Classical Crossover.co.uk has been honoured with the chance to catch up with global star Mario Frangoulis and considering he has been in the business for over two decades, there's rather a lot to catch up on...
How did your journey into music start?
Ever since I can remember, music has been a vital part of my life. Singing songs, entertaining my family and friends, being the clown of my group of friends – I loved to impersonate other people – their voices and of course, I have always been an "actor". On a more serious note I began studying music at the Athens Conservatorium from a very young age.
Do you play any musical instruments? At what level?
I studied the violin. I must admit, I didn’t study enough, but I was lucky to have "good sound" which meant a good musical ear and sensitive playing. I won first prize for Violinist of the Year at fourteen, but as I went on with my career as an actor/singer I let go of the violin and it let go of me. I still play occasionally, most recently during my concert series all winter in Greece; I played the violin for the first time on stage in many years! The violin certainly made me a better singer.
You are often praised for your interpretation of music - what does the emotion in the music mean to you, and how do you achieve it within yourself to translate it to an audience?
A song has to mean something personal to me, as I will not be able to perform it with clarity and truth otherwise. I think that’s the best way to describe it. 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 communicate to the audience. Every song is a three-minute story with a beginning, middle, and end. Many times it is about understanding the important message intended by the composer and I am merely "the communicator" of the message – the bridge to the audience. In that way, it is my role to find the emotion and the message of it so that it can find a secure and steady path into people’s hearts… that’s the most important thing.
How has experience in different cultures affected you as an artist and person?
It has been very important to meet people from different backgrounds and cultures. Especially people in the business, like my friend Justin Hayward from the Moody Blues or Lucio Dalla from Italy, Alessandro Safina and the great Placido Domingo; the wonderful Lara Fabian who has been a friend and great inspiration; soprano Deborah Myers who I love and have a special bond with; Madeleine Peyroux, Natalie Merchant, Steve Balsamo, Sissel (recently in Denmark) and Jose Carreras who I have performed with on a number of occasions… the list goes on.
Each and every person gives a part of themselves to you during a performance, you learn something new every day and with every experience. I have seen powerful performances by Steve Balsamo and George Perris, I have also performed opposite some of the most beautiful voices -- Caballe, Hayley Westenra, Natasha Marsh, the great and very professional Sarah Brightman and soprano Barbara Hendricks. You can’t work with all of these amazing talents, witness their gifts on stage and off stage and not take away amazing lessons every time…
Are there any countries you particularly enjoy visiting?
I love Italy! It still feels like there's a lot to do in England since that's where I started my singing/acting career performing in the role of Marius in Les Miserables at the Palace Theatre with Don Galagher as my Inspector Javert and Peter Karrie as Jean ValJean. What a great cast that was… 1988-89… I was straight out of drama school. The Guildhall School of Music and Drama at the Barbican Centre is where I studied to be an actor, in what I love best: the theatre.
London has been great to me, and it was just recently – September 19, 2009 as a matter of fact – that I had my first sold-out solo concert at the Royal Albert Hall with great guests who I invited to perform with me: Lara Fabian, Justin Hayward, Steve Balsamo and Natasha Marsh. I love London because it brings back amazing memories of the musical theatre world I love so much.
I enjoy traveling across the USA for concerts as we did recently with Sarah Brightman performing in 32 cities in the USA and Canada during her Symphony tour. It was a tour in the truest sense of the word – we were mostly with 4 big tour buses traveling across the country. It was such an interesting experience to see things up close; you don't get that from an airplane. We had some very demanding singing moments, and performed for huge audiences from 5,000-25,000 people in large stadiums – the production set used holograms and the latest technology. It was quite amazing!
At the end of the day though, Europe is more my home. Being Greek, and very proud of it – my mindset and passion is closer to our culture and traditions, and is of course a family matter. I am always open though to visiting new places, and meeting new people. Especially now that the world is going through such major shifts and changes – I feel that we, as performers, must be "present" with people, and show our love and support especially for those in need.
