affection is mutual.

-- Jeff Simon

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