He’s the biggest-selling classical artist in recording history, a megastar of popular song and one of those all-too-rare performers divinely blessed with the power to move and uplift the masses with true emotions. Andrea Bocelli, quite simply, is a phenomenon. Il Voce di Napoli reviews the life and times of our century’s greatest communicator.
Even the most romantic of poets would struggle to express the breadth of feeling and emotional involvement etched on the faces of Andrea Bocelli’s audiences, where forces ineffable, mystical and transcendent appear to be at work. Chances are that the special communion between singer and audience has existed since infant days, when he would entertain family and friends with a rendition of ‘Come un bel dí di Maggio’, the beguiling tenor aria from Umberto Giordano’s opera Andrea Chenier. Young Andrea instinctively knew how to amplify his natural treble voice to generate the sound of such childhood heroes as Franco Corelli and Mario Lanza. Those early audiences instantly fell in love with what they heard. “I don't think one really decides to be a singer – other people decide it for you by their reactions,” Andrea observes.
His mother recalls how, as a tiny tot, Andrea was transfixed by Corelli’s voice emanating from the radio. The Bocellis bought a substantial gramophone and a pile of records, which occupied a corner of their farmhouse in the beautiful Tuscan town of Lujatico and helped sustain Andrea’s enormous hunger for music. The lad memorised a hundred and more opera arias and songs, Neapolitan favourites among them, all too often preferring the pleasures of singing to those of eating. Music also provided a refuge from the painful realities of life which, for Andrea, included the progressive loss of sight until he became totally blind after an accident at the age of twelve. “Life has not spared my son,” recalls Edi Bocelli, “not from joy or from pain!”
Joy was certainly unconfined when Andrea’s voice changed from that of a boy to that of a man. He could now deliver his repertoire as a true tenor, one blessed with natural facility and effortless fluidity in the upper reaches of his voice. Local fame attended the singer’s competition and concert successes. But he eventually accepted his father’s sage career advice and enrolled at the University of Pisa to study law. Andrea, already an accomplished keyboard player, found time to break away from exploring jurisprudence and case law in favour of evenings at work as a performer in piano bars and cafes. The income generated helped support voice lessons with Maestro Betterini, who recognised and refined his pupil’s outstanding talents.
Soon after graduating as a Doctor of Law in 1985, Andrea became a state appointed defence lawyer. He also enrolled in Franco Corelli’s summer masterclass series in Turin. “You have a beautiful voice,” the veteran tenor announced. Corelli, interviewed at the time by La Stampa, wholeheartedly underlined his enthusiasm for what he had heard of Bocelli’s essential artistic spirit: “This boy has tears in his voice and this is what people expect to hear”. Corelli’s verdict offered Andrea a talisman that provided good luck and fortitude as he worked to develop his voice. “From that moment,” he recalls, “I understood that I had a role in life and my role was to bring joy and positive emotions to people.”
Another Italian singer, the rock legend Zucchero, paved the way for Andrea to perform his life’s role far beyond the Tuscan hills. In 1992, news of Andrea’s phenomenal voice reached Zucchero as he was preparing to make a ‘demo’ disc of the song, Miserere, which he’d recently co-written with U2’s Bono. The plan was to use it to persuade Luciano Pavarotti to record the song. Bocelli took his turn to audition for the job and held Zucchero spellbound in the process. “Andrea was just unbelievable,” he recalls. “He had something not one of the other tenors possessed. He had soul.” Pavarotti agreed. The world’s top tenor listened to the recording, paused for effect and asked Zucchero, “Why do you want me to record this song? This tenor is better than me!”
Miserere proved to be the skyrocket that launched Andrea’s career. His live performances of Zucchero attracted the ears of influential listeners, Caterina Caselli Sugar of Zucchero’s management Sugar Music among them. She instantly recognised Bocelli’s star potential, as did millions of television viewers throughout Europe in 1994 when Andrea won the newcomers section in the prestigious San Remo Music Festival. His delivery of Gianpietro Felisatti’s Il mare calmo della sera secured household status for Andrea Bocelli’s name throughout Italy, a position confirmed when he appeared alongside Pavarotti and sang for Pope John Paul II. International fame arrived soon after, thanks to his duet with Sarah Brightman. Their performance of Con te partirò (Time to say goodbye) prefaced German light-heavyweight Henry Maske’s farewell fight in 1996. Although Maske lost his world title crown on points, Time to say goodbye stormed Germany’s pop singles chart and became the fastest-selling release in the nation’s history.
