Pandora Topp has no regrets about channeling Edith Piaf

Pandora Topp performs Édith Piaf at Southminster United Church. Photo: Harriet Carlson

Édith Piaf, the Little Sparrow, is one of the most famous singers of the 20th century. She is known for torch songs of love and loss including La vie en rose and Non, je ne regret riens. She died in 1963 but since then her life has been celebrated in film and numerous biographies. For Sudbury actor and singer Pandora Topp, Piaf has become a part of her performing repertoire. This week she will perform her cabaret-style show Café Piaf at Southminster United Church but before the event she answered some questions from ARTSFILE. 

Q. Where are you from? 

A. I am originally from Montreal and moved to Sudbury in 1981. I have family in Ottawa and have performed Piaf here on a few separate occasions over the last 20 years. I was recently here performing Fierce at the Gladstone at the beginning of October

Q. Tell me a bit about your creative career.

A. I’ve worked in the music, theatre and film industry and arts education in both the english and french communities since the early ’90s. I am self-taught, an auto-didact and polymath. I’ve built more that 11 music productions in both languages to support myself and other musicians in the North, always looking to explore new vocal techniques and content as well as overriding themes, which were then marketted to the public, as well as performing for corporate events and weddings. I’ve done community theatre and children’s theatre as well as devised theatre. 

I performed Café Piaf at the Fourth Stage at the NAC very early on as part of a Francophone theatre festival. Also as part of the National Capital Commission’s outdoor summer programming. I also performed La Voix humaine by Jean Cocteau as a staged reading, again at the NAC’s  Fourth Stage as a co-pro with le Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario, Sudbury’s professional francophone theatre. 

Édith Piaf is one of the best known singers of the 20th century.

Q. Do you have a preference between acting and singing?

A. I love both really and I am lucky to be able to move back and forth. One of my favorite opportunities was to perform the world premiere of Tomson Highway‘s one-woman show The (Post) Mistress in Thunder Bay. He taught me some of the Cree language and there were 12 songs in Cree, English and French. It was one of the most challenging, humbling and rewarding experiences of my life. I love engaging with the people, the audience, so any music or theatre that allows me to directly engage with others is the best. 

Q. Tell me a bit about you and Piaf? Where and when did you first ‘meet’?

A. I was taking French at Laurentian University and had to profile an artist from the Francophonie. My mother, visual artist Heather Topp, suggested Piaf, because she was like the ‘Janis Joplin of French music!’ as she put it. This intrigued me, because at the time I was all about the Blues and R&B.

When I heard her for the first time, I was struck all at once, by her voice, it’s timbre, it’s emotion, by the music that was so evocative and emotional and by the stories that she was recounting. I decided to learn a couple of her songs for articulation purposes only, but then decided that I’d add a certain je ne sais quoi to my presentation by ending with one of her songs that I would deliver a capella.

Well, that went off the rails very quickly, as I’d learned it by ear and didn’t realize that I’d chosen a very challenging piece with difficult intervals, so I was off key. I started to sweat and glow beet red in front of my peers who all seemed nonplussed by my rendition and then I tried to disappear behind my desk once it was all over.

My professor said that it was an amazing presentation content-wise adding that ‘Not everyone can sing Piaf though.’ That made me want to go away and forget it had ever happened. I vowed to myself that I would never attempt to present Piaf again in public. And then, suddenly I started getting invitations to sing at wine and cheese functions at the university, so I jumped on the occasion and hired a few musicians, and the public has continued to summon me ever since. 

Q. What was the appeal?

A. The storyteller and the storytelling. The woman and her will. The composers and the craft of music. All the ingredients are there. 

Q. When did this show at Southminister come together?

A. Roland Graham actually is having us ‘back by popular demand.’ We have performed as Café Piaf and as part of the noon concert series a few years ago. We were to return last year, however accordionist Iona Reed, (International Accordion Champion, Prague 1962), had to be suddenly hospitalized and had triple bypass surgery, and a few months later, her partner, and guitarist Ron Kelly also fell ill, so we postponed our engagement. 

Q. If I go what will I see and hear?

A. You will hear songs from her repertoire which date from the beginning of her career right to the very end, as well as hearing anecdotes about her incredible life and the relationships she shared with her composers. 

UpBeat! Productions presents Café Piaf
With Pandora Topp, Iona Reed, accordion; Ron Kelly, guitar and Brian Quebec, bass
Where: Southminster United Church, 15 Aylmer Ave.
When: Nov. 2 at 7:30 p.m.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.