Andrea Bocelli: The Maestro of Opera
Blind by the age of 12, Andrea Bocelli refused to let this condition define him. A lawyer first, Bocelli went on to take complete command of his musical career, a journey that over the past 25 years has seen him performing with musical greats, both young and old.
By definition, a maestro is an eminent distinguished musician, a master of his or her craft. The honorific title is bestowed, always, with great respect on the person worthy of such a moniker. Andrea Bocelli, Italian singer, songwriter and producer, is indeed such a person, a musician who has bridged the genres of classical and pop music with great passion, skill and talent. Becoming blind at the age of 12 neither deterred nor debilitated Bocelli, who studied law at the University of Pisa and went on to practise as a state-appointed lawyer for a year before concentrating on performing. As a young singer in the mid-1990s, Bocelli, on two occasions, won the new composer title at the Sanremo Festival, posting the highest marks ever recorded. He has performed with the operatic greats, including the world-renowned Pavarotti. Selling over 90 million records worldwide, some of Bocelli’s most widely known songs include: “Time to Say Goodbye,” “The Prayer” and “Perfect Symphony” with Ed Sheeran.
In early April, a team from Dolce Media flew from Toronto to Bocelli’s home in Tuscany, Italy, to be with the maestro as he reflected on some of his favourite childhood memories, his pre-singing career as a lawyer and his musical influences, which range from operatic greats such as Puccini and Verdi, to international pop icons such as Frank Sinatra, Paul Anka, Tony Bennett and Céline Dion. As our team prepared for the photo shoot and interview, Bocelli’s voice, accompanied by his piano, flowed through the room, a celestial aura, light-filled and energy-fuelled. The sensation, smoother than molten chocolate under-lit by a sparkler flame, was both sensual and spiritual. It was a summer breeze aria, full of bright red poppies dusted with the soft fragrance of pale pink roses.
When not touring, Bocelli’s main residence is the exquisite 8,000 square foot, pale pink mansion, known as the Villa Alpemare, located in Versilia on the Tuscan Coast. Bocelli’s brother, architect Alberto Bocelli, was a key influencer and adviser in the yearlong renovation of the villa. The mansion’s flow is broken down into three separate compartments, with stunning views of the Apuan Alps, a constant for Bocelli, his family, and honoured guests. Bocelli, serene and calm, shared with us that his strong faith is what lifts him up and inspires him to perform at difficult but poignant events, such as a Ground Zero memorial concert. Feeling the pain of millions of people, Bocelli stated that he is driven by his affinity for goodness over evil, which allows him to sing with passionate and spiritual perfection. Of course, he said with a gentle smile, he has also given joyfully profound performances for the elite of the elite, including Queen Elizabeth II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II. As he answered our questions in his living room, we all wished we could bottle this once-in-a-lifetime-moment − cherish it forever. But then, of course, this is all possible with Dolce’s feature profile on Bocelli in the current issue of our magazine.
Awards abound for the maestro. In 1998, People magazine named Bocelli one of the 50 Most Beautiful People. He was awarded Grand Officer of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 2006; in 2010, he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; he is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for simultaneously holding the No. 1, 2, and 3 positions on the US classical album chart. His duet on The Prayer, with Céline Dion for the animated film Quest for Camelot, won a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song.
A fan of football and boxing, Bocelli also has a passion for poetry, which, for him acts as a restorative prescription for making the world a better place.
At the forefront, always, is Bocelli’s deep love for his family: wife Veronica Berti, sons Amos and Matteo, and daughter Virginia.
Q. What are some of your most poignant childhood challenges, the ones that resonate with you and to which you attribute your sense of dedication, passion and outsized success?
A. Success follows variables that are often incomprehensible. However, certain character features, such as dedication and the determination to work toward a goal, may have developed in my childhood, after my parents made the difficult decision to send me to a boarding school, which was far from home, so I could learn to read, write and do arithmetic, and thus have the best start in life. At the time, I suffered considerably, but it helped me a lot. And when I myself became a father, I understood how much more my mother and father suffered due to our forced separation. Yet, in retrospect, it was healthy.
Q. You were inquisitive, energetic and talented as a child, knowing how to play the flute, piano and saxophone when you were six years old. Opera filled your house, and it helped to calm you down. Describe what you were like as a child and what child-like attributes you carried into adulthood.
A. I was a hyperactive child. Everything was one big game and exploration. Boisterous and curious, I was particularly fond of challenges, even then. When I was advised against something or even prevented from doing it, well, it became my new goal, and I had to do it, better than the others, if possible, even at the cost of much sacrifice.
