On Friday, she will lead the mourners at the elaborate funeral in Montreal planned for René Angélil, her husband-manger and the father of their three sons (René-Charles, 15, and 5-year-old twins Eddy and Nelson).
Angélil, who died aged 73 last Thursday, had been suffering from throat cancer. Compounding the sadness, Dion’s older brother, Daniel, died two days later, also from cancer. (On her website, Dion announced a “celebration of life” service for Angélil would be held on Feb. 3 at Caesars Palace.)
Pictures of Dion wearing black and hugging friends—the first photographs of her since Angélil’s death on Jan. 14—were published Thursday by the Daily Mail.
In what has been deigned a “state funeral” in Dion’s home province of Quebec--where “René and Céline” enjoyed a regal status—Angélil will be given his send-off at Montreal’s storied Notre-Dame Basilica. It’s the same place where, two decades ago, he married the singer.
Expect the basilica’s 7,000-pipe organ to make the walls tremble. A wow-inducing church that dates back to 1829 and can fit about three thousand people, it is as lush as any Dion power ballad.
And some of those expected to look up at the thousands of 24-karat gold stars that poke its soaring blue ceiling? Attendees will comprise kin, friends, and politicos, including likely notables such as Cirque du Soleil’s billionaire-founder Guy Laliberté, mega-producer and collaborator David Foster, fellow crooner Josh Groban, and TV star-turned-political spouse, Julie Snyder (think: the Carla Bruni of Quebec).
In the pews, no doubt, too: Angélil’s pals from Montreal deli/institution, Schwartz’s, a place world-renowned for its smoked meat, and where Angélil famously liked his with a black cherry Cola on the side. (He liked the deli so much, he actually bought it a few years back.)
Coverage of the funeral will be crammed into Canadian newspapers, as well as televised by three major networks, with flags ordered to be at half-staff.
In one sense, Angélil—born to a Syrian father and a Lebanese mother—is returning home.
“They always come back, every time there’s anything significant with their lives,” talent manager Barry Garber says about the couple’s attachment to their Quebec roots.
Angélil’s funeral at the basilica will also further cement his place in the very upper echelons of the province, for the Notre-Dame is not only a landmark for housing Celine’s wedding all those years ago, but it’s been a forum of grief for many other prominent citizens.
Raised to the status of “basilica” by Pope John Paul II when he visited Quebec in 1982, it’s where the funeral took place some years back for former Montreal Canadiens superstar Maurice “Rocket” Richard (attended by thousands, inside and outside), and also the tearful one held for a giant of politics, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (during which his son, Justin Trudeau, the current prime minister, gave a star-making eulogy just steps from the High Altar).
Remembering Angélil and Dion’s wedding--compared, at the time, to Canada’s answer to the Charles and Di nuptials—Garber, who was one of the attendees, remembers the way the couple was just looking at each other, “like no one had looked at each other that way before.”
“It was one of the great love stories....of showbiz, but in history, generally,” continues Garber, who co-founded Angélil’s production company, and served, for a time, as Dion’s world tour producer.
They had met first in 1980, when Dion was 12, and Angélil 38, with their relationship beginning when Dion was 19.
“It blossomed over such a long time,” says Garber, “and though there was some doubt, a lot of talk, at the time, about its authenticity, mainly because of the age difference (René was 51, she was 26)...there was nobody else in each other’s lives. Céline was René, and René was Céline.”
Something else that others remember from their wedding day in 1994—besides the seven-pound headpiece with 2,000 crystals that Celine donned—is that the couple gave a press conference after the ceremony.
As ever, the public and the private had effortlessly forked, as had been the case ever since a 13-year-old Celine, the daughter of an accordionist, sang into a pencil, pretending it was a microphone, during an audition for Angélil, after which the manager dumped all his other clients and mortgaged his house to put out Dion’s first album.
In the showbiz-y archives of the so-called “Svengali”—a word that was lobbed at Angélil the way, say, “perky” stuck to Katie Couric—here is one in which the figure lived long enough to see the jabs dissipate.
Unlike many other presumed puppeteers of the pop world—a figure that casts echoes of Berry Gordy and Diana Ross, Tommy Mottolla and Mariah Carey—time told all in the Celine-René partnership.
As Sarah Bosevald, a columnist in Canada’s National Post put it not long ago, “Twenty years after their wedding, their love has endured all of the snickering judgments, and thrived through an astonishingly successful career that boasts 220 million records sold. It has only grown through the in vitro fertilization birth of three sons, a renewal of vows in 2000, and now it’s sustained itself during Angélil’s two-year battle with throat cancer...”
Moreover, her love for her husband may just be the magic potion behind her chart-busting ballads, the columnist surmised, in that “it’s hard to imagine Dion belting out her Grammy-winning smash ‘Because You Loved Me’ quite as passionately if she didn’t have the kind of person in her life those lyrics celebrate.”
A close associate of Dion’s, who asked to remain anonymous, puts it another way: “In the same way, they always say that without Pierre Bergé (Yves Saint Laurent’s life partner and longtime business partner), there would have been no Yves Saint Laurent...without René, there would been no Celine.”
The associate adds that Dion really didn’t want to return to Caesars Palace last year (where she has a blockbuster performing contract, but had taken a year hiatus to be by her husband’s bedside), but Angélil had insisted. “In a way, she is closest to him when she is singing.”
Though the power couple lived in a palpable cocoon of wealth—there was the sprawling estate on Jupiter Island, and Celine’s confessed 3,000-pair shoe collection—what’s more extraordinary is the extent to which they remained rooted.
Even the Caesars Palace multi-year residency that Angélil concocted for his wife was transformative in that it allowed them more “family time” than most can dream of: making touring moot, Dion had a gig that allowed her to work 90 minutes a day, and be home for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Angélil, likewise, was around to play bat with their oldest son, a baseball fanatic. They were hands-on. Remarkably, there’s been a dearth of gossip about their personal lives, or any whiff of other attachments.
Alas, by the time the funeral cortège pulls up in front of the first Gothic Revival-style church to be built in Canada, one thing will be certain: This is the end of a chapter for Celine and the impresario she once called “the first and only man of my life.”
On Feb. 23, the diva is scheduled to return to work at Caesars Palace, taking to the stage in a show whose numbers are expected to include—what else?—My Heart Will Go On.