HELLENISM.NET: Mario, hello from everyone at Hellenism.Net and thank you for taking the time to answer our questions.
HELLENISM.NET: I read in one of your biographies that you were born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) but at the age of 4 your parents sent you to Greece, to live with your maternal aunt Loula and her husband George. Why was that? What happened?
The political situation in Africa at the time was getting more and more dangerous, and it was the beginning of Apartheid in Rhodesia and my family felt threatened by the circumstances. My parents thought the best solution would be to leave me with my aunt Loula who later became my “mother” – the woman who raised me. My family and I were supposed to be separated for 4 months, and 4 years went by. I saw my parents again when I was 8.
Of course, this experience would be traumatic for any young boy, but my aunt and uncle who raised me were amazing parents, and so the truth is, I can only remember those years with gratitude and love.
HELLENISM.NET: Are both your parents Greek? What part of Greece are they from? Do they live in Greece now, do you still see them?
My mother is from Corfu, and my father is from the island of Kassos. Just like you see in the old movies, my mother left Corfu to take a huge trip to marry my father in Africa. Circumstances were difficult – there was no internet then – and they sent letters to each other. My father was third generation Greek-African, who even though his roots were in Kassos he had never visited the island during his life. I decided to go and make the connection years later.
My mother came from a large family – 13 children – and back then life was very hard… My grandmother went from Constantinople to live in Corfu where she met my grandfather (on my mother’s side). My grandfather was a very hard working person who had a small “pantopoleio” but he liked to go out in the evenings, see his friends and sing “Kantades” under people’s balconies! My grandmother was an amazing cook.
My father lived a completely different life in Africa – and my great grandfather was a ship captain “O Kapetan Yannis” from Kassos. He went from the island to Egypt on ships, played the violin, and was a “gentlemen” who listened to classical music and looked after his family. He enjoyed the Greek culture of course, and started a mechanical business – they repaired everything from boats to cars. My father played the piano – he had a grand piano in the middle of the house, and he also played the accordion!
That’s how we grew up – from my mother’s side of the family everyone sang, and from my father’s side, everyone played musical instruments so we made up the perfect musical show!
HELLENISM.NET: What’s your relationship with your family? Do you have any siblings?
My relationship with my family changed drastically when I left Africa to live with my aunt Loula and uncle George in Athens. My aunt Loula was the youngest of the 13 and my uncle George was from Smyrna… my influences were Smyrna, Constantinople, Corfu, and Africa…! What a mix!
All of a sudden I went from a “diaspora family in Africa” to an Athenian family with much more security. At the time, Athens was flourishing (until the Junta) and my uncle George was doing great. He was the founder of Hellas Cars, Hellas Tours… he was an international businessman and a polite gentleman who spoke 4 languages and from him, I learned something completely different. He loved history and geography, and Greek culture. He was a very educated and refined man.
If you can imagine he came from the very sophisticated environment in Smyrna – so in the house, we had my grandmother from Constantinople who told us stories and fables, and my uncle who was the foundation and made us feel secure. He loved to communicate with people, so his business – tourism and being there for his clients – made him an example to all of us in so many ways. And my lovely aunt was all “heart” and so much fun… she had a heart of gold and helped everyone no matter what.
Ever since my aunt and uncle’s untimely deaths, the house went quiet, but all our memories are still alive. I have left everything in the same place in the house. They are remembered every day, and the house is always open to people who want to stay, and of course, I stay there when I am back. My real mother has made a home there now.
We are a very close family and we love and support each other and always wish each other well – and whoever is in need we always run to support one another, but because of what I do, they can’t always keep up with me just as I can’t keep up with them… my brother Simon Frangoulis who I love dearly truly has a heart of gold.
HELLENISM.NET: What are the fondest memories of your childhood in Greece?
I played a lot – I dreamed a lot, I was into music, I wrote songs and I was singing day in and day out… getting together with all of the kids in the family every Sunday for family gatherings. Not every child has the kind of freedom I did… I would go down and play in a safe neighborhood in the park outside the house… these days people are afraid to go outside of their houses and trust their children alone.
