Queen of the night concert

Preparations are in full swing for Malta’s ribute event to the late Whitney Houston. I spoke with singer Eleanor, the brains and creative soul behind this event.

Planning a massive themed concert to celebrate the musical legacy of one of the most well-loved singers of our times brings with it a number of headaches. Just ask Eleanor Cassar; together with the band ZoNe 5, the singer had been planning to hold a massive event for quite a while. Then came the new that Whitney Houston had met an untimely, albeit not necessarily unexpected, death. The decision was taken; with Eleanor having admired the singer and finding inspiration in her music ever since she kicked off her career, the concert could only have one theme – a tribute to Whitney Houston and everything that she stood for.

“Everything fell into place. I’ve always had a soft spot for this magnificent lady. You can say I’ve been a fan since the age of thirteen. Despite the shock of her death, we wanted to take up this opportunity to honour one of the owrld’s greatest musicians. And what better way to do it than by doing that which we love best?”

For the concert, which will be held on Sunday May 27, Eleanor’s band ZoNe 5 will be extended to a ten-piece outfit. A number of other established names will be joining the line-up, including Petra Zammit, Anna Azzopardi and Christine Camilleri. Glen Vella and Chiara Siracusa, both Eurovision habituees and enjoying a massive following, will also be joining as guest singers to duet with Eleanor. Organising this kind of event, Eleanor tells me, is extremely demanding.

“Every little detail must be taken into consideration, starting with choice of music and on to the logistical nitty-gritty such as the sound system, lights and so forth. Also, the marketing aspect of the event takes up an incredible amount of time. I regularly attend events to promote the night, liaise with sponsors, hunt for the perfect outfits. However, the toughest cookie is easily the co-ordinating of rehearsals. Bringing ten musicians – each with their own super hectic schedule – together, is a headache. Most of us also have day jobs and other commitments so yes, rehearsal schedules are driving us a bit mad.”

Although the group started out by rehearsing twice a week, it didn’t take too long for things to be stepped up and soon the singers were meeting for rehearsals almost every day.

“There is a very strong team behind the project and everyone is contributing their own ideas. Rehearsals had to be frequent because everything happened so rapidly! And truth be told, we have quite a bit of fun with it. There are the occasional misadventures too, of course. Like the time when five minutes into rehearsals the lights just went off and we were stuck in a recording studio for two hours, waiting and hoping for the lights to come back on,” Eleanor says with a smile.

Along with the hassles comes the satisfaction; the satisfaction of working with some of Malta’s most talented musicians and singers; the satisfaction from the show itself, seeing everyone enjoy themselves to the music that Eleanor loves so well.

“We have one aim in mind: to hear people say how fantastic it was and that they enjoyed themselves to the max. And believe me, we’re working hard on this one.”

Preparations for the event started very early. Within fifteen days after news about Whitney’s death was announced, Eleanor and the band started to discuss the choice of music which shot Whitney Houston to fame.

“How do you choose the greatest hits? Whitney produced so many classics, so many songs that have a special meaning for people… deciding which songs to eliminate presented a very real dilemma. Most of her songs were huge hits. However, choose we must and choose we did. I have to add that it was with a certain reluctance that we had to cut out certain songs.”

I can’t help wondering what it is that attracted Eleanor to Whitney Houston’s music in the first place. Her reply is instant: she tells me that, for her, Whitney is both a diva and a legend with a unique voice and unique interpretations that evoke the whole gamut of emotions.

“Whitney magically transported me to my ‘dream land’ everytime I heard her songs. It’s difficult for me to pick a favourite track of hers, but probably I’d have to say I Have Nothing, from the film The Bodyguard. The song really proves her vocal range and capabilities as a singer. It’s one of the biggest power ballads ever.”

Eleanor explains how she finds herself inspired by singers with what she calls a “full voice”. Amongst her favourite female singers she lists Celine Dion, Anastasia and Beyoncé, who have all inspired her in their own way. Listing her favourite albums, she mentions Whitney’s Greatest Hits (covering all her favourite tracks in one, so to speak), Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk about Love – which she says she had the opportunity to see being performed live in France, an experience she won’t forget and Anastasia’s Freak of Nature.

“Both Celine Dion and Anastasia have great vocal techniques and, above all, a unique voice. Their music reflects my style; I consider my music to be emotional, based on true life… giving my true story.”

However, no-one comes close to Whitney – she tells me that she still remembers the first tape she every bought…one of Whitney’s, of course.

“I have always admired her and her music but most of all her voice. I always believed that one day, I would have the opportunity to sing all her songs in front of an audience… and here I am now preparing for my biggest concert to date,” she tells me, her voice full of excitement.

Nervous before the big date? I can’t resist asking… She laughs.

“A bit. But I know it will all disappear as soon as the first note comes out. And I’m certainly not the sort to get all superstitious before a concert; I don’t believe in lucky charms or pictures. I just make the sign of the cross, say a small prayer and give the best performance possible.”

Eleanor has been into music pretty much through all her life, ever since she first decided to join the school choir.

“A teacher approached me and convinced me to start taking vocal lessons. That was some of the best advice I ever received.”

Eleanor then decided to take it to a professional level around 2000, when she

teamed up with Glenn Vella to take part in the festival l-Għanja Tal-Poplu. The duo won first prize.

“Part of the prize included the right to take part in the Varna Discovery festival in Bulgaria. Since it was an international contest I realised that this was the opportunity I had been waiting for in order to take music professionally. Since then I have had the opportunity to take part in numerous international festivals; these always help, both in terms of gaining experience and in getting exposure.”

Since that first festival in Bulgaria, it’s been all about the music for Eleanor. When she’s happy, she likes to put on Buddha Bar, maybe sipping a glass of wine to unwind after a hard day’s work or a great gig. She is also a great fan of Phil Collins and admits that she’d love to see him perform live.

“He is such a great performer. His style of music is really catchy and groovy and even his own band includes some of the great musicians.”

I ask her for a glimpse into what is happening on the career front at the moment. Understandably, she replies that at the moment she is focussing all her energy on this upcoming concert.

“I think so far this is the biggest concert of my career. However, after that I plan on continuing to work alongside my band to extend my repertoire, particularly for live performances and events. But seriously, if there’s anything I’d like to say to the readers it’s that this is certainly going to be an event not to be missed. So many great singers and musicians have given it their all… we are going to rekindle the nostalgia people lived through during the 80’s. And apart from sharing these musical emotions with our audience, no matter how old or young, it’s also all for a good cause as we will be share the proceeds with The Puttinu Cares Foundation,” Eleanor tells me.

As a parting shot, she tells me that all those who attend are guaranteed two and a half hours of great, live music…complemented with all the glitz and glamour that Whitney Houston herself was so renowned for.

“I look forward to seeing you all there!”

The Queen of the Night concert will take place on Sunday, May 27 at the City Theatre in Valletta. E12 tickets are available from www.biljetti.com or by calling on 79790200.

This interview was published on The TV Guide (Times of Malta).