Mario Frangoulis happily marries opera with pop

Greek tenor's visit ties in with local celebrations of the Greek community

Classical Music

May 22, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

There may never be another three operatic tenors packing the combined vocal and star power of Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, but there are at least three highly marketable singers who have demonstrated an exceptional ability to stir the public. Call them the poperatic tenors.

Heading the list of these mass-appeal vocalists, who cross back and forth between classical and pop idioms easily and who generate unusually effusive fans, is Andrea Bocelli. The blind Italian singer soared to fame and fortune in the 1990s, given an extra boost by heavy exposure on American public television.

By 2001, boyish-faced Russell Watson, a former welder and pub crooner, had emerged from local celebrity status in Britain to claim his portion of the worldwide crossover action. His singing, too, could soon be heard during PBS pledge drives.

Now, coming up fast on the outside, is Greek tenor Mario Frangoulis.

With darkly handsome looks, highly personable demeanor and solid musical training - not to mention a distinctively warm, potent voice - Frangoulis is a publicist's dream.

By the late '90s, he was a star in Greece, with best-selling albums of Greek songs. His popularity soon spread to other parts of the Continent as he revealed a flair for singing super-romantic, even melodramatic songs, especially in Italian and Spanish. In 2002, he made a bid for the U.S. market, releasing a recording called Sometimes I Dream that bore a bold message on the package: "The voice America's been waiting for!"

PBS booster

The music on that CD - lushly orchestrated pop ballads, a modernized Puccini aria, and the Moody Blues classic "Nights in White Satin" (with Blues member Justin Hayward making it a duet) - can also be heard on a DVD of a live concert filmed at Thessaloniki, a scenic outdoor spot in Greece. That performance, not surprisingly, was quickly put into service for pledge weeks on PBS.

When Maryland Public Television aired the show a couple months ago, Frangoulis stopped by the studios to lend personal support for the fund drive and provide an early plug for his appearance this week with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Saturday's event at the Meyerhoff is being presented as part of the centennial celebrations of Baltimore's Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation and Orthodoxy in Maryland. (The tenor will also sing the National Anthem at Thursday's Oriole game.)

"I thought it would be great to get someone for this concert who represents our Greek culture," says Gary Padussis, chairperson for the Orthodoxy centennial. "I heard about Mario Frangoulis two years ago from people who were at the Thessaloniki concert. He's huge in Europe. He will sing some Greek songs on this program, but he'll sing a lot of other things, too. And that's sort of like our culture in this country - none of us are fully Greek anymore."

Earlier this year, a second Frangoulis CD was released on the Sony Classical label - Follow Your Heart, filled with Italian, Spanish and English songs, including a pop version of a famous Verdi choral piece and "Here's to the Heroes," a ballad the tenor sang at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

Frangoulis, who recently shared a concert tour with pop pianist Jim Brickman, sees the BSO gig "as a chance to present all facets of what I do. The program has everything - from opera to musical theater and film."

The operatic side includes works by Verdi and Lehar (soprano Nicole Cabell from the Lyric Opera Center for America Artists in Chicago will join Frangoulis for some of the music). An unexpected item is also on the list: Figaro's aria from Rossini's The Barber of Seville.

A tenor singing a popular baritone aria? Frangoulis cites an impeccable precedent set by one of the great Italian tenors of the mid-20th century. "Mario del Monaco used to sing it in concerts," Frangoulis says. "And he was one of my heroes."

Hearing lots of "Figaro, Figaro, Figaro" coming from Frangoulis isn't the only unusual thing about his program.

"When I did this concert in Japan with the Tokyo Philharmonic [last fall], I put the microphones away for the opera portion," he says. "It's important for you to hear my natural voice."

A crossover artist willing to give up amplification in a concert setting, even for a few minutes, seems about as unlikely as a friendly chat between Gov. Ehrlich and Mayor O'Malley. But the gesture fits in with the basic Frangoulis philosophy of respecting the style of whatever music he sings.

When he did a cameo in the recent Cole Porter biopic De-Lovely, singing "So in Love" from Kiss Me Kate with Lara Fabian, there was no chance he would insert anachronistic pop styling, as some of the other singers in the film did. "I was very much a purist," the tenor says. "When they asked me how I wanted to do it, I said `like Cole Porter intended.' "

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