I used to play, run and enjoy the sun and the sea… my country… and all my friends loved singing and acting. All of my friends had some kind of artistic side to them… otherwise, I would get bored with them! Swimming, windsurfing, and water polo – my favorite sports. I was very athletic from a young age… I liked to watch soccer, but not to play!
HELLENISM.NET: Where do you spend most of your time these days, in Greece or abroad? Where is your base?
My time is divided. In the summer I like to go back to Greece, and if there is a possibility of performing concerts I always like to do that, because I get to see new places in my own country. I love my country. I am proud to be Greek. The sea, the sun, our islands, and our treasures. It will take more than a lifetime to understand what Greece is all about. One of my dreams is to go to as many places in Greece as I can. To me Greece seems like it was made for human beings… it doesn’t have the impossible mountaintops that you will never be able to reach, there isn’t a dark scary lake you can’t go into, there isn’t an ocean you can’t swim and fish in…it’s a place for human beings to live.
America has become a second home to me… it’s my second base. I spend almost 6 months a year in America – I love being in New York especially because there is so much to learn — both as an artist and as a ‘world citizen.’ New York is great because there is so much diversity and culture. People here embrace all nations, and people look after their own lives and are ‘cool’ with their own life. It feels natural – it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white or Greek or gay or straight or from wherever – it gives you the freedom to be who you want to be.
It has amazing things to do – the Tribeca Film Festival, Broadway, springtime in Central Park walking across the bridges and seeing smiling faces in the sun.
In Greece, I love the connection that I have with my homeland – and it’s a promise I’ve made to myself and the Greek people that no matter what happens I will always return to Greece and no matter what happens. I will always bring myself back to Greece… I never want to be Mario the “foreign” Greek… I always want people to see me as a “child of Greece” … I want people to say “our native son Mario is now in Japan, in the US…etc.”
HELLENISM.NET: Who, or what, would you say has had the biggest influence on deciding to become a tenor? Growing up in Greece this must have looked like an odd choice at the time.
I think it’s kind of odd, no matter who you are if you have a 14-15-year-old singing at the top of their lungs these amazing notes in multiple languages. But it’s good if people recognize a young person has talent from an early age. That way they can protect him and help him look after his craft at an early age.
Don’t forget, girls develop faster than boys, and so a boy shouldn’t be pushing his voice before it cracks… so for boys 14 or 15 years old is the best time to start training a voice. You have to be very careful with boys.
A movie that influenced me a lot was the movie “Caruso” with Mario Lanza and the biggest influence in my life was Maria Callas. My aunt Loula bought me my first album and the entire libretto and she and I learned the whole thing together from the first to the last note. I felt I discovered a whole new big world… I knew I could sing but I didn’t think I was that special. I thought I was an actor – so I went to London to drama school and then I discovered my voice and won the Maria Callas scholarship in 1988, before taking on the role of Marius in Les Miserables in London’s West End.
I was very lucky because my first teacher who recognized I had a tenor voice was Maria Papaconstantinou who studied alongside Maria Callas, with the great teacher of Callas, Elvira de Hidalgo so she knew from the beginning how to help me. She was elderly, but she was the first to recognize my voice and she was the one who introduced me to Pavarotti… she gave me a record of Pavarotti (I didn’t even know who he was!) I felt more secure going to classical studies after studying acting because I felt I could master the “big roles” in opera – drama is important so that you can communicate the dramatic effect of your voice to an audience.
HELLENISM.NET: What kind of music do you like to listen to? Any particular artists or bands that you’d like to mention?
I listen to anything. I listen to good music. There’s always good opera and bad opera, good pop, and bad pop. I like to listen to good music – the way I decide is that it has to have a very good, important, and strong lyric. A song has to have substance and quality in the lyrics, and there has to be a relationship that grows within a song or a musical moment… you have to feel that something is developing – a great friendship, love between two people, the thoughts of children… songs that are very personal have deep meaning for me. They are part of my life and experiences, so they are precious to me. That’s what gives me the passion to share them with the rest of the world.
