Monday, October 17, 2011

The whole tenor of Italy?

Just back this evening from a very lovely week in Puglia. Olive groves, wild waves, Greek ruins, red wine, visiting cat, heaps of sleep, absolutely crazy drivers, crooked car hire, last of the October sun and I read Wolf Hall in its entirety. Ended up dreaming nightly about Henry VIII.

Returned to find my interview with a certain rather popular Italian tenor was in today's Independent. And I'm glad to say that it made a mention in the Editor's Letter in the i as well.

The interview took place at David Bailey's studio; watching the photo session was quite an experience. (Left, in the studio with Veronica, Andrea and David... I'm lurking in the background.) The famously gruff photographer remarks that "opera singers are always good fun". And if you want to spend a four-figure sum without decimal points on a massive 'Opus' about Andrea Bocelli, now is your chance.

I put aside my own mixed feelings about Bocelli's recordings to try to meet him on his own terms and discover a little bit about what makes him tick. The article was somewhat truncated in the paper, so here, dear readers, is:


In his airy studio in Clerkenwell, David Bailey is hard at work photographing the most popular tenor on the planet. Andrea Bocelli poses quietly, reflectors and flashes creating a light-filled aura around him. His fiancée, Veronica Berti – 25 years his junior and pregnant with their first child (Bocelli’s third) – hovers with the observing entourage, helping to talk him through the session. Amid the fuss, Bocelli, smiling and soft-spoken, his sightless eyes closed, seems the still point of a hyperactive world.

The aim of all this is to produce a David Bailey portrait of the singer for The Official Andrea Bocelli Opus – a project of huge scope and dizzying cost all about his life and work, running to more than 800 pages. The book is designed as a luxury collector’s item and will retail for a four-figure sum. Other productions in the Opus series have been devoted to Vivienne Westwood, Michael Jackson, Ferrari and the Arsenal football team. Iconic names and brands, then, and Bocelli is one too: with over 70 million records sold to date, he is beyond the cosmos when it comes to popularity. His Sacred Arias entered the Guinness Book of Records as the highest-selling solo classical album of all time. Yet in the classical field, many are still trying to work out the secret of his success.

Bocelli’s fans don’t bother with operatic snobbery: ever since his first album went platinum in 1994, they have bought his discs and flocked to his performances, often in vast venues. Recently he sang in Central Park, New York; a DVD of the occasion will be on international release in November. During his visit to London, when I caught up with him, he also appeared in a special 50th anniversary edition of Songs of Praise on BBC1.

But critics are not kind to him. He gave a recital at the Metropolitan Opera in New York back in February – a programme of songs with piano accompaniment by composers ranging from Handel to Fauré via Beethoven and Strauss, taken from his latest album, Notte Illuminata – but the New York Times slated his “bland homogeneity” and “dogged, unrelenting quality”. His voice offers occasional glimpses of great beauty and deep emotion; at other times its limitations can seem downright clunky. Fans rave over the melting quality of his tone, its gentleness, its directness. Detractors grumble about its lack of expressive range and its pinched, nasal patina.

Bocelli, who is now 53, seems unperturbed by the apparent divide between critical dismissal and popular embrace. “I think in the world of opera that’s the way things are,” he comments, via an interpreter (though his English is not bad). “There’s criticism for absolutely everybody. And in a way this makes it more interesting because, after all, discussion is life.”

Connecting with others through singing, he adds, is “just a question of being oneself. Nature has created us in such a way that it should be very easy to connect and communicate. What’s important is to have no masks, just to be oneself at any time. I think the secret could be that I’ve always taken an interest in other people. I have always felt a need to communicate, ever since I was a child.”

He doesn’t talk about his blindness. Having been partially sighted from the start due to congenital glaucoma, he was rendered completely blind by a football injury when he was 12 years old. His singing, too, goes back to his early years. “When I was a child, everywhere people asked me to sing – in school, in church, in my family, everywhere,” he says. “I understood that it was my destiny.”

Other performers might talk about hard graft, transformation, perseverance, good fortune; Bocelli talks about fate. It is, on the one hand, a very operatic attitude. On the other hand, he adds a pleasantly practical thought: “I am a fatalist, but I also believe very much in the Italian saying that you should help yourself, because God will help you.”

