The deal in the desert and the diva Dion

Singer's contract with Caesar's Palace could alter the way performers view the city of neon.

Pop Music

March 10, 2002|By Geoff Boucher | Geoff Boucher,Special to the Sun

Celine Dion speaks of her epiphany. Not the recent birth of her first child or the career rocket of the Titanic soundtrack in 1999. The epiphany arrived two years ago as she sat in a Las Vegas casino. "It changed my life and my entire way of thinking about performances on stage."

And, it turns out, the moment may also reshape the life of the evolving entertainment scene in the high-rolling desert city.

Dion, who stepped away from the public concert stage on New Year's Eve 1999 to begin the role of new mother, has agreed to an unprecedented pact that will see her perform five nights a week for 40 weeks a year over three years at Caesar's Palace. The deal is worth a reported $100 million and will also see the casino resort build a $95-million, 4,000-seat theater to house the production. The shows, scheduled to begin next March, will mix the singer's music and an elaborate theatrical production on a vast, 22,000-square-foot stage.

Dion becomes the only contemporary superstar at the heights of pop to make such a lengthy commitment to any venue. For Las Vegas, it may lead to an era of pop stars in residence, the way country singers have become house acts in Branson, Mo.

The path to this unlikely commitment and destination began when Dion and Rene Angelil, her husband and manager, sat captivated in the audience of O at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino. O is the production that channels 1.5 million gallons of water and six dozen performers into the trademark surrealism and acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil, the French Canadian theater company. Fellow Canadian Dion saw in the show a way to create a backdrop to match her own often epic music.

"I knew I wanted to perform and have a visual show like this and have, like, 60 performers on stage with me and make every song look like a visual experience," she said by cell phone from a limo headed for the Grammy Awards.

For Dion, there is some gamble in the Las Vegas enterprise: She will not be able to tour or do extensive promotion on the road to help drive album sales and all-important radio airplay. Artistically, there may be some risk that even her large voice might be lost in the immense swirl of a Cirque du Soleil-style show.

Her husband, though, chuckles at those notions. With soft-spoken confidence he says that Las Vegas is becoming an epicenter of live entertainment. "Why go to the fans if they will come to you and be able to see something truly special?"

The eye-opening deal and show plans are another signpost for Las Vegas and its unique journey as a show-business oasis.

Dion's plan to set up shop in one spot for a multi-year run may inspire other artists, says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar, a concert business trade publication. He points to the success of the country music scene in Branson: Acts of all levels of commercial viability can escape the overhead and rigors of traveling and enjoy a steady stream of fans.

"It can be the best of all worlds for the artist," he said. "In a way, Celine Dion may be pioneering that in the pop world. And what better place than Vegas?"

Clearly, the Dion deal raises the stakes of the Vegas music scene, says Tom Gallagher, president and CEO of Park Place Entertainment, the gaming industry titan that runs Caesar's, Bally's, the Flamingo and more than two dozen other casino operations in five countries.

Gladys Knight has also just agreed to perform 50 weeks at the Flamingo (although in a more traditional concert format), suggesting Gallagher and his company will be looking for more long-term deals with pop world names.

The deal's announcement comes as Dion turns up the volume on her career again. She taped a performance Sunday night at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood for a CBS television special to air next month, and her first studio album since 1997, A New Day Has Come, will be released March 26.

Geoff Boucher writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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