Where in the world will your next tour take you?
Judging from the release of my new international album, which will be released before the summer of 2011, I will be mostly in Europe and then am planning to travel to the USA and Canada for promotion.
So, mostly in Europe, Scandinavian countries, France, Italy, Turkey and Germany for most of the summer and fall and then over to the USA. In fact, I will be in York, Pennsylvania performing with the York Symphony on November 12, 2011, and hopefully we will have a definite plan to a promotional tour in the USA around that time.
Do you find fans treat you differently in different cultures? You have quite the reputation for being friendly, accessible and grateful to your fans, something many artists of your popularity struggle with to find a balance. What do your fans mean to you and how do you manage the attention?
Fans are the same across the world – they shower you with love and gifts and they smile with their hearts. I don’t know what I would do without them! Their commitment, their joy to see you perform, their constructive criticism, their incredible willingness to find and share information, their support of the causes I believe in as an artist… the list goes on. They are amazing people who help us realize we are 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 – 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."
You sometimes write your own material - do you write from experience or create a story?
I mostly write from a need to get something out of my system – it works like a “catharsis” in my life – to be able to put my feelings into musical notes. This is why the song “Ton Eafto Tour Paidi” was important, as it is all about my childhood. Later, I composed songs for my mother and father. I miss them terribly, and wish they were here with me to share my love for music and be with me around the world.
Now, soon, I will begin to write about many feelings I have about where we are going as human beings in the world. Sometimes I get angry – lately more so because of all of the young people in this world who are getting ‘hurt’ in so many countries, the injustice of mass poverty, famine, hopelessness… it’s everywhere. The obsession that exists with making more and more money, destructive greed, while at the same time we are destroying what is left of our only home – our earth.
I also wrote the song “Sometimes I Dream”, which I based on the idea that a young man of today can still (and should still) believe in the power of love – and would die to for the idea of preserving the true essence of the word ‘love’. I will always remain a helpless romantic.
How involved are you in making your albums?
I am very involved. It’s like saying to a parent, “how involved are you with your children?” It usually takes me 2-3 years to prepare a good album, because I want to make sure that it is the best album yet, and then that sets the bar for the next one, which will always be better than the previous one. Ultimately, it is always about what you’re doing now – in the moment – and focusing on making the best album NOW.
I love writers and composers and orchestras – I want everyone to get along and make great music. I love preparing the artistic concept – the whole thing – right down to all the little details of pre-production, rehearsals, demos and listening carefully to find the ‘right sound’… then choosing the direction that the album will take, the cover, and all that technology can do now to help create an incredible final product.
You are releasing a new studio album this year; can you tell us what to expect?
I am very pleased with this album – some of the composers who have given me songs for this album include the great Stephan Moccio from Canada who wrote "A New Day Has Come" for Celine Dion, and so many beautiful songs. Along with Stephan are songs from David Foster, Steve Wood, Steve Balsamo… and of course, once we can release all of the information about the new album I will be able to share more information about the duets and the rest of the idea/concept behind the album. It is my best work yet – and I say that with a lot of confidence because the team behind this whole project is unique: great management, great songs, very beautiful new compositions written especially for this album.
Not an easy voice, I must say, as I have a very different way of shaping words and expressing feelings. I feel times have changed and we must move with the times! These are truly contemporary crossover songs. We are still keeping a classical epic style to them, but the orchestrations have a very contemporary feeling, making this album rich in rhythms and lush orchestrations by producer Steve Wood. Like good wine, I feel that my voice has a ripe but strong sense of direction and for the first time, I am a lot more focused with my feelings and how they get translated through the music. It has beautiful, romantic, ballads that will be meaningful to everyone – there is truly something for everyone on this album -- and that’s my main aim.
When and where will it be released?
