Nana Mouskouri’s capacious, marble-clad home may overlook Lake Geneva, but the casual visitor would be instantly apprised of her heritage. Her living room wall is adorned with icons while biographies of Alexander the Great and catalogues on the Elgin Marbles loom large on her bookshelves. And on a dresser sits the hefty City of Athens Gold Medal of Merit, bestowed on Mouskouri a few years ago, along with an effusive citation from the city’s mayor: “She packed Greece in her suitcase and conquered the world.”
For once, the hype is justified; it’s not just a recognition of Mouskouri’s success as a singer (around 300 million records sold, making her one of the best-selling artists of all time), but also that, for many, she embodies their idea of her homeland (she keeps another house in Athens as well as a Paris apartment). And it’s not hard to see why; aside from her trademark horn-rimmed glasses and jet-black hair she remains, at 76 and a grandmother-of-two, the same seemingly artless but compelling figure who cut a swathe through the 1960s, her ringing coloratura mezzo giving her varied repertoire – pop, jazz, operetta – a folky, distinctly Hellenic tinge.
“I think I am the third famous Greek female of the 20th century, after Maria Callas and Melina Mercouri, no?” she says, laughing. “But in some ways I’m the reverse of them. I think for many people I represent the simplicity of Greece, the earthiness of the country and the people. I came from a very simple family and I grew up with a lot of miseries and troubles. So I learnt to respect life early on and this is perhaps what people liked in me – an enthusiasm, approachability and gregariousness that I think is also our national characteristic.”
Pride, she says, is another Greek trait: “It’s why I stepped down from the stage a couple of years ago; I didn’t want people to see me and say oh, she’s lost it.” Her face darkens. “But, to face the truth, I think in the past 30 years we have lost our pride. With what is happening in Greece, there is a lot of shame and anger.”
Mouskouri’s seen her country evolve from kingdom through junta to democracy. She was born in Crete but her father, a film projectionist, moved the family to Athens when she was three; her childhood was marked by the Nazi occupation of Greece and its attendant privations (in her autobiography, she recalls meals of scavenged snails and frogs).
She attended the prestigious Athens Conservatoire with her elder sister Jenny, but confesses that she “didn’t like Greek music much” until composer Manos Hadjidakis took her under his wing and introduced her to a generation of poets, painters and artists who were redefining Greek culture in the 1960s. Hadjidakis adapted Mouskouri’s first big hit, 1961’s The White Rose of Athens, from a traditional folk melody.
“Did I see myself as a cultural ambassador?” she ponders. “Never. But I think I helped articulate my times, the things we believed in, the way Greek people needed to emigrate to find a better living after the war but kept their identity strong.”
Mouskouri’s identity has certainly remained constant, her unwaveringly severe look mirroring the sincerity of her songs (when she toured with Harry Belafonte in 1966, he asked her to remove her glasses on stage, but she felt “so naked” without them that they were back on within two days). Her popularity was concurrent with the opening up of Europe; to this day, her songs trigger memories of package holidays by the Aegean amid thyme and Ouzo aromas.
The country’s financial travails have certainly galvanized her into action. She’s committed to donating her annual €20,000 MEP’s pension to the country “until it emerges from this crisis” but, with the deficit at 13 per cent of GDP, €4.8bn in wage cuts and suggestions that the Parthenon and various islands could be sold off to help plug the financial black hole, that seems some way off (“I thought others might follow my lead,” she says, “but no one has as yet”).
However, despite continuing newsreels of her fellow pensioners facing down riot police, Mouskouri is optimistic about the future of her country. “We’ve come too far down the democratic road to slide back now,” she says. “Greece needs to be in Europe but we didn’t read the rulebook on joining, or we at least glossed over the bit about fiscal responsibility. And if the people see the government cheating, then of course they do too.” She sighs. “There will be hard times ahead. But I think we’ll make it. We have no choice.”
Mouskouri’s odyssey has been as Homeric as her homeland’s. But from the lofty, if not Olympian, perspective of semi-retirement at the heart of Europe, she attempts to analyse her continuing appeal. “I was always obsessed by the film The Wizard Of Oz,” she says. “Like the Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow, I needed to combine brains, courage and heart to be able to do what I’ve done.” She smiles and surveys her Hellenistic domain. “Not forgetting a healthy amount of Greek stubbornness.”
Hitting the high notes: Nana Mouskouri’s CV
1934 Born in Chania, Crete
1937 Moves to Athens
1950 Accepted at the Athens Conservatoire
1957 Records her first song, Fascination
1961 Marries musician Yorgos Petsilas. They have two children and divorced in 1975
1963 Leaves Greece to live in Paris
1966 Tours the US with Harry Belafonte
1984 Does her first live performance in Greece since 1962
1993 Appointed a UNICEF Goodwill ambassador
1994 Elected a Member of the European Parliament. Resigns in 1999
2003 Marries her second husband
2004 An unprecedented 34-CD box-set of more than 600 songs is released
2008 Gives her final stage performance at the Herodes Atticus Theatre in Athens
2010 Donates her MEP’s pension to the state