MUSIC: The Power of Celine Dion

Canada's star chanteuse sang hits from Beauty and the Beast and Sleepless in Seattle; now she's reached No. 1 on her own

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Would a young Barbra Streisand make it big in show business today? The question is not as stupid as it sounds. Much to the annoyance of baby boomers, their kids often prefer rapping to singing and consider rhythm and riffs more important than melody. And dowdy Broadway, the birthplace of Streisand's fame, is not producing pop stars these days. To the MTV generation, a videogenic image can count more than musical talent.

But exceptional talent is not at the mercy of fashion. Witness the rise of Celine Dion, the 25-year-old French Canadian singer whom some top people in the music industry are touting as the next Streisand. Till now, her voice, pouring out of the silver screen as well as the radio, has been more familiar than her face or name. She won a Grammy last year for singing the theme from Beauty and the Beast, a duet with Peabo Bryson, and is nominated again this year for her collaboration with Clive Griffin on When I Fall in Love from Sleepless in Seattle. Now, though, she's denting the charts on her own. Her new single, The Power of Love, jumped to No. 1 on Billboard magazine's Hot 100 without any help from a Disney cartoon or a Tom Hanks.

The power behind the song, from Dion's new album The Colour of My Love (550 Music/Epic), is her bring-the-house-down voice, which turns an old, schmaltzy ballad into a soaring pop aria. That voice glides effortlessly from deep whispers to dead-on high notes, a sweet siren that combines force with grace. And it is not just a studio creation -- as Americans have had a chance to see. Dion has a concert special running on the Disney Channel through March and is just wrapping up her first U.S. tour as a headliner -- a 17-day, 10-city trek from San Francisco to New York City.

Says David Foster, who produced The Power of Love: "I truly, truly believe in my heart that Celine is the world's next superstar." That could be dismissed as so much hype, except that Foster knows quite a bit about superstars. He produced Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love You and has also worked with Streisand, Natalie Cole and Frank Sinatra in the past three years. "Celine is right there," he says. "She's in that company."

Like Houston and Streisand, Dion got an early start. The youngest of 14 children in a musical family, she belted out French songs at the age of five, standing atop tables in a restaurant owned by her parents in a small town near Montreal. At 12 she made her first recordings and soon became la p'tite Quebecoise (little Quebecker), the darling of the whole province. Dion admits to losing a big chunk of her childhood, but not to any regrets. "My favorite game was to sing," she recalls. At 15 she dropped out of school because, she says, "it was taking me away from music, from my happiness, from my dreams."

When she turned 18, with seven French albums to her credit, Dion and her manager, Rene Angelil, who has orchestrated her career since she was 12, decided it was time to introduce her to the English-singing world. There was just one p'tit problem: the chanteuse had hardly ever spoken, much less sung, a word of English. Even as she rapidly learned the language, she was sometimes baffled by nuances. Producer Foster recalls a recording session in which he cheered Dion's best moments by shouting, "That's bitchin'!" Unfamiliar with the slang, Dion grew upset: she thought Foster was cursing her performance.

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