Italy, of course, was the birthplace of opera and traditionally is viewed as the birthplace of great singers to match. Since Pavarotti, though, “real Italian tenors” have been in relatively short supply. For those there are, expectations run high, maybe too high. Italy itself is not what it used to be in terms of opera; the country has been severely affected by the financial crisis and up and down the country theatres have been threatened with closure. Bocelli is from Tuscany – what does he make of the state of his country?

“Crises are complicated,” Bocelli remarks, “and therefore they can only be solved if there’s the good will of everybody. In Italy we’ve never had a government that has tried to decrease the government debt. I think it’s like a river that follows a predetermined path – you can’t really change the direction in which it’s moving. In terms of history I am very close to the thinking of Tolstoy: it is not history that makes men, but men that determine the course of history.” And operatic life? “I think we always see difficulties, but I think the idea behind opera will remain the same. Opera has always touched people’s hearts over the centuries and I think that won’t change.”

One question dogs Bocelli’s steps in the classical world: can he really be called an opera singer? Or should he be taken on board simply as ‘easy listening’? Purists tend to pigeon-hole him together with the likes of Katherine Jenkins and Russell Watson; it’s sad, if true, that he would be left at the starting line if you listened to him alongside today’s younger operatic luminaries such as Rolando Villazón, Jonas Kaufmann or Joseph Calleja.

Unlike certain other ‘crossover’ singers, though, Bocelli has indeed performed and recorded entire operas – he will appear in a production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette in Genoa next February (“I’m studying!” he laughs) and a recording of it will follow. And the more he talks, the clearer it is that his heart really is in opera. His inspirations were the great singers of the past, including his mentor, Franco Corelli, and his one-time champion, Luciano Pavarotti. He knew them both well – “Corelli was a very private, very reserved person; singing was everything to him,” he says. “Pavarotti was a man in love with life. I grew up listening to their records. I listened carefully to all of them because I wanted to capture everything I could possibly capture. They were two very different people, so the result of their singing was very different. Singing is like handwriting – it reflects your personality.”

Bocelli has recorded a great number of slickly produced albums, and sung in countless arenas and stadiums, much amplified – but he has a confession to make. He hates microphones. “Frankly, I’ve always hated them,” he says. “A microphone means I have to sing in a posture that’s not natural to me and it changes the voice, so overall I don’t feel comfortable with that. The best way to sing is the way that nature has provided.”

He admits that he suffers badly from stage-fright: “Always! I am very nervous every time,” he says. “But it’s my job and I deal with it by staying very calm. I don’t have any particular ritual – I just go for it. I am deeply convinced that I can do nothing else, so I have to do this.” 

He is convinced, too, that he is his own harshest critic. “Obviously I’ve grown up following a certain model or several models, and in particular I’ve always loved the recordings of the great singers of the past. So, unconsciously, I want to be like them – but this is not possible because we’re all different, we’re all individuals. Automatically we tend to criticise ourselves because of that. I’ve obviously done the utmost I could do, but when I look back now and listen to what I have done, I would like to change a lot of things, because one is never a hundred per cent happy with what one has achieved.”

As for those other great tenors of today, he’s not interested in competition. “I’ve never actually felt this sense of competing with other singers,” he declares. “My sense of competition is with myself, because I want to do better than what I’ve done in the past. One wants to improve at all times.” But to him, artistic satisfaction is not the be-all and end-all of life: “I’m very happy in general. I’ve always been very happy with my loved ones. It’s the love of those around you that makes you a happy person.”

What, then, is Bocelli’s secret? The appeal of his struggle against adversity? The sweetness and vulnerability of his voice? Clever marketing? All of these probably play a role. But here’s a thought: the quasi-superhuman gifts of a Domingo are glorious, yet it’s hard to identify ourselves with them. Bocelli’s is the voice of the rest of us: we dream, we battle on, we do the best we can with what we’ve got. His voice could have been great. His triumph is that it doesn’t matter that it is not. His success is our absolution.