On May 12, Maria Farantouri will take the stage at the renowned Carnegie Hall. It won’t be her first time playing its landmark Perelman Stage. She is part of that rare group of artists, for whom similar honors are common. Between rehearsals and appearances in Greece and abroad, we found time to discuss this new, but not rare, peak of her impressive career.
How did the invitation to appear at the Carnegie Hall come about?
Two years ago, Famed American impresario, Robert Browning, came to see me in Athens, and extended the invitation. Of course, it was it was a great honor, and I accepted, always mindful of what a great responsibility I was taking on in being given the opportunity to showcase the contemporary Greek music and song, centered on the work of Mikis Theodorakis, at New York’s greatest concert hall.
You have structured the concert as a tribute to Greek poetry and to some of the most important Greek composers. For Carnegie Hall, however, the concert is a tribute to you. Where do they differ, and where do these two approaches converge?
It is certainly an honor for me personally, and it matches the weight I am called to shoulder as the voice of such great composers and writers. What brings us together is the promotion of modern culture through music, poetry, and song.
This is not the first time you are performing in the United States. How would you say that the audience’s expectations of you vary from one performance to another, and what different things do you expect of yourself?
I have performed at the Carnegie Hall 24 years ago, with Mikis Theodorakis. Since then, I have performed solo in many theaters and universities in the United States. In fact, it was at one such performance in California that Charles Lloyd was in the audience, giving us the start to our friendship and collaboration. It was a great pleasure for me, but Lloyd was also impressed with Greek music, paving the way for the “Athens Concert” album, a recording of the 2014 live performance at the Herod Atticus Odeon. That included the premier performance of the Greek suite, which features elements of Greek music. Along with Lloyd, we performed in many concerts in the US and Europe. Today, along with the well-known for its exacting tastes audience of the Carnegie Hall, I am expecting to meet with the Greeks of New York. It will be a moment of pride for us all, especially considering the difficult times that our country is going through, and how much we need a shot of self-confidence. Greece is present, it is still standing, and it is still creating.
You have lived abroad for many years. Would you say that at that time you were a Greek expat, or just a Greek with an international career?
Please highlight “Greek,” and underline it, because I always sing primarily in Greek. From time to time there were many opportunities for a commercial career built on songs that weren’t Greek, but I passed on them.
How does this experience of an international life help you today when you meet Greeks in your concerts outside of Greece – when you will meet them at Carnegie Hall, for example?
What’s important is that the audience in my concerts outside Greece is made up mainly of non-Greeks, proving how powerful Greek song has been in overcoming the language barrier. Through our concerts, an international audience has come to love Greek song production. Of course, for their part, Greek expats see in it their home country, which is a moving emotion.
You have been identified with the political song genre, which does not cover -at least in a strict interpretation of the term- all your songs. Isn’t that a bit of an injustice to the other aspects of your repertoire?
It is indeed unfair, but -contrary to its own conscious pursuits- the Dictatorship with its embargos helped in this. The Greek song became known abroad in connection to our struggle for democracy. However, in the present day, 50 years later, it is evident that audiences abroad have discovered and embraced all aspects of the Greek song. Its endurance in time shows it to be a product of a structure with solid musical foundations, featuring elements of classical, Byzantine and folk music. The quality of Greek songs ultimately proved itself, it was accepted and acknowledged by critics and audiences, and this was thanks to its melodies and the poetry which is translated in programs of concerts all over the world.
Is there a chance that we are misjudging some of today’s songs, and that they are more political than they seem?
I think there is a misunderstanding; a political song is one which is directly involved in its time’s politics; we had such songs in that first period. But the core of our singing is classical, both Miki’s (Theodorakis) with its cycles and oratorios, and Manos’s (Hatzidakis), and that’s what sets them apart them within the international repertoire; many contemporary composers have been influenced by Greek melodies and this shows the power of Greek song.
What difficulties does your identity have with political art, or even with Mikis Theodorakis himself?
Difficulties have been more a thing of past challenging times; today Mikis’s song has become more broadly established, as it expresses the love for fellow man, life in all its aspects, love, sorrow, sorrow, longing, struggle, hope -Greece. Its basis, full of lyricism and power, is existential, and therefore universal. Mikis, on the other hand, expresses his views freely, as he always has, something which, as we all know, has cost him. It’s like the pebble in the lake creating turmoil. One thing is sure: he loves Greece; it is his inspiration, and he wants it to continue to exist in its spiritual and historical specificity.
Emily Dickinson has said that hope is “this thing with the feathers.” You yourself, once speaking of Mikis Theodorakis, have also said that you needed him, that you wanted to have above you “the man with the wings”. After so many years, are you still in a similar position?
His music has wings, and of course, no one can deny that. However, through the movements of the 1960s, led by Hatzidakis and Theodorakis, many younger people came up with their own personal styles: Dionysis Savvopoulos, Xarhakos, Loizos and others. If you add to them, our musical tradition in folk singing, then you understand that we live in a country rich in musical production. And I’m sure this will continue in the future in new ways that will each time reflect changing times and their evolving achievements. Today, the world is a single space, a village, as they say, and with the advances in technology this is progressively more the case. But that does not take anything away from the great contributions of our composers at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century. Their success is timeless and has been carved into the cells of the new Hellenism.