We are aiming for spring 2011, in Europe and in the USA and Canada in the fall period. The songs are recorded and mixed, the Kiev Symphony Orchestra has done an incredible job, and of course the magic of my producer Steve Wood (he also produced Sometimes I Dream in 2002) who orchestrated and mixed the album. Right now we are waiting for the final duets to come through, and of course that's what takes time because you have to coordinate everyone’s schedule, but I know that all of you will be very happily surprised!
Some crossover artists have started to work on projects exclusively with one composer such as Rhydian with Karl Jenkins and Hayley Westenra with Ennio Morricone and Kanon with Nobuo Uematsu. Do you think this something you may be interested in for a future album?
The truth is that I have only done this in my own country with some Greek recordings – I worked with a young composer (Dimitris Maramis) who is a great talent, who composed music based on Federico Garcia Lorca’s poems from Amor Oscuro. More recently I did a major project with songs written by the Oscar award winning composer Manos Hadjidakis, one of my favorite composers of all time, where I had the chance to sing songs he left as a legacy during his creative and worldly travels. He collaborated with people like Quincy Jones, Nana Mouskouri, Dalida, Brenda Lee and many others. The project was all in Greek – we released two CDs called The Season of Love I and II. It was a very special project because it re-introduced some of his amazing compositions but with a more contemporary sound.
So, the answer is “yes” – if there is a purpose and a clear concept, why not? One person I would love to be able to do a full project with would be composer-lyricist Jose Maria Cano. He composed 'Hijo de la Luna' and 'A La Luna de Valencia' which I have recorded.
You dip your toes in many genres of music, do you find different genres require different techniques in your performances?
That's a good question. I think what they require is a sense of style and a strict format so that you don't "go the other way" if you get what I mean. This is the one issue that one confronts when faced with musicals. Performers can be so over the top, and they truly believe that that's the actual style. However, I believe that you can still have the musical theatre style and be classy rather than silly.
My main path in music has been to insist on a clear and defined style and ethos. The closest I've come to achieving that is in the classical crossover genre of music. People are often baffled with this genre, so they think that by singing high notes and doing "acrobatics" with their voice that it represents the genre. I don’t believe this is true. Classical crossover is actually, in my opinion, pure and clean-cut. It’s musical and classy, it can stand the test of time. It’s forever!
Having worked in opera and classical crossover, what differences and similarities have you noticed in the music?
Classical crossover is more straight forward, and the music goes straight to the heart without all the drama. I love opera. It is the basis of all good music, just like ballet is the basis of classical dance, but the immediacy of communicating a feeling and bringing a message to an audience is much simpler with a classical crossover song. Nowadays when the power of communication is so impactful and immediate, and people have access to so much music online; as an example, iTunes has revolutionized how we get music and how we listen to it (Apple should sponsor me for saying that!)
On the other side, opera is very strict and full of good rules that of course anyone who is serious about music should know and learn, but I personally need freedom and the ability to communicate with a broader audience – more people. Opera, unfortunately, doesn’t provide the same freedom, although there have been huge strides made in recent years to open the doors of opera to a broader audience.
Classical crossover receives a lot of criticism from the classical elite for "dumbing down" classical music. Where do you stand in this debate, if at all?
Unfortunately, there are a lot of judgmental and narrow-minded people in this world. For example, Mario Lanza was criticized for not being "good enough" for opera, yet he was the first classical crossover tenor to affect so many people's lives! My teacher, Alfredo Kraus, swore by him. If not for Mario Lanza, we would not have known the existence of "The Great Caruso" today… just like The Three Tenors: Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti made opera accessible to the whole world, so did Mario Lanza in his time.
This is also a great part we, classical crossover singers, play: we preserve great works by communicating our love for them to the masses. I have sung with so many of the greats – Montserrat Caballe, Placido Domingo, José Carreras, Barbara Hendricks and Julia Migenes Johnson – with and without microphones. They ALL without exception expressed their love and admiration for the classical crossover voice, and acknowledged how important this has been for their own careers.