Q. Singing was not your first career choice. In fact, you completed law school at the University of Pisa, performing in piano bars to pay your way. Please share your experience around being (for one year) a court-appointed lawyer and how, in your heart, you knew it was a musical career you wanted to pursue.
A. Music has always been my main passion. I started my university course because I was interested in the subject. I mean, I was interested in deepening my understanding of the rules that govern civil coexistence; however, I do not deny it was also a choice linked to the justified concerns of my parents about my future profession. I was a dedicated student, and I entered the profession loving what I was doing, precisely because law can also be an exciting subject, if interpreted as the driving force of a civilization. In terms of music, success smiled on me when I was already over 35 years old, an age when my hopes of making singing my profession had abated, as I had had many doors closed in my face and heavily paid my dues with many setbacks and things going wrong, which pushed back the beginning of my career many times.
Q. Who were your musical influences when you first started out and who are they today?
A. I grew up studying and listening to opera only: Puccini, Verdi, Mascagni, as well as the great French 19th-century repertoire. When I was about 18 years old and starting to work in piano bars, I got to know the international pop repertoire, discovering a completely new world for me. I found there were many gems in this genre, too. The range of songs encompassed those made successful by Frank Sinatra, Paul Anka and Tony Bennett and included the great repertoire of Broadway songs and also those of Brazilian artists. This is the same repertoire that continues to inspire me, more or less. I am, though, always curious and open to new music and new means of expression.
Q. You are a highly accomplished linguist, singing in five languages: Italian, English, Spanish, Latin and Portuguese. How did you become so proficient, and what do you find the joys are in being so multilingual? Are there other languages you would like to study/speak?
A. Unfortunately, I have to disagree, to my detriment: languages are not my strong point. I speak good French, but I’m unable to reach a dignified level with my English, not least because I learned it when I was already an adult. Of course, as a performer, I sing in many languages (of which I know a little), as it’s exciting for me to be able to explore new forms of expressive communication through the different types of musicality that are inherent to the languages in question. I have always been interested in researching and studying every nuance, every undertone, every rhythmic and linguistic variable, in order to speak to the audience through song in the most direct and intense way possible. I don’t hide my preference for Italian, because it is what I was raised with, and I know its most obscure nuances. It is also the language around which melodrama was created, almost 400 years ago.
Q. What do you consider the top highlights of your career, the ones that resonate with you on both a professional and personal basis?
A. It’s not easy for me to answer, not least because I consider a career − which, in my case, has spanned over a quarter of a century − to be like a house, made up of many bricks. And each brick has its own function, to the extent that if you take one away, the house is at risk of collapsing. Having said that, without a doubt, there have been moments that have left more of a mark, including the concert in Central Park, the recitals I gave at the Metropolitan in New York, the operas I have performed in and the privilege I have had of singing in front of Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, on several occasions.
Q. You have said that while you do not particularly like singing pop music, it has been a way to introduce fans to opera. (You are especially enthusiastic about young people embracing opera.) Please share some details of your high-profile collaborations with pop stars such as Céline Dion, Nelly Furtado and Ed Sheeran. What do these kinds of collaboration bring to your own art?
A. You are right. I prefer opera music and, at the same time, I admire the artists you mentioned (and many others, alongside them). Collaborating with these artists was personally a time of all-round growth for me. There is always something to be learned, when you get the chance to interact with men and women with lots of talent, with experienced, creative and ethically positive professionals. Because, as I love to say, we always sing and celebrate the beauty we are able to cultivate inside ourselves every day.
Q. Céline Dion, a highly accomplished talent in her own right, says of your musical gifts: “If God had a singing voice, He would sound like you.” What emotions do you awaken in people that inspire such fervour and excitement?
A. Céline Dion is an exceptional artist, as well as a dear friend. I think she was expressing her affection for me with this larger-than-life statement. It is a poetic image that flatters me and which left an indelible mark on the collective consciousness, even though it is deliberately over the top. My distinctive voice is a God-given gift that is probably able to communicate positive emotions and touch people’s hearts. It is a gift for which I can take no special credit. I am honoured and proud that I am able to offer my voice to anyone who seeks the joy of a moment of relief, in music.
Q. Your deep spiritual connection is evident in several of your albums, including Sacred Arias (your sixth album) and your duet with Céline Dion on her television special, These Are Special Times, on which you sang “The Prayer” and your “Ave Maria” solo. How has your spirituality sustained you in both your personal and your professional life?