Your first discussion with Theodorakis, when he asked you if you know you were born to sing his songs, is well-known. Your straight “I Know” answer is often used as shorthand to describe both of you. Online, however, one can find your first interview, in “Tachydromos”, where the journalist asks you if you play piano, and you answer “Yes, I play. I have been taking piano and vocal music lessons since my seconf year in high school. In September I will have my Conservatory degree. You know, I will be getting it in seven years, rather than twelve, which is the norm.” This answer shows your straight-forwardness and self-confidence even better, don’t you think?
Yes, I was sure of myself, I had identified my life with music and singing. It’s what I tell young kids; art requires daily work and dedication, it does not forgive straying away from it, it does not forgive indifference, it’s demanding. I haven’t changed in all these years, my experiences confirm this need. I was fortunate to be a student of the famous Elli Nikolaidou, who was excellent and extremely strict. Nikolaidou instilled in my philosophy the significance of constant exercise, which I continue to this day, as though I were at the beginning of my career.
Your repertoire and the common, if not stereotypical, reference to your voice’s “epic” character make for a public image that draws attention away from similarly public sensitivities. For example, when you talk about your childhood, your speech fills up with diminutive forms. Is that where your sensitivities lie? Where else?
My sensibilities always lie with the people I love, and I express them in the company of those people. Of course, they also lie with the content of my songs -and I emphasize this: song must touch me deeply for me to sing it. I never felt that a song I was interpreting was far from my own sensibilities. The Song of Solomon, for example, contrasting love with chillingly violent death -is that not a great sensitivity expressed in art? The same goes for the existential concepts in the poetry of Seferis and Ritsos, of Elytis, Anagnostakis, and Livaditis.
You are often described as the Mediterranean “Joan Baez,” as if there is some distance to be mediated between the two of you. But you’ve met with Baez, and not just once, right?
Of course; we have met in her concerts in Paris and in Athens, she has performed in concert the “Mauthausen Ballad” and the “Song of Salomon” in Greek, as I also have performed in concert her songs. I would also say that we expressed our time’s spirit of freedom and emancipation in the same way, so we are at once so far away from each other, yet extremely close together.
Fidel Castro, Picasso, the Beatles, Yoko Ono. It is futile to go through all people you have met through your art, and who are so impressive to all of us. Which were you most impressed by?
Difficult question. I can’t distinguish and compare on some scale of values how we met through our initiatives and our art. Each encounter had its own beauty. They came to us naturally; the symbolisms in our songs, the meanings, our ideas and our music made possible the meetings with these great personalities. But I love the memories shared with fellow artists with whom we became friends through our collaborations, like the great guitarist John Williams, the famous Mercedes Sosa, and more recently, Charles Lloyd. I was also impressed by my meeting with the Beatles at Apple Studio, by meeting John Lennon. Of the politicians I have met, I liked Mitterrand because, in addition to being a politician, he was a simple and spiritual man, who loved the arts and Greece.
As an artist you are obviously part of Greek history, and indeed of a dimension of it that goes beyond the artistic element. When did you first realize this? And I ask knowing that the girl who prided herself on getting her piano degree 5 years earlier than the norm will not evade the question.
Being a part of history is not something about which you think in advance, and you probably never think about it, at all. At least that is how it is for me. each time you set a course for yourself, when you sing about your own time, you do not take for granted a spot in History. When Mikis urged me to go abroad because I would not be allowed to sing in Greece due to the junta, my thought was not how history would later view me; it was about what I needed, what I was obligated to do at in the moment. Now it seems that it was a “historic,” the dimension of which we didn’t notice at the time. Far from it; things were in fact extremely dramatic to allow for anything like that, at least in the beginning.
If tomorrow you decided to stop singing, which description of your career would endure in time?
I do not even think about it; it is enough for me that I was able to climb the mountain, and -most importantly- that I can still make my way up it.
What concerns you most: A paragraph on your contribution to art, written 50 years from now, or a full-page newspaper review of your next concert?
I do not care what will be written when I won’t be here. A single mention would be enough. On the contrary, I’m interested in the now, in every single performance, because no two are alike. Each comes with its own demands. Every time I have to rise to my art and the audience. That’s what interests me.
On May 12, Maria Farantouri will perform at the Carnegie Hall, along with Achilleas Wastor (music director , piano), David Lynch (saxophone and flute), Heracles Zakkas (bouzouki and mandolin), Alexandros Botinis (cello), Petros Klampanis (bass), Christos Rafalides (vibraphone), Engin Kaan Gunaydin (percussion). She will also be joined by the Choir of the Archidocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity Choir, under the direction of Evey Simon. More information on the concert is available at the Carnegie Hall’s website.
Maria Farantouri’s 1966 interview with Olympia Karagiorgas for “Tachydromos” magazine can be found here, posted by Vangelis Arnaoutakis.