The rest of the planet got to hear Bocelli’s artistry the following year, with the release of his international debut album. Romanza sold by the truckload, topping the pop chart in the Netherlands, placing in the UK Top 10 and reaching No.35 in the United States, an extraordinary result for a newcomer to the North American album market. It went on to become one of the best-selling albums ever, achieving quadruple platinum status in the US and around eight million sales in Europe. Love, romance and the sorrow of sweet parting were among the themes explored in Romanza. The album’s repertoire also included a rousing live performance of Funiculì, Funiculà and Lucio Dalla’s Caruso, a modern classic of Italian popular song.
An acclaimed appearance at the Puccini Festival in 1997 led to another gilt-engraved milestone in Bocelli’s operatic career. The tenor followed in the footsteps of his boyhood heroes in 1998 when he sang Rodolfo in a production of La bohème at the Teatro Communale in Caligari. His stage debut proved a hit with Italy’s famously critical opera-loving public, both in the opera house and following the production’s televised broadcast. Bocelli has since recorded the role, together with the tenor leads in complete recordings of Puccini’s Tosca, Massenet’s Werther, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Verdi’s Il trovatore. This summer, he starred as Don José in Bizet’s Carmen at Rome’s prestigious Teatro dell’Opera.
Thanks to his work in opera, Bocelli has attracted an army of newcomers to a musical genre often considered exclusive or ‘difficult’. His clear passion for expressive singing and ability to communicate strong emotions from the heart to the heart help explain why the singer has dominated the US classical chart for much of the past decade and has been the world's biggest selling classical recording artist every year since 1997. In short, he is a musical phenomenon.
American audiences, initially drawn to Bocelli by the strength of Romanza, have certainly taken the tenor to their hearts. He performed at the White House for President Clinton in 1998 before captivating Thanksgiving Eve television viewers in duet with Céline Dion. She introduced their performance with an encomium that deserves repetition: “I heard someone say, If God had a singing voice, he would sound a lot like Andrea Bocelli.”
Their partnership reformed in 1999 to perform The Prayer at the Grammy and Academy Award shows. It is one of several high-profile artistic collaborations, notably free of musical barriers and labels, with which Bocelli has carried the tenor voice to an audience of many millions. At this year’s Grammy Awards, for example, he sang The Prayer with American chart sensation Josh Groban in tribute to the late Luciano Pavarotti. His work with classical conductor Lorin Maazel, in concert and for their album Sentimento, underlines the versatility and variety of an artist who refuses to limit his musical horizons. “While the good Lord gives me health and energy I will sing everything I feel able to sing,” he explains, “and which will at the same time makes me feel a small part of an enormous world without limits, which is the world of music.”
Bocelli has performed for two popes, two US presidents, HM Queen Elizabeth II, President Putin and a veritable Who’s Who of heads of state and members of royalty. In concert or on the opera stage, he has worked with everyone from Christina Aguilera and Bono to Bryn Terfel, Renée Fleming and Valery Gergiev. Performances at major concert venues, New York’s Avery Fisher Hall and the Hollywood Bowl among them, have further propelled Bocelli to become a global superstar, household name among today’s singers and one of the best-known tenors of all time. Meanwhile, he has touched vast open-air crowds everywhere from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the Statue of Liberty with his inimitable artistry and stage presence.
Today, with over 65 million album sales and an illustrious list of career achievements to his eternal credit, Andrea Bocelli can reflect on a life devoted to the dissemination of joy and the communication of powerful emotions. He would be remembered alone for his memorial concert performance of Schubert’s Ave Maria at Ground Zero within weeks of the terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre. The solace he brought to millions then was of the same order of magnitude that connects Bocelli with audiences of all origins, classes and creeds across the planet. “Through my singing,” notes Andrea, “my goal is to make people understand that whatever happens in life, however sad or terrible, there are still so many reasons to go on living that life fully.” As Andrea Bocelli celebrates half a century of life, his army of fans and all those touched by his work will agree that the singer has achieved his goal.
Source: Sugar (Dt. Grammophon)