On Thursday, June 18, chanteuse Yanna Avis, whose essence has been described by Stephen Holden of the New York Times as being distilled “in a word heard less and less nowadays: chic,” will return to 54 Below with her latest show, “Make Some Magic.”
Avis’ statuesque glamour and sultry, romantic style is reminiscent of the mid-20th century—the heyday of Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour and other European-born musicians, like Avis herself.
A noted French stage and television actress before she came to the United States, Avis’ set is peppered with French, English, Spanish, Italian and German songs—favorites, as well as gems newly discovered by Avis since beginning her cabaret act in the early 1990s.
In advance of her performance at 54 Below #COTA’s editor-in-chief, Steve Schonberg had a chance to catch up with Avis and discuss this latest show, below!
Avis will perform at 54 Below (254 West 54th Street) on Thursday, June 18th at 9:30PM. For information and tickets, visit www.54Below.com.
Steve: Yanna, I was excited to hear that you’ll be returning again to 54 Below. What can fans expect from this new show?
Yanna: Well, this is an encore, as they say! What I do is continental cabaret, which is more the Berlin type of cabaret, you know, with a lot of interaction with the audience. And, I do songs, obviously, in English but lots in French, in German, and also in Spanish this time.
Steve: That’s terrific. What I think is so interesting about you is that you perform in a style that isn’t as common as it may have been in decades past with performers like Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf or Charles Aznavour. Do you feel that way about your show?
Yanna: Yes, absolutely. In fact, there’s always references of teasing sex like Marlene Dietrich… or touching the heart like Piaf, so it’s always like somebody who is not there anymore. Sort of a Golden Age movie [star]-type. Touching the heart, talking to the audience, making contact, and making it a bit more alive. It’s not about just singing, it’s about short stories. Since I come from the theater, it’s more like playing… a little play with music and telling stories. Most of my songs have some story, because I rely much on my acting than anything else.
Steve: Well, your acting is so interesting because you have that background from film and theater. Does that impact your style of cabaret?
Yanna: Yes. I was trained as an actress in a very classical way at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts in Paris. This was to become a serious actress on stage more than to become a singer, and that’s what I did first before I came to the states. Actually, [at the] last show I did, John Guare [famed American playwright] was there, and I was the American starlet in his play in Paris called The House of Blue Leaves.
Steve: Well, in addition to your training, you of course grew up in post-WWII Europe when there was a lot of artistic expression. Do you feel like that time and place in history and your childhood has impacted your career today?
Yanna: Yes. I feel like an old movie because, obviously, I always refer to that time of the movies and, you know, all the things we don’t do today, like smoking a cigarette or two like Bette Davis, or all these seduction scenes, which seem a little old fashioned.
Although a lot of people love it, but it’s just that cabaret is not the most popular art [form] anymore. A lot of things have changed, and rap and all these things are much more popular, so it’s a very rarefied venue [cabaret] and getting more so. If you think of it, when I started there were so many cabarets, although already the big rooms didn’t exist anymore, but when I started, which was in ’92, there were still all these great rooms like Rainbow and Stars. Some I did, actually, like the Russian Tea Room, and Maxim’s, and the FireBird. All of them are gone. It’s basically very little choice in the cabaret venues.
I did the Café Carlyle, but it’s and Upper East Side thing, and you can’t attract the kind of following that I would like to attract. People will not agree to go and be charged fortunes to hear me.
Steve: Don’t underestimate your appeal, Yanna! It is funny you say that though, because of course as classy as many of these venues may be, cabaret performers aren’t known necessarily for making fortunes themselves. But, you bring the added layer and allure of being a high society-type. Do you ever feel like you bring that sort of unique perspective to your show?
Yanna: Yes. I started at a little place, which I love, called 88’s. I don’t know if you ever knew that place, but that’s where a lot of things happened at the time, and it was easygoing. It was nothing much, and it was great fun. Then I started moving up and up. Not in New York geography, I mean.
But then of course, when I did the Spoleto Festival with Maestro [Gian Carlo] Menotti that changed a lot because I was asked to perform the first Café Chantant, as it’s called in Spoletto in Italy… I did it for two years and then stopped doing cabaret, but that was a great, great, great experience of course, coming from Menotti. It was an extraordinary thing.
Steve: I think it’s really interesting when performers sing in multiple languages. I asked this question of Ute Lemper when I interviewed her, I guess it was about a year ago. Similarly, she does what you do, which is she sings in I think five different languages. I said to her, “People in the audience are not going to speak the same languages as you. You’re so fluent in everything.” She responded essentially, “You know, song is transcendent.” That you don’t need to speak the languages, it comes through in the emotion. It comes through in the lyric. You don’t always need to be fluent in that language. Do you feel that way?
Yanna: In part that’s what I even say in my show. If you don’t understand, for instance, I do “My Man”, but in French, because it was originally written for Mistinguett [“Mon Homme”] who obviously sang it in French, but I say just before, “Oh, you know darling. You don’t need to understand, just think of Cole Porter’s lyrics, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and you’ll be right there with me, because, of course, we’re talking about a song that was made so famous afterward in English [by Fanny Brice, followed by Barbra Streisand], so it became just as much of an icon in English as it was in French…
Steve: It’s interesting you say that. I was at 54 Below last week in fact for Scott Siegel’s tribute to Edith Piaf, and a performer was about to sing “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.” They explained that Piaf sang this towards the end of her life, and in so many ways it was more than a song. It symbolized her strength in the face of so many negative things that had happened in her life. Similarly, even though the song was sung in French, the emotion of the lyrics transcended language, “Non rien de rien, non, Je ne regrette rein” [No, nothing of nothing. No. I regret nothing.] Songs really can have that transcendent effect and I think it’s great to hear bilingual music here in New York.
Yanna: I heard some recording when [Piaf] came for instance, to perform in this country at Carnegie Hall, she would before just make a very short explanation in English, and the rest you have to believe. The way you deliver the emotion, all the things that you do, even physically, can translate enough of the mood, even not having to sing it in English.