A. I am a person who has decided, for many years now, to stand on the side of good. As a Christian, as a practising Catholic, I believe that the key element in my life is faith. This is a gift I try to protect and enrich, and which drives me to apply the great lesson that I find in the words of the gospel every day with others. There is a wonderful quote by St. Augustine: “He who sings, prays twice.” Well, keeping this in mind reassures my conscience in a certain way because, as I have sung a lot throughout my life, I have also prayed a lot. Music elevates the spirit, and when the spirit is elevated, it helps us to descend into a deeper and − if you so wish − more religious dimension.
Q. You sang “Ave Maria” during a memorial concert at Ground Zero for the victims of 9/11. Please describe that experience: What did you intuit in that hallowed space? How did you feel?
A. Good is to evil what creation is to destruction: one is much harder than the other. And that is the hard truth. For all people with goodwill, it torments the soul to see how dramatically easier it is to sow evil. The goodness of millions of people does not make the news. The evil of a few, on the other hand, spreads inevitably, dividing and generating suffering and fear. That day at Ground Zero, I was deeply shaken. I could feel the pain of millions of people. I had lost my father just a few months before, and I was thinking about him a lot on that day in 2011, beneath what remained of the Twin Towers. In his memory, at a difficult time for the entire world, I found the strength to sing.
Q. You have performed for queens (Queen Elizabeth II), princesses (Princess Eugenie), popes (Pope Benedict XVI, Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis). As a small boy, who at 12 lost his eyesight, could you have ever begun to imagine this incredible journey? Would you please be so kind as to share for Dolce readers three or four of your most favourite and touching experiences on your journey — ones that have changed, enhanced or altered your life in poignant ways?
A. I remember at the end of a concert a man said to me: “I listened to you, and I rediscovered my faith.” Another time, a woman wrote to me, saying: “Thanks to your music, I have renewed faith in life.” This is feedback that gives meaning to a career and to an existence. They are touching experiences. Life has been extraordinarily generous with me. When I think about pivotal moments, the ones that come to mind include the day I became a father, the first time I met Veronica, my wife, which was 18 years ago now. Yet, I believe not a day goes by that our life does not give us experiences and encounters that can contribute, inevitably, to changing us.
Q. You have been a part of many benefit concerts, including Live 8. What are the types of benefits/ causes that speak to you on a personal level and that you like to support?
A. Attempting to do good is an act of intelligence before it is a moral duty. We take our seat at the table of life just like at a great feast, and in life, as with feasts, we do well if there is the bare minimum for everyone. And we can all do something, each in relation to our own means. For example, by donating something that is even more precious because you cannot buy it, in other words, donating part of your time. The foundation that bears my name conducts projects for the most vulnerable classes of the population, in Italy and in developing countries. These include education, health and social integration projects. The mission we have chosen is “Empowering people and communities,” and it describes our desire to strive to create occasions for growth and talent enhancement, so that everyone has the opportunity to fully express their abilities.
Q. You were an integral part of getting an outdoor theatre built in your hometown of Lajatico, Italy. What is it like going back to perform there every July? Please describe your connection with the people in your hometown.
A. I am the child of that part of Tuscany. I am myself the result of that rural culture and the values that have pervaded it over the centuries. My homeland boasts incomparable beauty and is a hospitable place, far from the hustle and bustle. To have big, strong wings, one must be able to count on deep roots, and Lajatico — the place that my ancestors chose to live, work and raise their children − is still my retreat today. Furthermore, the annual Teatro del Silenzio event allows me to welcome many artist friends, practically “at home,” and share so much beauty.
Q. Your son, Matteo, sings with you on occasion. Please share some details around this father and son collaboration. And please share some information around your family and your children.
A. My first-born, Amos, graduated in piano from the conservatory, yet was also studying aerospace engineering at the same time; he is now building his career in the latter. Studying music (just as our little Virginia − our princess, the littlest one in the Bocelli household, who has just turned seven — has started to do) is an extraordinary opportunity for inner growth. It is an experience that enriches the soul. It is lifelong friendship, regardless of whether or not you make music your profession. Matteo, who is 21 years old, was also raised on “bread and music.” He is studying piano, and he is deepening his study of singing, as he is determined to follow in his father’s footsteps. Honestly, I think he’s gifted, that he has what cannot be taught − talent. However, the determination and sense of sacrifice he implements will be just as important. At the moment, he is a student at the conservatory. He will develop his talents and attitudes in his own time.
Q. The Bocelli Family Wines label (an endeavour you share with your brother) has earned the respect of global wine connoisseurs. Describe your love of wine. Also, please describe the particular properties of your family’s labels: aroma, bouquet, body, intensity.
