Groomed for stardom from childhood, from the tennis court to the operatic stage, Anastasia Zannis chose a varied musical path. She has sung in places as geographically diverse as Calgary, Canada, where she performed at the Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony; Marathon, Greece for the start of the mythic race; and Carnegie Hall, her biggest triumph to date, sandwiched incidentally between the two. Now she is poised to propel her career into a new orbit while never forgetting the country she calls home.
Anastasia Zannis is not quite ready to speak about herself. While not exactly self-effacing, she preferred to convey her ideas and reveal her dreams to The Huffington Post in a conversation with me...
We are seated in front of my grandmother's Steinway grand piano dating from the 1920s, which I had transported from my family house in Syros, Greece.
E.C. You were just in Syros. Why was that?
A.Z. I am preparing a concert in celebration of the 400 years since the artist El Greco's birth. As you know, Syros houses a fresco by El Greco in the church of "Dormition of the Virgin," but the concert, which will be attended by the President of the Republic, will be in St. Nicholas' church, which features a choir with a storied reputation as one of the best in Greece. Obviously there will be a religious theme. I am going to sing Ave Maria by Shubert and "Amazing Grace".
E.C. From what I understand though, you are moving away from opera?
A.Z. I am much more of a cross-over classical singer. I sing arias but I also try different arrangements to them as Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli have done. I don't tamper with the melody but I prefer modern sounds. It is very much what the great Greek composer "Vangelis "did who wrote the theme for "Chariots of Fire". I admire him greatly.
E.C. Yes I love his work. Does he still compose?
A.Z. Of course. His last concert was at the Katara theatre in Doha in 2012.
E.C. Would you like to sing in the Middle East? Doha is an upcoming cultural hub.
A.Z. Yes I would like that a lot.
E.C. But let's go back to the beginning which was ...
A.Z. I was born in Athens and my father played the role of producer my whole life. On my mother's father's Steinway, I started piano lessons as a discipline when I was 4. My father played me classical recordings and jazz, nurturing my knowledge of opera to follow his own. It was his dream for me to become a soprano.
E.C. Do you have siblings? What about their career dreams?
A.Z. I have a younger brother and yes, ironically, he has a great voice but his focus was the long jump and he became a champion at it representing Greece in the National team with an 8.09 personal record. He is a strong and romantic character. I admire him very much. My mother also had her dreams. When she graduated from the American College in Athens and was about to move to London to study and instead fell in love with my father, they got married and she became pregnant with me. I always feel guilty that I was the reason for her not to follow her dream. That's why I travel a lot, I follow my dream and try to lead the life my mother never did. Every time I land in a different country my voyage is dedicated to her.
My father wanted me also to excel at sports and I began playing tennis, playing on the Greek national team from the ages of 10 to 18, and I won a silver medal in the Panhellenic games. I also travelled to tournaments all over Europe.
E.C. It sounds as if you were pressured. Were you?
A.Z. I could say that I missed having a childhood, even though it sounds like a cliché. I was not allowed to listen to other kinds of music like my peers. Even though I socialized with other children, I always had this driven focus and deep down I felt different.
E.C. How did you fit in the music and the sport?
A.Z. Well, school was until 2p.m. and afterward I did my homework, from 6 to 9p.m. I had tennis and piano and I also had lessons in English and Italian and French.
E.C. Sounds tiring...
A.Z. Yes but this routine kept me happy and when I get depressed today, I go back and recreate this disciplined life style. I never really got stressed, life seemed like a great game! After 18, I gave up tennis though and went to study opera, got my diploma at the Athens Conservatory with honors. Then I went to London and did some classes at the Royal Academy of Music. I loved that. I went to two musicals a day.
E.C. How did musicals influence you?
A.Z. That's when the crossover happened. I understood I had to take a different path.
E.C. So this was a significant time for you, an epiphany of sorts?
