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Mario Frangoulis Preserving what is good “through music and an undying commitment to love.“
We were very pleased to have the opportunity during this sacred time – Orthodox Easter – to sit down and talk with Mario Frangoulis in an intimate conversation about life, music, meaning and the power of love!
How did your journey into music begin?
I was very lucky and privileged to be brought up by two extraordinary people, my aunt Loula and my uncle George, who were my parents, and every Sunday I had the pleasure of enjoying symphony concerts with the great national orchestras of Greece at the Pallas theatre in the center of Athens. This encouraged me as a young boy to go to music school. I studied the violin for 12 years and learned music from “the inside out.” This made me a better singer, as I had a very strong foundation in the world of music.
As a young boy I was often a soloist in many choirs, and was lucky to sing leading roles. My first musical theatre role with a semi-professional group of young actors was playing Tony in “West Side Story” by Bernstein. Later on, I was honored to ‘win’ the role of Tony at La Scala in Milan in the original choreography of Jerome Robbins with a full cast from the US!
My dreams and aspirations as a young performer spanned theater, and then classical music. My first mentor, the great American mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, introduced me to Carlo Bergonzi, one of the great tenors of his time, who was teaching at the Verdi Academy in Busseto, Italy, Verdi’s birthplace where I went to study. At some point, I realized I needed more guidance, and so I auditioned for the great conductor Nicola Rescigno and my close friend and teacher from then on, Alfredo Kraus.
Kraus was a huge idol of mine, as he had a very special technique, bringing the voice in a very high frontal position, a method that released the pressure of pushing the voice, and therefore freeing my high notes. It is a pity he left this life so early, because I would still be studying with him. Winning the Maria Callas and Onassis scholarships enabled me to travel around the world with Alfredo Kraus while he was singing –therefore learning and educating myself– during my studies. This opened the doors for me of the great Julliard School of Music in New York City with vocal teacher Dodi Protero.
You are often praised for your interpretation of music – how do you choose songs?
A song has to mean something personal to me. I cannot perform with clarity and truth otherwise. That is when I am able to dive inside of myself, and find ways of expressing what the song is about, and the message I want to convey to the audience. Every song is like a three-minute play with a beginning, middle, and end. This is why the choices I make, the composers I work with, the messages I put forth are all so important to me. It is my responsibility to find the emotion and meaning… I need to make sure a song can find a secure and steady path into people’s hearts…
You seek a lot of diversity, you sing in over five languages, you have been exposed to different cultures, you have been trained in and sung everything from opera to musical theatre to pop. How has all of this affected you as an artist?
I love traveling all over the world, experiencing different cultures, languages, food, customs, and music – but most of all, I love meeting people from different backgrounds and cultures and just ‘talking’ with them. I have always pursued great artists and great music – so whether it’s my dear friend Justin Hayward from the Moody Blues or the amazing Lucio Dalla (may he rest in peace), the great Placido Domingo, the beautiful Lara Fabian who has been a friend and inspiration, Madeleine Peyroux, Natalie Merchant, Steve Balsamo, Sissel (recently in Denmark) and Jose Carreras, who I have performed with on a number of occasions… or blues singer Mighty Sam McClain or Harry Belafonte… Each and every person gives a part of themselves to you during a performance. I have performed opposite some of the most beautiful voices – from Caballe, Hayley Westenra, and Natasha Marsh, to the great and very professional Sarah Brightman and soprano Barbara Hendricks, to my dear friends the brilliant George Perris and the veteran “theatrina” Alkistis Protopsalti. You can’t work with all of these talented people, witness their gifts on stage and off stage, and not take away amazing lessons every time…
What are you proud of right now?
I am proud of the new DVD that we have out on public television — “Mario Frangoulis Live With The Boston Pops” — it was a major concert filmed in June, 2012 at Boston Symphony Hall with the world-class Boston Pops, and the incredibly talented maestro Keith Lockhart conducting. When you work with an orchestra at the level of the Boston Pops, a conductor at the level of Keith Lockhart, and a film crew on the level of Serpent Productions (our producer was Greek-American by the way – Emmy Award winner Paul Morphos) you know you are with the best in the world, and you have to be at the top of your game. It was an intense experience, but I was up for it!