Real relationships are never lost, and sometimes a song reminds you to be aware of your own feelings and strength as a person and to always look forward and come out of difficult circumstances just by saying “you’re OK” to yourself. We need each other. Sometimes an audience can’t be on stage singing a song but they are there sharing the same experience. It’s the same from the artist to the audience as well. I don’t always like to be in the audience – I would rather be on stage – but I know when I am in an audience what that relationship is and I can experience that relationship and be deeply moved… I cry and laugh like everyone else it is a magic moment that can’t be replaced…
I listen to everything from Freddy Mercury to Sting, from Streisand to Ella Fitzgerald from Callas to Protopsalti from Vlachopoulou to Attik… I love Greek traditional songs as well…In the classical genre – Domingo, Kraus, Callas… there are some musicians who are exceptional – like Chris Botti, Lang Lang, Kissen, Martha Algerich and from Greece Kavakos and Dimitris Sgouros who the famous conductor Karajan said: “it’s my honor to play with you.” I still buy music – endless CDS and vinyl and discover artists I have never heard of from completely different backgrounds, just to hear people put their music and voices on vinyl or CD… you always learn something…
HELLENISM.NET: Do you feel that your Greek heritage has shaped your character and influenced your performances?
Of course! I am “all Greek” inside and out! Of course it did, I like to hold on to the good things and not the bad things, and even though we are a civil culture, we also have negatives… but I never forget that we have the word “filoxenia” – we love foreigners and embracing all people, and give them the best. We welcome them into our own homes like our family and friends, and this word only exists in Greek. Wherever I go, if I invite people into my home or my hotel, I always think about “what can I get for you or offer to you?”
There is something about the energy of a Greek person on stage that is very different from everyone else. Italians have charm, but Greeks have earth and we like to feel the earth below our feet when we are on stage and create a moment that is unlike any other… different than anything we have done before. Because we feel we are there to make a difference, not just be “a part of things”.
HELLENISM.NET: Tell us a bit about your current North American tour (summer of 2013). When does it start and which cities are you visiting? Should we expect you to include some Greek songs in the mix?
We start from one of my favorite theaters in the US – the Pasadena Civic Auditorium a great landmark in the US … the acoustics are amazing and it is a happy and quiet town, looking for good culture and for interesting performances of the highest caliber. This is one of the reasons why we are collaborating so closely with public television and making these concerts accessible the audiences. Tickets go from $25-$125 and donations are most welcome for public television because, without their support, we wouldn’t be here.
I am very happy that French-Greek singer George Perris will be with us, and who is currently in LA recording his new international album and was with us in the Boston Pops show… and of course the drummer/composer extraordinaire – Martin Zarzar from Pink Martini who will perform two songs from his new album “Two Dollars to Ride the Train”.
I am happy because the performance has an enormous range – and has a lot of interesting levels of performance and so many musical paths… from a classical piece by Rossini, to a fun Latin song like Rojo Violento, to the poetry of Elytis to well known songs from my discography from Sometimes I Dream to Beautiful Things – my most recent international album.
I am so glad that my fans are going to be there – to support us and sing with us – and our Greek friends have responded to our call to join us in Pasadena and this will be the first concert to kick-off a series of concerts in Detroit at the Fox Theatre with the Women of the World who will be part of the tour; my great band led my Panos Liaropoulos who has created new orchestrations for this tour, and then Montreal and Boston and Washington, DC.
I must say, Detroit has a certain place in my heart right now important to me because of the struggle (economically) people are having there… we are hoping to give love and encouragement to people there who are in the midst of major socio-economic challenges. I encourage people to go the theatre and come to the show – there is a ticket price for every single person…we are extending our gratitude to veterans and students and senior citizens – trying to make it accessible to anyone who wants to join us for an evening of inspiration, love, and hope.
It will be a diverse program with great surprises which we will announce in due course… and then we also have the Rialto Theatre in Montreal – a landmark theater which is very historic. In Boston, we will be at the Berklee Performance Center – one of the most “musical” places in the world because of it’s connection to Berklee College of music… and Boston is very special to me because my musicians are there, Women of the World are there, and after the recent tragedy there it is important for us to be present bring love to the city. Last but not least, I want to thank The Greek Institute in Boston for being a force for the Greek language and culture, and for supporting artists such as myself and projects like the Boston Pops show with Keith Lockhart for public television.