A.Z. Well, I gave up the tennis and I really started rebelling against the disciplined regimen I had followed until now. That's when I started to feel stress and it was the most difficult time of my life. This was between the ages of 18 and 21. All I wanted to do was to go out, go against my father, have the little revolution I didn't have at school. I spent a lot time on the island of Mykonos. Up to then I had socialized a lot with athletes while on the tennis circuit, now I felt a bit unhinged.
E.C. How did this manifest in your life?
A.Z. Well at the age of 22, after graduating, I branched out into folk and traditional Greek music. I really wanted to seem a professional singer so I performed with some really big artists such as the composer Micky Theodorakis, etc. My father was appalled! As I was departing from opera anyway, he wanted me to go to the US and pursue jazz.
E.C. How did he show his displeasure?
A.Z. He never came to hear me sing these folk songs. That was a big shock to me.
So I went to Germany to sing in a gala organized by the tenor Jose Carreras. This was my "crossover" baptism. I sang with a rock band and a symphony orchestra, headed by the great composer Stephanos Korkolis. We toured and recorded the "The Challenge " in Germany and I was very happy. At the same time I recorded 3 songs for the Buddha Bar Collection.
E.C. Well, quite a leap...
A.Z. These Buddha Bar songs somehow just happened of their own accord and these and the German tour, pulled me out of Greece. But not for a long...
E.C. What kept you here in Greece?
A.Z. I fell in love... ! I could have taken off and left definitively but the woman in me won and not the singer.
E.C. Aah ... the woman and the singer struggling against each other - what great soprano does that remind you of? Maria Callas?
A.Z. Oh thank you. But Maria Callas was a legend, I cannot compare myself to her but I feel very close to all the women that are waiting for their prince to come ! Even Callas did! Well anyway, the "in love" came to an end and that's when I appeared on the TV show Fame Story in 2005. It was at its zenith and it proved very beneficial to me. I became very famous and people were calling me by my first name on the street. It was so helpful for me and my self-esteem. But it also had an artistic advantage for me. I sang Fados (Portuguese traditional songs) and songs from Phantom of the Opera.
E.C. Would you advise young people to go on these talent shows today?
A.Z. If the talent shows now were like Fame story was then, then yes, absolutely. On shows in other countries, yes again. But not in Greece, not now. Greeks can be very conservative. The truth is that no one show or fame can give or take away the voice from you. But again after Fame Story, it was time for me to take off again.
E.C. Where did you go?
A.Z. Any place they liked and wanted me. I created my own solo concert, I reacted like I was the producer of myself, so I performed in Tokyo (Keyaki Hall), Hamamatsu, Seoul -- where I won the Best Performance Award -- for the Greek national tourism organization, in Berlin. At the Cesme, Turkey song festival I won the third prize award. I really love traveling!
E.C. Were you alone?
A.Z. I had my musicians for company. I was fine with that. My only regret is that I never had a witness to record all of these experiences. I went to other places in Asia and also to Europe.
E.C. And then to America. When was that?
A.Z. 2011. My parents had really prepared me my whole life for this American dream and when I got there, it felt just like coming home.
E.C. Didn't the competiveness of such a vast country scare you?
A.Z. No, I felt challenged, not intimidated. When I travelled before that to faraway places, I felt the sense of being alone, not followed by anyone. In New York, I always feel I am not solitary, I feel the city is my friend even though I am alone in it.
E.C. Where did you start singing in the States?
A.Z. At the Greek Independence Day parade in Manhattan on Fifth Avenue in 2012-13-14. I sang the Greek National anthem outdoors accompanied by the Evzones, the Greek presidential national guards. There were about 150.000 people watching me and then I was so honored -- they asked me to sing the US national anthem in front of the former US President Bill Clinton. That was a big honor for me. Americans are also very patriotic. They responded so emotionally to their anthem! Performing the anthems and being among all these Greek expatriates I got very connected to them, and got the feeling that they are "missing home."
E.C. You sang the Olympic anthem also at the opening of the Winter Olympic Games in Calgary in Canada and at Ancient Olympia, also in Athens on the Hill of Pnyx. Does singing outdoors have its problems?