Of course, to support public television and the show we are about to launch a series of spring concerts combined with a series of live ‘visits’ I just did at various PBS stations throughout the USA. I am a huge believer in public/educational television. As a Horatio Alger Ambassador, this is my vision to create a better world for everyone and to make the best of the best – music, education, the arts, theatre, film – accessible to everyone in their own living rooms. If you think about it, great musical programs, and full concerts don’t exist anymore on television… PBS has provided the opportunity to share our work with the world.
Our concert tour this spring in the US is going to be a lot of fun. We start in Pasadena on May 11 with guest performer George Perris, who was also a part of the Boston Pops live DVD, and then we go to the Fox theatre in Detroit on May 31st. On the 2nd of June we are in Montreal, Canada at the Rialto Theatre, and then on June 6th we are performing at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston with the Balkan Choir and Women Of The World as my guests. Last stop of the tour is the Lisner Auditorium in Washington DC on June 8th. In all these concerts, I have a guest musician, Martin Zarzar, from Pink Martini who will also perform two songs from his new album.
Where in the world will your next tour take you after your spring concert series?
After this spring, I will be performing at the Kremlin Palace in Moscow with the Russian State Symphony Orchestra and guest Maria Maksakova. Until the end of summer, I will be in Greece on a “Beautiful Things” tour, marking my 25 years on stage, leading up to the grand finale for this season at the Herod Atticus in mid-September. Then back to the USA in the fall for more shows in support of public television (we are already planning our next television special)! Oh… and I am also in the middle of planning a new album… I think my fans will be very happy with this next project… more to come on that at our next interview!
You have a reputation for being friendly, accessible and grateful to your fans. What do your fans mean to you?
It is always great to have a great relationship with your fans – as an artist I always feel that as you grow, your audiences have to grow with you… you have to keep the relationship going over time and grow together. Audiences need to have the chance to discover you and ‘rediscover’ you both on and off stage, and unless it’s not humanly possible to meet everyone – I always make a point to see as many people as I can after my performances. Their commitment, their incredible willingness to find and share information, their support of the causes I believe in… the list goes on. Each and every one of them is amazing in their own way, and they remind me every day that I am not alone in this world.
I will never forget a little girl in Singapore holding a red rose at the airport at the end of a corridor at the departures lounge – she was waiting for me at some ungodly hour in the morning – and said to me, “remember, there is a little girl on the other side of the world who loves you and shares your pain of your past as a child.” That was eight years ago and I have never forgotten her… ever. Or the stories people write to me – about how my music got them through a difficult time in their lives, or inspired them, or helped someone going through cancer treatment sleep at night… that’s the power of music. That’s why promoting a career is a good thing, but it only takes you so far. I want to be remembered as a great singer and artist of course… but I also want to be remembered as a human being who really cared about people and gave his love and talent freely so that others could have a more beautiful life.
How do you feel about what is happening in Greece and Cyprus right now?
I am very sad and of course I am affected by everything going on in Greece and Cyprus, and I wish things were better, but unfortunately sometimes our lives are governed by other people’s bad judgment. I am glad that I am not in that ‘small group of friends’ who sometimes call themselves politicians, but my heart truly goes out to the people, and this is the moment to trust each other and love each other and work together for a brighter and happier future.
I hear stories every day and I’m sure politicians in Greece at the moment have learned their lesson, not to allow things to be taken for granted, and to work together with people to get the best results for everyone. We should put a huge emphasis on education, the arts, and culture, because that’s where the real strength of Greece is… all the ancient theatres – our ancient forefathers built democracy and society on the arts – Epidaurus wouldn’t have been built if there wasn’t a real need for it – if it didn’t contribute to the creation of a civil society.
