The Girl in the Glasses

If you're looking for yet more evidence of just how isolated America is from the rest of the world -- and how desperate the rest of the world is to break through that isolation -- all you have to do is check out Nana Mouskouri. A Greek native who's been a huge star in Europe for close to three decades, who has made her signature eyeglasses as recognizable as Frank Sinatra's fedora, who has ranked as the number one performer in Australia, who can draw giant crowds in Asia and who has even topped the charts in neighboring Canada, Mouskouri is all but unknown in the United States. Oh, she's not completely unknown -- her tours of the States invariably fill decent-size halls, and her CDs sell comfortably enough to guarantee she's not going to have to go label shopping anytime soon -- but for someone who has in excess of 250 gold and platinum discs and has sold more than 200 million albums worldwide, and who has a back catalog that fans pore over to add another two million to that figure annually, being moderately familiar isn't enough.

Call it the Julio Iglesias problem, if you will. Actually, there's more than a little connection between Iglesias, who had conquered the Spanish-speaking world before the U.S. had even heard his name, and Mouskouri. Two decades ago, American record companies were courting both singers. As Mouskouri recalls it, she was visiting the U.S. and talking to representatives of CBS and Epic. When she returned to Europe, she ran into Iglesias and found that he, too, had been approached by American labels. In both cases, the promise of being a star in the States was dangled. But there was a catch: They'd have to move to America and focus exclusively on America. Europe and the rest of the world would have to be put on the far back burner.

"Julio asked me what I was going to do," Mouskouri recalls over the phone from her home in Geneva, Switzerland. "I told him I couldn't do it. I had children who had built a life where they were. I couldn't uproot them and take them across the ocean. I couldn't tear up my roots. But Julio was willing to take the chance, and he moved. He still lives there, in Miami."

Of course, Iglesias, duets with Willie Nelson notwithstanding, is still far from a major force in the New World. Still, Mouskouri can't help being a little wistful about her decision to put family ahead of adventure. "America has always been the dream of Europeans," she says. "What is that song that Sinatra sings? The one about New York? That if you can make it there you can make it anywhere? For Europeans, America's the same thing. You can be the biggest star ever here, but if you're not big in America, you can't really say you're big."

That may be why Mouskouri's U.S. label is touting Return to Love, her latest English language release, as the first step in a new assault on the United States. And one could argue that the timing is good: The lounge revival has made a broader audience willing to listen to the sort of chanteusy soft pop that's Mouskouri's stock-in-trade (think a less blaring Celine Dion), and the revival of Tony Bennett has made older performers more widely acceptable (though her publicist claims Mouskouri is 61, Mouskouri brushes that aside to say she's really 63, the two-year difference resulting from a mix-up with her birth certificate in post-World War II Greece).

Nonetheless, given that Mouskouri's English CD comes on the heels of CDs in Spanish, German and Greek, and that her next recording project is an album in French -- all languages in which she's fluent -- it doesn't seem likely that she's going to give up the world in order to have America. Too, she's in the middle of a five-year term as a Greek representative to the European Parliament, and in 1993 she took over the late Audrey Hepburn's position as a roving ambassador for UNICEF, a position that's already taken her to such disparate locations as Sarajevo and Hanoi.

Not bad for a woman whose introduction to music was sitting behind the screen of the outdoor movie theaters her father operated in Crete and Athens and listening to the likes of Judy Garland sing. Though her parents hoped she'd be the next Maria Callas, and sent her to the Athens Hellenic Conservatory for classical training, she was thrown out for listening to jazz and performing popular music. A short nightclub career followed (during which she sang more than once for Callas and Callas's then companion, Aristotle Onassis) before, in 1959, she won the first ever Greek Song Festival and overnight became the most recognizable singer in her homeland. A gold record soon followed in Germany, then Quincy Jones ran across her in Paris, and her first U.S. album, The Girl from Greece Sings, resulted. That was 33 years ago, and to those Americans who know her, Mouskouri is still that girl with the eyeglasses from Greece. Not that she particularly minds. Just as long as they remember she is the one who sings.

Nana Mouskouri performs at 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 30, at the Music Hall, 810 Bagby. Tickets are $24.50 to $37.50. For info, call 629-3700. A special package to benefit UNICEF that includes a cocktail party with Mouskouri Tuesday, April 29, and special seating for the performance is available for $150. Package ticket requests must be mailed by April 25. For info, call 963-9390.