La vie en Hermon

Can a man really sing like Piaf, asks Phillip Sweeney
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The Independent Culture
Thirty-two years after her death, the repertoire of the last of France's great pre-pop chanteuses is national patrimony, paid homage to by rock bands and pored over by smart new interpreters. Parisian Piafiles are currently savouring a selection of the French sparrow's more arcane B-sides, set for guitar, harmonica and arc-welder at the Bastille's Caf de la Danse by musicologist and actor Serge Hureau, and next week London gets a chance to sample the readings of another theatrical Piafologist, in the form of Michel Hermon's long-running show.

Hermon performs in duo with an accordionist, his old associate Gerard Barreaux, but his show is not conceived along retro-pastiche lines. Not that Hermon had much choice: without major camouflage - sex change, 20 per cent height reduction at a minimum - he was never going to cut the mustard in a little black dress. His agile expressive baritone delivery does, however, retain Piaf's distinctive old-fashioned rolled "r"s. The Piaf techniques, as much as her songs and aura, are also of importance to Hermon, a trained opera singer. "Piaf was a phenomenal singer - she has an almost classic dimension," he says.

The work of Piaf also intersects with other aesthetic dimensions, believes Hermon. One is the louche realism of German cabaret, Genet, Fassbinder et al. It was in this context that Hermon's youthful antipathy to Piaf's music was finally transformed into fascination by a performer with the same "distance of perspective' he feels he has, the German singer Ingrid Caven, whose Piaf show 15 years ago in a crumbling cabaret in the not- yet-chic sex zone of Pigalle, text by Fassbinder and production by Yves St Laurent, opened his eyes to other possible Piafs.

It was shortly after this, in 1982, that Hermon and Barreaux's own Piaf show saw the light, at first as a fill-in between stage parts. Although Hermon had dabbled musically before, perfoming his own "dark hard songs" his early career was primarily theatrical. After studying at Paris's Conservatoire National d'Art Dramatique, he spent a decade developing a reputation for "ambiguous" atmospheric renditions of roles such as Edward II, Coriolanus, and Claire in Genet's The Maids. The success of his Piaf show propelled Hermon further in the direction of what he already saw as a refined and heightened precursor of French chanson, German romantic lieder and opera in general. "Dropping" the theatre, Hermon devoted himself to voice and music lessons and by the late Eighties was in regular work in his new vocation: Schubert recitals at the Festival of Avignon, parts in Gian- carlo Menotti's opera The Boy Who Grew Up Too Quickly, Brecht's The Threepenny Opera, his own production based on the life of the early romantic writer and suicide, Caroline de Gunderrod.

Hermon revived his Piaf show in December '93 to fill a vacancy at the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris and found its lingering reputation still strong enough to ensure immediate success. Last year he brought the show to Edinburgh and to New York, where Piaf's own "special affinity" with the city contributed to another succes d'estime.

"Piaf's work is international," says Hermon, "She loved New York, and I've chosen lesser-known songs which reflect her different sides...a couple of them are even blues."

Michel Hermon sings Piaf, Lilian Baylis Theatre, Rosebery Ave, EC1 (071- 713 6000), 20 Feb-25 Feb, 8pm, £11, £8.50