NEW YORK – International tenor Mario Frangoulis is one of those artists who connects with his audience both through his unique interpretations of new and beloved songs and with his electric personality. He will follow up his 2012 North American tour that included a performance with Alkistis Protopsalitis in Queens on November 17, 2012 with concerts in New York on March 21, San Francisco on April 4 and Chicago on April 7.
Apropos of his concert on the first day of spring at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, Frangoulis told TNH it will be a different from his Queens concert, where he sang opera, popular music and art songs. “You have to respect the venue,” said the man whom the website www.classical-crossover.co.uk named 2011’s “Best Male Classical Crossover Artist.”
The concert has a dual purpose: artistic and philanthropic. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to Apostoli – Mission, the social service arm of the church of Greece. “Their work is very important; they help the people of Greece during these difficult moments.”
Frangoulis will hold a reception at Thalasssa restaurant in honor of Apostoli, where he will meet and thank fans who purchased the concert’s VIP charity tickets.
He believes performers build bridges between cultures and “if the arts can help put food on people’s tables, that is a good thing to do from far away.”
“I urge them to come to the concert. It’s one way of helping the homeland,” said the man whose family has known struggle and triumph.
Frangoulis was as born in Africa and after a visit to Greece when he was four years old, his parents decided that was a better place to grow up, and he was raised by his beloved aunt Loula. “Africa at the time was a very dangerous place,” he said.
His mother Eleni undertook a great trip from Corfu to seeking a better life and her mother Eftychia was among the Greeks who had to leave Constantinople in the mid-1950s. He remembers the wonderful she told of life there and was influenced by her positive energy and desire to make the world a better place.
Another relative on his mother’s side was a well-known Greek singer, actress and comedienne Rena Vlahopoulou. He called her one of the sources of his “crazy Greek side.”
“She loved jazz and had offers to work in America but she loved Greece and could not bear to be away – a longing he often experiences. He credits her for the spontaneity he expresses onstage.
His mother met his father, Yianni, whose grandfather was from Kasos and went to Egypt and then to Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, where Mario was born. His grandfather and father were mechanics working on cars and boats.
Hi grandfather played the violin, and he called his father, who played piano. “a workaholic, a charming mechanic who played the grand piano very well.”
As a third generation Diaspora Greek, he appreciates the efforts of Greek-Americans who “keep the flame of Greece burning.”
He said he did not feel good staying behind in Greece when he was four, but he sees now that it was the right choice. Of his aunt he said “If I had to leave this planet and could take only one picture with me it would be my Aunt Loula’s.”
If he were ordered to take only one song with him, like a good Greek, he would take two: John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and the poignant aria “Che Gelida Manina” from La Boheme.
“It describes the feeling of someone falling in love and who says “I may not be a rich man, but I am rich inside…that represents a lot of who I am.”
Told that on that planet might be seen walking on the seashore singing that aria he said “I could be singing that, I could be singing Imagine…that is the good thing about being classical-crossover singer.”
Asked about performing during the difficult moments in his life: “Do you sing your pain, sing through it, or ignore it,” he said “I cannot ignore it. I sing my pain, and I write about my pain – but I am not a painful singer,” evoking laughter among friends overhearing the conversation. “I find catharsis.”
He loved the violin and played until he was 17. When he was 14 he was named violinist of the year for Greece, but he decided his future lay in singing.
“I feel the voice is the perfect instrument – no disrespect to anyone else who is a musician.” He said it is extremely sensitive to a singer’s internal and external environment and he constantly reminds himself that he must take care of it.
“With the voice, you are not allowed to go wrong…the audience feels it immediately. You must be absolutely 100 percent tuned and ready,” but explained that warming is a tricky matter: a singer must avoid little or too much.
Asked if he thought a singer comes closest to being able to express his soul musically, he said “the voice and the violin are very similar, “I feel I am a much better singer because I studied the violin.”
He was also able to study drama in London, where he learned skills that differentiate him from other singers. He began on stage playing Marius, the romantic lead in Les Miserable in London.
And he has the gift of being able to sing in ten languages – Frangoulis is fluent in four or five – and he likes to present concerts with themes and he alone does the research.
“A few years ago we performed The Light of Greece in America…It was very important for us to present the poetry and music of our great writers and composers.”
He feels that his challenge is to convey the soul of the nation that has produced the music that he sings, and up to the same standard as songs in his native Greek – and he agrees that in that regard he is an ambassador of cultures to the rest of the world, especially of Greece.
SINGER AS POET
He told TNH that although he has written many songs – lyrics and music – he does not call himself a composer, and “when I am on my own I have written a lot of poetry,” that has never been published.”
Being a poet is part of his musical being also. “When I finalize the songs for a new record, I work hard on the message for my audiences of each song.” His love of poetry helps him find “the true essence of every song.”
He is pleased that he is often asked to include his own songs in performances, and he noted that they are usually quite personal, like “Ton eafto tou pedi,” which associates with “with my inner child, having to do with my early childhood.”
It was traumatic being separated from his nuclear family, especially his brother Simeon, who is 1 ½ years older, “and Africa, which was my country, my birthplace… and live in a new country with a new language.”
He wants to reconnect with Africa, but looks forward to a homecoming with a philanthropic dimension.
His is an Ambassador of Peace for the World Centers of Compassion for Children organization and a Global Ambassador of the Horatio Alger Association which assists and inspires youth around the world.
“I care about education and I care about young people realizing their dreams, especially if they have faced adversity.”
“My path was not strewn with roses but I learned to turn negative situations into a positive situations,” and that is message he likes to convey to youth.
He also believes it is important to help young artists and musicians.
He created a young artists program for composers and singers that has generated circumstances that launched careers, including going on tour with Frangoulis and having their work on CD’s like “Kipos ton efhon – Garden of Hope.”
“This was a vision of mine for years. I was lucky enough to have great mentors early in my life,” including the great soprano Marilyn Horne. “And when I won the Maria Callas scholarship, that dramatically changed my circumstances.”
He felt as young as 20 years old that “it’s not just about a career and creating a name for yourself. You have to really find a way,” of giving back to society.”
He also never hesitated to help those who might be his competition because he believed he would always find a path. “What is meant to be will be,” Frangoulis said.
He agreed that even during a crisis, a country needs to encourage its young artists because art is its soul. “A country needs to give them that chance, and support, and not just say ‘we believe in young people’” he said.
Frangoulis said “young artists are doing remarkable things in Greece, even the ones who perform in town squares and every corner of Greece with the intention of lifting the spirits of the people and giving them a voice.”