A.Z. Not really. Of course we have microphones but the feeling is what counts. The crowd is alert and it's this feeling of an epic event happening, "we are in this together" feeling. I don't get distracted, I feel I am supporting an ideal, I get very emotional with these anthems, I am representing Greece and that counts for me.
E.C. How can we raise Greece's profile?
A.Z. That's one of the major goals of my career. So many international symbols are Greek like the name Nike, the sports brand, which means victory. Opera has its roots in ancient Greek tragedy. All actors dream of performing at the theatre of Epidaurus. It was significant for me to be the hostess at the opening ceremony in Marathon in 2012 and at Ancient Olympia at the start of the torch relay which sent the Olympic flame to the London Games of 2012. The marathon, the Olympics - all of them Greek. We need to spread this message!
E.C. Carnegie Hall - how did that happen?
A.Z. It was organized by the Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York.
A concert dedicated to Archbishop Demetrios of America, to benefit ELPIDA, a charity for children with cancer. I was honored to be accompanied by American Grammy award-winning jazz musicians.
E.C. What was your repertory?
A.Z. Songs from Cole Porter, John Lennon, classical works from Italy and Spain, musicals and Greek poems by our poets Seferis and Elitis set to music by Hatzidakis.
E.C. Was this your best experience?
A.Z. Yes, my personal best!
E.C. And your worst?
A.Z.. At the Jose Carreras gala, I actually asked the producer if I could not go on and that I would pay him for my missed appearance. He told me it would cost $10,000,000 as it was a huge deal with ARD the broadcaster.
E.C. Are you usually not nervous?
A.Z. I like to spend the night before a performance at the theatre to get the vibe of the place. From 1p.m. on the day I perform I want to be alone. My mother never calls me, she knows I get really aggressive. I would like to appear from nowhere to get on stage as I avoid talking to anyone before I sing. I would have to revert to being me, whereas when I sing I am that performer, nothing to do with me.
E.C. Has your career meant you sacrificed your personal life? Having children?
A.Z. Children have never really been a consideration to me, and yes, it is not in men's nature to follow or support women in pursuit of their dreams. It always comes down to one question - are you taking the plane to another concert or are you staying? I usually say goodbye.
E.C. Who are your heroes?
A.Z. People who surpass themselves. Great athletes, like Roger Federer, who stays at his zenith and is low profile; Maria Callas, who had the temperament to match that amazing voice and who really lived out her passion in her life.
E.C. Anyone else?
A.Z. Yes, Barbra Streisand is a heroine without needing to be tragic, yet she is not boring at all. Her extraordinary discipline has kept her at the top for so long.
E.C. So what is your dream?
A.Z. To sing with her, a song for Greece but in English.
E.C. You care for your country deeply. Do you admire other famous Greeks?
A.Z. Yes, Arianna Huffington. I met her at the launch of her book "Thrive" at a 2-day seminar in New York. She is such a high profile figure, but still she came "home" to Astoria to present her book in Greek. That impressed me. I was reading "Thrive "every morning before going out to face Manhattan. Melina Mercouri was a Greek idol too. Remember the "Never on Sunday" soundtrack, the Oscar, but also her love and her fight for the return of the Elgin Marbles to the Parthenon, a cause supported now by George Clooney.
E.C. So you hope to go far?
A.Z. Yes, I am focusing on where my career will go next but I shall never forget the place I am from and the inspiration it gives me.
E.C. Just to finish with Syros as we started with it - it has a smaller copy of La Scala Opera House, the Apollo theatre. Any plans for either one of these, Syros or Milan?
A.Z. In Milan, La Scala? Amazing - yes arias, but not a full opera. Or maybe a musical if it was permitted. I would be equally proud to sing in either theatre! You know, Eugenia, it's not about being successful. It's our nature that we serve. Our nature is our destiny! This is my motto. It's all about being authentic and honest with yourself, if you achieve that I think you have achieved everything. I have a voice, and my nature is to sing, that's my fulfillment at the end of the day.
And as she shakes her long chestnut hair and smiles a radiant smile you believe that she could be happy in either La Scala.