As a child growing up in Nazi occupied Greece, where her father, Constantine, was part of the Nazi Resistance Movement, the legend that is Nana Mouskouri, found her escape from the horrors of war in singing. ‘Singing was a security for me. I was very shy.’ adding ‘Children need to be heard and by singing I was heard’.
Her mother encouraged her, teaching her songs in French, songs she still sings on stage. ‘My parents used to say it was the only thing I could do. I could sing and I could cry’.
Her family lived in Crete and her father worked as a film projectionist in a local open-air cinema, where the walls were covered in jasmine. ‘At the back of the courtyard stood a big acacia tree and under it’s shade was the little house where I grew up’. She remembers rushing out, first thing in the morning, to climb the steps to the stage, and standing there looking down at the empty rows of seats – and waiting for something to happen. ‘Of course I knew I would have to wait until the evening and then I would watch the people coming in, seeing the excitement and anticipation in their faces’. Nana would watch the audience leave after the film, climbing back up on stage while her father turned off the lights. ‘I stood in the middle of the stage, perfectly still, looking down at the empty seats. It was an amazing feeling, full of soul, standing there, bathed in moonlight, and suddenly I felt as if I were flying high …’
Perhaps this was the beginning of Mouskour’s love affair with the stage.
When the family left Crete for Athens, Nana and her elder sister, Jenny, joined the prestigious Athens Conservatoire. From the age of 6, she had shown musical talent but her sister was always considered the more talented. Then it was discovered that Nana had one vocal chord thicker than the other. This unusual condition accounted for her husky speaking voice and the ringing quality of her sung registers. ‘During the Nazi Occupation, my family could no longer afford to pay for my singing lessons but my teacher believed in me and continued to give me lessons free of charge’.
That was until he discovered she was singing at night with her friends’ jazz group. Nana had discovered Jazz, a genre she loves to this day. He flew into a fury and Nana was expelled – along with her dreams of becoming an opera singer.
But the opera world’s loss was our gain because 50 years later, Nana Mouskouri is arguably the most successful female singer in history, selling over 350 million records worldwide, more than the Beatles and Elvis Presley combined so after 45 years of touring why has she decided to quit.
‘Singing has always been very important to me so this has not been a sudden decision.’ She explains in her huskily soft, accented voice. ‘I first began to think about it 15 years ago following the death of a very dear friend but I didn’t do anything about it until 2004 when the Olympics were in Greece. I realised then that I was at an age I never thought I would reach. It was then I decided: Ok, it is time for me to go. But I could not just stop immediately. I wanted to return to all the places I had been to say ‘Thank You’.
So for the past three years, Nana Mouskouri has been travelling the world, thanking her fans as she performed for them one last time.
‘You know, I never thought I would become a stage person but I did but the wonderful things in life do not last forever. It is better to have a wonderful memory and to say thank you because it is the audience who has made it all possible.’
She is 73 but looks younger. ‘The way I look is due to the love I have received all over the world’ and she is not joking. ‘I think it is better to stop while you are still standing on your feet. I want to be proud and in very good form when I thank my fans for the love they have given me over the years’.
Although she will miss performing, she is realistic. ‘I know that I will never be 30 or 35 again and what I brought to the people when I was that age I cannot bring to them today. The young people need somebody young to learn from’.
She agrees she has had a wonderful life but there have been some regrets, some miserable times.
‘When my marriage ended (to Georges Petsilas – the father of her two children), it was hurtful that the children stayed with him and the Nanny. It was because they wanted to keep them for themselves and not be influenced by me.’
There have been some problems and today George still does not speak to her second husband, composer and record producer, Andre
The children are now successful adults. Her son Nicolas and his wife live in Canada and are expecting their first child. Nana is more than a little excited at becoming a grandmother. Her daughter Helene, known as
Lenou, followed her mother into the music business, appearing on stage as one of her back-up singers before going on to release two solo albums. Now 35, she is married and living in France.
‘I have a home in Switzerland but I am never there’ Nana laughs ‘I spend so much time in Paris with
Mouskouri is truly an international star, singing fluently in eleven languages, with sell-out concerts all over the world from London to Japan, Montreal to Australia, performing with many of the greats, including Harry Belafonte and Quincy Jones.
Yet as if singing around the world were not enough, Nana Mouskouri has been an Ambassador for UNICEF since 1993 – a jet setting philantropist before Angelina Jolie made it fashionable - and this part of her life has shown her much human suffering but it has also displayed hope.
‘You must have hope. As long as you work, there is hope’.
Now as Nana Mouskouri’s ‘Thank You’ tour (she prefers Thank You to ‘Farewell’) reaches the UK, she reflects on her life.
‘I have received so much love in my life it is time for me to give some back. I feel secure, at last, and the only way to give it back is if I stop singing, I put that energy somewhere else.’
She is serene, at ease with herself.
‘My dream is to do something cultural for Europe, for Greece. Maybe construct a festival where artists gather together from all countries – to introduce new artists, to continue our own cultures and these artists will be the future.
The future – for me – is to transfer what I have learned to others’.
Complete interview appeared in ‘The Lady’, Oct 2, 2007
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