Arts & Entertainment
2 min

How Edith Piaf inspired drag in a classical tenor

Frédérik Robert performs at Vancouver’s Queer Arts Festival

A young man’s struggle to find his place, set to Edith Piaf songs against a silent film: Frédérik Robert performs Dragging Piaf on June 29, 2016 in Vancouver. Credit: Queer Arts Festival

The music of Edith Piaf may have lingered in Frédérik Robert’s francophone childhood home, but that’s not the real reason he chose to portray the French chanteuse in Dragging Piaf

“I grew up with Piaf’s music and my mother would play her vinyls once in a while, but I never considered her music as pertinent to my career,” says Robert, who is considered by many to be one of Canada’s leading classical tenors.

Despite the title of his upcoming Queer Arts Festival performance, Piaf’s music won’t be the star of this show; it’s the silent film that plays behind Robert as he sings Piaf’s music, dressed as the drag persona of the songstress, that’s likely to steal the scene.

“It’s very much done in the style when people used to watch films like Phantom of the Opera, with a live organist to accompany the movie,” he explains.

Previous audiences have sometimes arrived expecting a concert of Piaf songs, he acknowledges, but the experience is actually quite different. As the movie unfolds, Robert underscores his own portrayal in the film of a conflicted young man who is questioning his identity. 

“It is a process of discovery, as this young man struggles to see how he fits in the world,” he says. “Facing obstacles of drug addiction, alcoholism and abusive relationships, he is trying to figure who he is, trying to come to terms with his own identify as male or female.”

Robert sees Dragging Piaf as an opportunity to use his vocal talents to tell a story that he hopes will resonate with members of the LGBT community and inspire dialogue.

“Many people in the LGBTQ community have faced obstacles in their own coming out, or in discovering who they are,” he says. “When we did the show in Kamloops, during the Q&A afterwards it was an opportunity for those who had come for the music to pose questions and find their own discoveries beyond the music.”

Filled with stories of love, loss and sorrow, it is not surprising that Robert and filmmaker Alan Corbishley turned to Piaf’s music for their tragic film.

“Piaf’s music is very raw, and super-loaded with their own story inside of them,” he says. “There is a grittiness to her stories of struggles and longings, and while not everything translates perfectly into the movie, it makes for a wonderful soundtrack and commentary.”