Mikis Theodorakis once said to me: “If your own country loves and accepts you, you can stand on any stage in the world with any performer and feel secure.” This is so true. There is nothing more fulfilling than singing in New York or any stage in the world, and having people singing together in your native language: In my case, Greek.
You are an ambassador for Greece and our culture, what does that mean to you?
I see myself as an ‘ambassador’ for Greece and an ambassador for all that Greece stands for: great poetry and music, culture, an incredible language, Arete, Sophia, Techne as three tenets of Greek culture, and I would also add one more: Ethos. Because I think that’s what an ambassador would add!
Our country is a magical, mystical and inspirational place – the light, the people, the warm hearts, the great food, not to mention the best olive oil in the world! When I am away and touring all over the world I carry all of that with me. I am proud to be Greek. I am in a lot of pain about what has happened in our country and most of all the suffering of our children. We can’t stand by and let our children suffer the way they are right now, passing out in classrooms because they are hungry. I stay up at night a lot worried and thinking about these issues and how I can help.
We recently did a concert with Alkistis Protopsalti and George Perris in support of two organizations that support children in Greece, “Floga” (flame) and “Xamogelo Tou Paidiou” (a child’s smile), with Alma Bank. Last year I was invited to perform at the Leadership 100 Annual Conference, and in another appearance I was asked to be a member at large in AHEPA. I am touched by the power that Greeks abroad have. But the situation in Greece and Cyprus still has to be addressed. In trying to figure out what to do last year when things were at their worst, I decided that I was going to tour Greece. Everyone said, “Are you crazy? No one has any money to go to a show, never mind a Mario Frangoulis show.” And so I went out and found a sponsor to underwrite most of our expenses so that we could have tickets for 10 and 15 euros and open the doors to let everyone in. It was my first solo tour in Greece. I would be lying if I didn’t say I was nervous. I remember calling someone on my team the night before our first show and saying, “Do you think anyone will come tomorrow night?”
I went everywhere, from Rhodes to Lefkada and we had thousands of people in every location – it was an all-Greek program (except for a signature ‘Granada’ here and there). My goal was to go to people, not force them to come to me. To inspire them, remind them of the incredible music of Hadjidakis and Theodorakis and Xarhakos and the poetry of Elytis and Seferis and Gatsos. People sang along, they laughed, they cried. Students and young people came. It was my contribution to my people, and that’s why I named the tour “Anoixta Ftera” (Open Wings), it was my way of embracing my country and encouraging people – reminding everyone that we have to have faith in ourselves and be true to our hearts. This is why I always tell everyone everywhere, no matter where I am in the world, I am proud to be Greek.
You are known as a true humanitarian. It’s one of the things that make you special. Why do you believe so strongly in ‘giving back’?
I believe that this is what our lives and purpose should ultimately be about: to preserve what is good in this world, to achieve peace and compassion and to do this through music and an undying commitment to love. For example, the recent bombing in Boston just a few days ago. Boston is a special place to me. I have been there every year since 2006 performing, we filmed the Boston Pops performance there, I have my musicians there and so many great friends. We have to stop this violence in the world. I can’t stand it.
As an artist I am given a platform – which is a stage and interviews like this one – where certain messages can be communicated. This is why I support charities like the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, the World Centers of Compassion for Children International run by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Betty Williams, our Greek churches, the Hellenic Museum, The Greek Institute, Give US Your Poor – the campaign to end homelessness. I am passionate about causes that pertain to children and people who are most vulnerable in our society – but especially children because I feel children have to be able to dream.
Nothing happens unless you are allowed to dream, and children in this world have to know that there is always a hand reaching toward them, to help make sure their dreams can become reality. I have seen the impact of this with my own eyes, and it is one of the most incredible miracles to witness. We DO have the ability to transform people’s lives with love, support, and opportunities. I believe this is the only way to truly create a peaceful world – by loving one another and helping each other realize our dreams. Peace and equality is what we all long for in the hope that we are all united under one sky, one world. This is what “Beautiful Things” represents, and this is what I wish for all my fans around the world.