At the tender age of fifty, Andrea Bocelli finds himself the biggest-selling classical soloist of all time. His album sales exceed 65 million copies, and he is a guaranteed sellout at concert halls the world over. Only the late, great Pavarotti came close to equaling these astounding figures. Yet, despite all the razzmatazz, the man I chat to ahead of his March 27 performance at Emirates Palace is a modest soul, devout in his love for the classics, humbled to spend his life in service to ‘the eternally beautiful repertoire that is traditional to the Italian tenor.’
‘I loved music and singing ever since I was a baby in the cradle,’ he begins, recalling his introduction to music with glee. ‘I loved the great voices, which I learned to recognize and distinguish very early on.’ Did anyone in particular leave a distinct impression on the young Andrea? ‘Undoubtedly, the voice of Franco Corelli was the one which struck and influenced me more than any other.’ With a fond smile, he adds, ‘I am almost certain that without Corelli there would never have been Bocelli.’
Born to farming parents in Tuscany, Andrea showed an early aptitude for music. He began piano lessons at the age of six and soon excelled on any number of instruments, from flute to drums. He has said in other interviews that he never chose to be a singer – ‘other people decide it for you in their reactions’ – but by secondary school, he was winning local competitions as a soloist.
He played piano in bars to put himself through law school, before his calling became clear under the tutelage of his hero, Corelli. His big break came in 1992, not in classical performance, but – in a sign of things to come – through a collaboration with Italian rock ambassador, Zucchero. Indeed, it was at Zucchero’s birthday party that Bocelli was scouted, and he signed his first recording contract shortly after.
Bocelli has remained a keen collaborator throughout his career, and his willingness to cross genres has undoubtedly led to his colossal success. Like Pavarotti before him, Bocelli is known as much for his spine tingling rendition of ‘Nessum Dorma’ as he is for his duets with Bono or Sarah Brightman, not to mention a certain furry character popular on kids’ TV. ‘I love to sing with other singers, to share the pleasure and the responsibility of a performance,’ he enthuses. ‘I’ve had the good fortune to sing with some of the finest voices in the world. One’s love for singing and fascination with the voice is never exhausted.
The world is full of artists with wonderful voices.’ Does that include Elmo from Sesame Street, I wonder? ‘The criteria used to select collaborators are essentially two: heart and instinct.’ Obviously, Elmo’s all heart.
Ultimately, however, Bocelli sees himself as part of the classical tradition. Given his age, I wonder if he was ever affected by the great rock singers of his youth. Did David Bowie, for example, make it very far in the Bocelli farmhouse? ‘I am open to listening to any type of music, but my heart is set racing when I listen to opera.
When I decide which music I want to hear, my choice is almost always an opera recording.’ Are there any operatic roles that he sees as the ultimate goal? ‘This is a difficult question to answer,’ he replies thoughtfully, ‘because there are so many important roles, and they are very different from one another. A tenor who excels in the role of Nemorino would have a hard time achieving the same success in the role of Othello, and vice versa.’
‘In my view,’ he continues, warming to his subject, ‘each of us should do what we can, or at least what we do best. Those who, like me, have the good fortune to be doing what they love best, must surely feel happy and fulfilled. Nevertheless, there are interesting and stimulating experiences in life which it would be foolish to hold back from. Every experience that helps us to grow and broaden the horizons of our understanding of life and the world is positive, and should be tried.’
Much of what Andrea says is peppered with a wisdom beyond his years. Does he find that the ageing process works to an opera singer’s favour? ‘A beautiful voice is in some ways rather like a beautiful woman, who changes her appeal over time,’ he replies, choosing to answer from a physical perspective. ‘Every age, as we know, holds its own fascination and its rewards.
It is also true that singing has its own rules, which are very strict, at least for those who take it seriously. Therefore, there comes a time when one has to take stock of the fact that everything our vocal chords had to give has been given, and the time has come to take a well earned rest.’
Before he gets the chance to focus on ‘resting’ any further, we turn our attentions to his forthcoming appearance in Abu Dhabi. He briefly explains what the audience can expect. ‘My repertoire spans from operatic arias to great ballads and Neapolitan melodies, as well as a few other selected pieces which people associate with my voice.’ In a career spanning nearly two decades, he has plenty of hits to choose from.
Lest we forget, these include, ‘Time to Say Goodbye’, ‘The Prayer’, ‘Besame Mucho’ and ‘Dare to Live’. It promises to be a spectacular evening that the capital will remember for some time.
Before we say goodbye, I try to get a feel for what it is that Andrea goes through before these huge recitals. As the lights dim over the opulent lawns of Emirates Palace, will he be relaxing in style in one of the world’s most palatial hotels, or will he be going through gymnastic vocal warm-ups as he climbs the steps to the stage? ‘I don’t have any special rituals,’ says the singer. ‘I only need very few things: water, tea, coffee, and that’s about it.’
He may be one of the world’s biggest musical stars, but you wouldn’t know it to chat with him.