Nana Mouskouri returns to the stage with undiminished fire

What: Nana Mouskouri
Where: Royal Theatre
When: Thursday, May 3, 7:30 p.m. (doors at 6:30 p.m.)
Tickets: $39.50, $59.50, $79.50, and $125 in person at the Royal McPherson box office, online at livenation.com and rmts.bc.ca, or by phone 250-386-6121

When singer Nana Mouskouri said farewell to the stage in 2008, she intended it to be forever. Eternity wound up being just a few short years. The 83-year-old, chatting on the phone on Tuesday from a Seattle tour stop, described her break as “emotionally difficult.” She didn’t want to retire, but thought she should say goodbye while she was still in great shape vocally. “I thought I ought to stop,” she said.

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The idea was never hers to begin with. While the famously bespectacled native of Crete was on a tour of the U.K. with Marlene Dietrich in 1973, the legendary singer and actor told Mouskouri to go before it was too late. “She didn’t want to disappoint her audience. So I thought I should do the same thing one day.”

Mouskouri retired to her home in Geneva, Switzerland, with the intention of finding a new hobby. Inadvertently, she discovered an inner fire that would not be extinguished.

“I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was used to singing. I would say: ‘Why don’t I sing — because I’m too old?’ If I can sing, why not?’ For two or three years, I was upset. So I started to find solutions.”

She eventually returned with a tour in 2011 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her signature song, The White Rose of Athens; a second comeback tour, for her 80th birthday, was done in 2014. Mouskouri finally returned this year with the album Forever Young, featuring versions of songs by her favourite artists.

Recording was an easy decision for Mouskouri to make. “Time goes by, and I’m still alive, so why don’t I do another record? But as soon as you do a record, everybody says you have to go on the road. So here I am, almost to excuse myself.”

Mouskouri will perform in Victoria tonight for what is certainly the umpteenth time. The majority of her concerts during her 60-year career have been in Canada, Mouskouri said — she even has an honorary degree from McGill University. Her first trip through Canada was during the 1960s with Harry Belafonte, an early mentor. Songs from other friends and influences, such as Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, appear on Forever Young. “The songs were souvenirs of times I lived in, but didn’t have the chance to sing about,” she said.

“Songs like that have given me the courage to go on and find peace and love. That’s not something you can put in your pocket and say: ‘I’ve got it, and now it’s forever.’ You have to think about it, you have to help it grow.”

Mouskouri is just three dates into her current tour, but admits to being in fine singing shape at the moment. That was her biggest concern, once she resumed touring. “After the break, it was much more the fear that I had — that I wouldn’t be good enough. I didn’t know if I would be myself, as I was before.”

She remains a creature of habit, exercising on show days, before a light lunch hours prior to her concert. She leaves her hotel room only on occasion, which means her social life is non-existent while she’s on the road. Mouskouri is here to sing, not socialize. “I stay really concentrated on what I’m going to do. There’s no time to go out and do other things. There’s a preparation with your mind and your heart. It’s a lot of emotion you have to go through, so you keep space for that. You do it very simply, without participating in anything else. In the evening it is waiting for you — a great meeting with the audience.”

Mouskouri has recorded 135 albums in five languages — French, English, Greek, German, and Spanish — though that number is often reported as more than 200. She was the first multi-lingual singing star, with hits recorded in Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Hebrew, Latin, Gaelic and Maori, to name just a few. She remains one of the world’s most recognizable stars — in part, because of her black-rimmed glasses, but mostly because of her clean soprano — with career album sales matched only by Madonna, in terms of female performers. “I kept my identity, but I learned from other cultures a lot,” she said.

She learned from other artists, too. It was Belafonte who taught her how to be a humanitarian, Mouskouri said. She has been a supporter of various causes during her career, including UNICEF, and was elected to the European Parliament as a Greek deputy from 1994 to 1999. Representing her country in Parliament was a point of pride for Mouskouri, whose father protested the German occupation of Greece during the Second World War (her father was part of the anti-Nazi resistance movement in Athens, where the family lived when Mouskouri was a child). This experience is what pushed her to become an artist, Mouskouri admitted.

“I needed to learn about love, and to learn also about freedom. I knew war. I needed to find peace.”

Ironically, her first success as a singer was in Germany.

“It was a wonderful thing for me. There were no enemies. There was always a feeling of communicating with the people, and understanding them. They were not all responsible for what was happening [in the war].”

Lessons she learned from Belafonte are still with her today, even as she approaches the end of her career. “Discipline is what you need when you are on stage. A young person — even if they have success —they have a lot to learn. Each person has their own path. They have to learn for themselves alone. You have to learn to survive.”

As for her inevitable retirement, Mouskouri is not sure when that will come to pass, nor is she eager to embrace the idea. “I’m afraid to think about it. If I have difficulty singing, of course I will stop. The audience would be unhappy to see me not feeling well. But I do not want to think about retirement.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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