Mario Frangoulis' 'Garden' in spring
A debut in New York, a new CD in Athens
By Porter Anderson
NEW YORK (CNN) -- His pivotal new CD is being released by Sony in Greece on Friday. He has a loudly cheered New York debut under his belt. And he's slated for a "summit concert" in October at the foot of the Acropolis.
You'd think everything's coming up roses in Mario Frangoulis' "Garden of Hopes," as his latest album is titled.
"But you know, my life has always been a puzzle," he says, his English braised by the sunny vowels of the Peloponnese. "A lot of pieces don't match. I've worked so hard for all this that it's difficult for me to know it's really happening."
His fans show no such qualms. The 36-year-old tenor's faithful gathered on May 20 in New York, packing City Center with all the prideful exuberance of Nafplion's summertime waterfront. The Athens-based singer hit his marks for them with syrtaki-sure footing.
On Saturday, he's scheduled to perform with the Baltimore Symphony at Meyerhoff Hall, having opened an Orioles game Thursday with the American National Anthem. On June 1, he closes his first round of solo performances in the States with a PBS/KCET evening at St. Louis' Sheldon Concert Hall.
Most important, he heads home to support Sony's release of that new album, which in Greek is titled "O Kipos ton Efchon." It's perhaps the most personal and poised release in Frangoulis' 16-year career -- a moody and moving collection of new music the singer says took four years to produce.
"I want to be a mature artist with a different kind of thinking," the former Maria Callas Award-winning singer says. "It's the hard way, sure, but it's the way that will last.
"It's always been this kind of search for me," he says. "I don't know what I'm searching for. A lot of love. So I give a lot of love, too."
That gift of love, he admits, takes nerve: The CD introduces several of his own compositions, each energized by the measured Aegean rhythms you hear in his speech.
" 'Nisia,' " he describes one of his own new songs, "is about how we're all little islands and yet we have this beautiful sea that joins everyone together. It's such a Greek way of placing things.
"My mother (an aunt who raised him) was from the island of Corfu. My father is from another island, Kasos, which has a great shipping tradition. I sleep better on Kasos than anywhere else."
Everyone's boat floats
Fluent in Italian, French, English and Greek, Frangoulis also sings in Spanish. When talking about his success, likes to recall a line of Federico Garcia Lorca: "It might be late," he translates it, "but it's on time."
Trained in theater at London's Guildhall and in music at New York's Juilliard School and with Italy's Carlo Bergonzi, Frangoulis makes it his business to promote other promising artists. "Garden of Hopes," for example, showcases the music of several younger composers and is packaged with the work of twelve young visual artists. "I believe in this collaborative approach," he says. "All-around art."
While reveling in the standing ovations New Yorkers gave him last weekend, Frangoulis ducks glib compliments, preferring honesty from observers who know his work. "I see the positive direction people are talking about in my career," he says, "but I'm trying to be realistic. It hasn't been easy. My friends help me focus."
And as he travels home to Athens for summer concerts in Greece, Sony's new knight has thrown down a collegial gauntlet to his star-tenor counterparts, Warner Bros.' Josh Groban and Philips' Andrea Bocelli: "Caruso." In New York, he brought his show to a shuddering standstill with a wrenching rendition of Lucio Dalla's vaulting ballad. Frangoulis seized the song's massive, climbing refrain -- Te vojo bene assai -- and wrung desperate Pagliacci tears from it.
In concert, he also plunged into the plaintive Parisian tension of Jacque Brel's "Ne me quitte pas," and was joined by the witty soprano charm of Lisa Vroman for duets on Francesco Sartori's "Con te partiro" and the Cole Porter standard "So in Love."
Frangoulis then previewed two compositions from the new CD by his pianist, Thodoris Oikonomou. "Enas hartinos ilios," based on Paraskeva Karasoulo's poetry, sounded "Bésame Mucho" breezy, while Oikonomou's difficult "Dromoi t'ouranou" ("The Paths of Heaven") is fretful in its verse, soaring in its refrain.
'Late at night'
In New York, Frangoulis sings "Caruso," also recorded by tenors Josh Groban and Andrea Bocelli.
Between Sony's March release of his CD "Follow Your Heart" and this New York concert, Frangoulis has grown. One moment, he sways to accordionist Iraklis Vavatsikas' riffs in "Soul de ciel de Paris." Then for a demanding passage, he goes into a trademark pose, turning in profile to the audience to concentrate: His world is distilled to pure sound, all voice.
He laughs when asked where he gets the stamina to perform long evenings onstage: "You know how they say you can tell you're a real Greek -- you warm up late at night."
A key factor here is the addition to Frangoulis' team of Richard Jay-Alexander, the director-producer of concerts by Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Debby Boone, Bernadette Peters and Ricky Martin. Jay-Alexander is a former executive producer of Cameron Mackintosh's "Miss Saigon," "Les Miserables" and "Five Guys Named Moe."
Jay-Alexander will stage Frangoulis in those performances being dubbed "the summit concert" at the foot of the Acropolis on the ancient stage of the Odeon of Herod Atticus on October 6 and 7. For once, Frangoulis will be in his boyhood home, in Athens, no need to travel for so major a booking.
"I live very in touch with my younger years," he says, pleased when a listener picks out the "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" tones that open his composition "Mikros Prigipas," based on Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince."
Now fast-tracked by Sony, staged by Jay-Alexander and revealed to be a composer in his own right, Frangoulis is entering a long-worked-for stage of his career.
That's the time, he says, to take an even more thoughtful approach to his art. "You can't just give people what they like," he says when asked about commercial pressure.
"Everything is in this new album. It's a goodbye to the last century, hello to the new one. You have to express the hopes of your soul, and that's what my music is about. Like the title of the CD: Call it a 'garden of wishes' or a 'garden of hopes.' It's simply about what it means to be human."