"It changed my life and my entire way of thinking about performances on stage." Celine Dion, whisking along last week in a limousine en route to the Grammy Awards, was not talking about the recent birth of her first child or the career rocket of the "Titanic" soundtrack in 1999. Instead, the epiphany arrived two years ago as she sat in a Las Vegas casino.
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 Caesars 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 during a cell phone interview from the car. "It's kind of impossible to travel with a show like this; the effects and the decor and the whole thing makes it technically impossible. We would have to have a base. And we found that in Las Vegas."
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 massive, vibrant 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.
After building a reputation in the '50s and '60s as the glittery clubhouse of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, the casinos' showrooms featured an expanded superstar roster in the '70s with fixtures such as Elvis Presley and Tom Jones. But it also became viewed by younger, edgier artists as a place where an extended stay meant you were a sellout or in semiretirement.
In more recent years, the bookings of music superstars gave way somewhat to the special effects and huge cast productions that resort leaders saw as more defining centerpieces to draw tourists. In the late '90s, as more money, massive development and the local population surged, the Strip became a bankable spot for more big-name pop and rock music, and once unlikely names such as the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan began to appear on casino marquees. These stars didn't park in one casino for weeks at a time the way Sinatra did, but they didn't dodge the town anymore either, says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar, a concert business trade publication.
"In terms of contemporary music acts, it used to be you lost all your credibility if you were over there playing lounges or showrooms," Bongiovanni says. "That's not the case anymore. The very hippest acts can play there now with no stigma at all."
Bongiovanni says Dion's plan to set up shop in one spot for a multiyear run may inspire other artists. He points to the success of the country music scene in Branson as a template: 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 Caesars, Bally's, the Flamingo and more than two dozen other casino operations in five countries.