A. Wine, like good music, is one of life’s great pleasures. Provided, of course, it is not abused, and it is healthy wine that has been made with passion, from the vine to the table. I come from a family with a farming background, and my father also had a vineyard and made wine, which was the pride and joy of his farm. This is a tradition that my brother and I carry on today. When it comes to Vino Bocelli, I am a passionate connoisseur and supporter, even though I do not actively take part in the company. I insist that my family wines are genuine, that they are ambassadors of the beauty of the Tuscan region and the deliciousness of its fruit. I like the idea that the Bocelli wine expresses a positive and real story in its own way, made up of generations of love for the vineyard, of a mutually generous and respectful relationship, between man and the land where he lives and works. I insist it is a wine that is able to clearly communicate sincere emotions, both in its aromas and flavours.
Q. You are described as having an aura of light around you. Please describe that light and what inspires it. How do you sustain it?
A. Probably, rather than being inside of me, the light resides in the hearts of those who see it. On my part, I think I can call myself a calm person, and what I want to do through song is bestow a touch of serenity and optimism to those who want to listen to me. I have to stress it is my faith that sustains me: it is such a fundamental element in my life, and I believe it is always crucial for all people. Personally speaking, I am happy to talk about it anytime the opportunity arises, even in my artistic choices.
Q. We understand you have a love for football, in particular, for the Inter Milan team. Please share your excitement around both the sport and your team. What are some other passions that relax you and provide you with much-needed rest and serenity after your extensive multi-country and multi-city tours?
A. I am a fan of football, as well as boxing. I am a decent chess player, and I also cultivate a passion for poetry, one that runs parallel to music. I strongly believe in poetry. I think it is medicine for all of us and it makes the world a more beautiful place. I could call my verses “old fashioned” in the sense that I like to write poetry by following the rules of rhyme and rhythm metrics, which I think still hold true today and are useful. Often — also to keep my brain in shape — I write when I’m in the dressing room, waiting to go on stage.
Q. You have been quoted as saying, “Destiny has a lot to do with it, but so do you. You have to persevere, you have to insist.” What are some of the ways destiny has been kind to you? And what role has your own perseverance played in your success and your life journey?
A. I do not believe in chance: it is an illusion. I have always trusted in the will of God and His designs, to which I faithfully entrust myself. All the talents of man are undoubtedly gifts from God. God-given gifts can only bring beauty and good to the world, unless man decides of his own free will to make improper use of what he has been given, precisely because he received freedom as the first and most precious of all gifts. Personally, I am in debt with life, not in credit. I have received so much, more than what I have been able to give back so far. And not a day goes by that I do not feel a deep gratitude toward life here on Earth (and thus, toward He who created it) and toward my fellow man. What I can do on a daily basis is raise my eyes to the heavens and give thanks. And ask for help. And, with reverence, whisper, “Thy will be done.”
Q. What do you hope destiny has in store for you and your future?
A. I hope to be able to see my children’s children be born and grow up, and I hope to be able to still sing, as long as the good Lord wills it. But I don’t make plans for the future. I concentrate on the present, on the privilege of living every new day.
Q. What are one or two things that fans don’t know about you: a young boy raised on a small farm in Italy, who went on to become a Grand Officer of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic; a Guinness World Record holder for simultaneously attaining the No. 1, 2 and 3 positions on the U.S. classical album chart; the recipient of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; and a highly respected singer to queens, popes and celebrities?
A. What you have just reeled off seems almost like a fairy tale. Yet, you list things that have actually happened. However, it coexists with what I bear in mind, and these are my little vices, my defects, my fragilities, my fears, all things that make me a completely normal person without any special merits. That is something perhaps a fan would not see: the fact that, although I have an unusual profession, I am a completely normal person, in my habits and in my relationships. And woe betide me if I forget all that. Probably, I would get a big head and start to see the world through different eyes. The dramatic consequence of such an intellectual misfortune would be that this entire fantastic story would fall apart instantly, like a castle made of sand, like badly whipped foam.
Q. What is next for you, Andrea? Do you envision writing a follow-up to your 2002 memoir, La musica del silenzio (The Music of Silence)?
A. I have nothing planned at the moment; however, never say never. I wrote that book when I was 40, when I felt the need to go back through my life, to better understand the meaning of what had happened to me and perhaps to also draw a lesson from it. I take your question to be a good omen: if the good Lord gives me the chance to double my years, into my 80s, it might be a good idea to recount my second 40 years of life, if my health supports me.
WRITTEN BY CECE M. SCOTT
INTERVIEW BY MICHELLE ZERILLO-SOSA
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JESSE MILNS