Nana Mouskouri is practically a household word to thousands of people around the world, and yet there are many in the US who have never heard of her at all, or who vaguely remember seeing her handsome eyeglassed face on a poster or in a newspaper somewhere.
Yet when she tours around the United States, as she is doing now, the halls are packed with ardent fans, and it is clear that they all love Nana. Watching the rapt faces at her Symphony Hall concert here as she sang in her simple, straightforward style, it was easy to understand why.
It's not just that her voice is clear and pure and strong, nor is it just her repertoire -- everything from her native Greek folk songs to American pop to operetta to French chansons --that moves the listener, not to stomping and shouting, but to a quiet, warm feeling that grows as the evening moves on. Everything about her exudes dignity, sincerity, and approachability, and I'm sure there was more than one person in the audience thinking, "Why, she could be my sister!" (or daughter, or mother -- her audience includes a broad cross section of ages and types).
Nana is very much at home on the stage, gracious, warm, dignified, and it's clear she loves what she does. Her backup band --guitars and bouzoukis, bass, vibes, and percussion -- is well-rehearsed, supportive, and enthusiastic. At the Boston concert she opened with a traditional Greek song as she stood cradling a bouquet of white roses in her arms. Between songs she spoke into the microphone as if she were conversing with old friends, telling little stories about her songs, and introducing the members of the band: "These are my friends."
Nana Mouskouri occupies a unique place in the music world, and an important one. This is music that anyone can relate to -- and her worldwide popularity attests to that fact. She's not a singer with a cause -- political, feminist, or otherwise. She just stands there and sings -- no gimmicks, no show biz charisma -- just herself, and that seems to be more than enough for her fans. A world traveler with a command of several languages, she remains nevertheless unspoiled.
I met Nana in her dressing room before the Boston concert. She describes herself as a shy person, commenting with more than a trace of a Greek accent.
"Singing gave me a break. I realized through singing I could open myself, make friends. It gave me an existence, and I got lots of love from it. Singing is a solution to saying everything you have in your heart.
"When I was about 11 years old my parents took me to see a variety show. There was a lot of singing and dancing in the show. But afterwards I was crying! My mother asked me why I was unhappy -- they thought the show would make me happy. I said, 'I'm crying because I'm jealous!' I wanted to be on the stage."
Nana knew she could sing, and she was on her way. Taking the whole matter very seriously, she studied "every aspect of music" at Athens conservatory for eight years.
"I tried to learn as much as I could. My parents hoped I would be a classical singer, but I was sure I never would be."
So despite protests from her voice professor, she dropped out of music school and accepted the first job she was offered: singing in a night club. She doesn't regret the decision:
"I trained myself so much, singing all different sorts of songs. The harder time you have, the better it is. I came out with a lesson everytime."
Nana has been performing for 20 years and touring all over the world for 15, and has received numerous gold and platinum records as well as a gold cassette. Her dark-rimmed eyeglasses have become her trademark. In a field where glamour is supposed to be everything, the attractive Nana has managed to prove that her physical beauty is inseparable from her honesty. She remarked:
"I'm very honest in what I'm doing. What the people see and hear is exactly what I am.
"When I was a child I wore glasses. Everybody laughed at me. After i became a singer, but before I was so popular, nobody said anything about the glasses, but when I became popular they said I must take off my glasses, lighten my hair. I have made some concessions, you can't avoid it completely. But what comes from my voice, from my heart, is more important than how I look, although I like to look nice and dress well, of course. So, I kept my glasses.
Although she loves her life, Nana admits "it's a solitary thing to be on the stage. Nobody can help you out there."
And as mother of two children, the continuous traveling has presented some challenges. But, she mused, "Once I thought I would stop singing, because of my two children, but I couldn't. I feel guilty about it sometimes, but all your life you can feel guilty -- that doesn't mean you should stop singing! You have to go through a sad thing, to appreciate what you have. When I go away on tour, it's so wonderful to come back, to see my children."