Finally, we’ll be in Washington, DC where the Horatio Alger Association is based – a great group of incredible people who have helped young, great minds overcome adversity and become full citizens of the world through their incredible scholarship programs. Some of the most brilliant young minds have had a chance to better their lives and come out of very difficult circumstances and create a better world because of the Association, and god knows we need organizations like this now! I am very proud to be their International Ambassador.
Part of performing the song “beautiful things” on this tour is because it reflects my own philosophy about supporting life through the arts, education, and culture and embracing all nations and being open to the possibility of meeting a new audience at each performance. The same goes for the audiences – some people walking into a theater may not know me. They have the right to discover me, just as I have the right to discover them, and for those who have seen me before – they have the right to “re-discover” me, giving us the possibility to grow together.
HELLENISM.NET: How do you feel about what is happening in Greece and Cyprus these days?
I take what is going on in Greece and Cyprus personally because of my family and friends, and everyone who has been affected by this economic disaster. We have to find ways to be connected and more together and whatever happens – we must never lose our identity and lose ourselves in other people’s causes. People talk and have their own political agendas but we as a people have to remind ourselves and others that we are Greeks, proud, we are together, we are loved, and we go back too many years to let the current situation ruin us – with whatever it is they have in mind… their own political agenda or whatever. We are the people. Nikos Gatsos said…”Kritis kai afentis einai o theos, ma dragoumanos tou einai o laos…” meaning “God is a judge and the ‘boss,’ and the people are his translators…”
HELLENISM.NET: What do you think needs to change in order for Greece to turn things around?
Order within disorder. We have to find a way of being organized, supportive, love our Greek products, and love and support each other. We have to work together to come out of this because no one is in a better position than anyone else. Everyone is in the same boat. More than ever, we have to invite everyone to come to Greece to support tourism – Greece is one of the safest and most beautiful places on the planet… we might fight between us, but we won’t hurt anyone coming to visit us. Greece wants peace. Greece is a land of Democracy – and therefore this is what we need to reinforce – Democracy is order and order is Democracy.
We have to see the glass half full than half empty – we still have so many products and resources and opportunities. Greece is a goldmine in terms of our own land and people and we need to keep looking for those things that make Greece special, and different than any other place. We have to count on our own strength.
HELLENISM.NET: There’s only a handful of successful people of Greek heritage in the world today. You are one of them and a source of great pride to all of us. How do you feel about this?
Just like every Greek who travels outside of Greece, I feel like an ambassador of my country and heritage. It doesn’t matter if you are in business or medicine or science… all of us are proud Greeks and we have to keep our minds and hearts united in creating better circumstances for our own country and be proud of our heritage.
I am honored and it makes a difference in my life to be able to travel the world as an ambassador of Greece through singing and through the music that I love… just like so many of the people I admire like Agnes Baltsa, Maria Callas, Dimitris Kavrakos…
I beg to differ that there aren’t just a “handful” of Greeks… to tell the truth, it’s more than a “bagful”! There are so many Greeks who have helped shape this world… like the Greek Americans in the business sectors and people in the political field like Michael Dukakis and in the acting world like Olympia Dukakis, Irine Pappa, Melina Merkouri, Nana Mouskouri or Manos Xadjidakis who traveled all over the world and collaborated with people like Quincy Jones and Nino Rota and Piovanni and Amalia Rodriguez… it isn’t just Greece of Greece… it’s “Greece of the world” and thanks to certain people who have a passion for their own country, we suddenly create bridges and relationships throughout the world… and in the shipping world the Greeks are still #1 from Onassis and Niarchos and Latsis … they are so incredibly powerful and influential… and not only them… in the medical field, in the sciences… people like Mr. Liveris who is the CEO of Dow Chemical and a great lover of Greece for example… I am very proud to be part of a group of people who care for and love their country, traditions, art and want to share it with the rest of the world.
HELLENISM.NET: Mario, it was a great honour to have the chance to ask you all these questions. We wish you every success with your career and with your future plans. Yia sou!
The honor is mine… thank you.