Classical crossover gives people the chance to step through the door of opera, and meet some of these great talents in a different setting, and see them in a different light – it's a more human, accessible medium. If you think about it, if it weren’t for Lanza, we may not have had Carreras or Domingo who were both inspired to start singing because of Lanza! This is why my tribute to Mario Lanza on Mario Sings Mario for Sony Classical was as classical as I could make it. Hayley Westenra performs 'Be My Love' with me, and was truly the perfect choice. What about Caballe and Freddy Mercury? Pavarotti and Bono? With those performances we see how great artists of high caliber and excellence who come from very different worlds can be together on the same stage. This is the most important thing. Without these collaborations, and people "crossing over" into other genres, we would not have had Pavarotti and Friends for example, that raised huge funds for the betterment of the world and our children. So I guess my message to the critics is: "stand back and set the music free!"
As an artist, you live a very hectic lifestyle. When you have a few moments to yourself, do you listen to other artists or see live shows? You have performed with mega stars in your career - is there anyone left you wish to work with?
I love the way this business works, and how one meets so many people through music. I would love to perform in a straight opera, for example, playing Alfredo in La Traviata or Andrea Chenier or Don Jose in Carmen, that would be the accomplishment of an ultimate goal. I see other performances all the time. Not just because I am an artist, but also because I believe it’s very important to support other artists as much as I have been supported by them. I love Sir Elton John and would love the chance to perform new songs with him; I was on a compilation album with Jon Bon Jovi, Natalie Merchant, Jewel, Bruce Springsteen, Madeleine Peyroux and others for a project called Give US Your Poor; a campaign to end homelessness in America. I would love to perform with them again. So many things to do, so little time! The right to dream is something that no one can ever take away from you, and I dream a lot.
Do you think it’s important to give back some of what you earned from life?
Yes. Yes. Yes. It’s so important to give back to the world and be a part of causes, but what is more important is to give back when you are young and you can give more than just money. Young people can give their boundless energy, hope, positivity, and fresh minds to help solve all of these mega problems and challenges we have in the world. I believe this with all of my heart.
We should create a massive classical crossover series of concerts to benefit children of the world and world peace – what better group of artists and genre than classical crossover? I mainly support two charity organizations: The Horatio Alger Association for Distinguished Americans in the United States and The World Centers of Compassion for Children International mostly in Europe (although there is a US-based arm of the project as well).
The Horatio Alger Association is an incredible organization that gives scholarships to "at risk, high potential kids" all over the United States. My concerts with the Dallas Symphony and the York Symphony will be in support of Horatio Alger. I meet with kids, do master classes in schools and am very committed to this cause. In 2007 in Boston in the USA through the Give US Your Poor project, I presented a young homeless girl, Kyla Middleton with a scholarship from the Horatio Alger Association for her to study music when she was old enough to go to college (she was 12 years old at the time), we sang John Lennon’s 'Imagine' together. I am very proud that this past year the Give US Your Poor project and Horatio Alger Association have now established a permanent scholarship program for homeless kids.
For the World Centers of Compassion I have a bit of a different role, where I am the Global Ambassador for Peace for the organization’s founder, Nobel Peace Laureate Betty Williams who asked me to help her and her team “build” this project from the ground up. We started in 2008 and have been working hard over the last two years to build the first “City of Peace” in Southern Italy in the Basilicata region. Construction is already underway, and we will be hosting refugee children and their families there. People like George Clooney (who also lives in Italy), His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, President Gorbachev and others are advisors on the project. In 2009, on behalf of this organization, I was invited to sing at the Dalai Lama’s 2009 Vancouver Peace Summit. What an experience.
Ultimately, 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.
Congratulations on Classical-Crossover.co.uk, and thank you for supporting the genre and all of us as artists, giving of your time and effort to present what we do to more people in the world!
Interview by Nicola Jarvis: March, 2011