“Really? I love that guy!” Those were the words of one of the middle-aged Chinese bankers with whom I had been having, up to that point, an extremely uncomfortable business lunch during my internship this summer. The conventional small talk subjects of sports, Shanghai tourist sites and even banking spreadsheets had all failed to bring about even the most minimal interest in me as a human being. However, the moment I told him that Andrea Bocelli, the classical music superstar, had agreed to be interviewed for this paper, he jumped suddenly into life. In fact, the whole table did. Six Chinese businessmen, five of whom spoke little to no English and none of whom knew a word of Italian, took out their iPhones and proudly showed me an array of Bocelli albums which they had purchased, including Incanto, his 2008 offering.
Having sold over 70 million albums worldwide, Bocelli is a global figure whose music transcends nationality, age and gender. Even those of us who think we neither understand anything about classical music nor care much for it have been moved by Bocelli’s voice. Even if we think we haven’t. Manchester United fans around the world could not have helped but feel a lump in their pint-filled throats as the tenor sang the emotionally-chilling Champions’ League theme song to a packed stadium, just before Barcelona thoroughly outplayed their team. For teenagers, his music has appeared in cult TV shows such as South Park and The Simpsons (the latter in a surprisingly passionate scene where mafia boss Fat Tony serenades Marge’s sister Selma). Even fans of terrible television have Andrea to thank for adding a touch of culture and respect to abominations such as Coach Trip and Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. Bocelli has beautifully sung Elmo to sleep on Sesame Street which is, more than anything else, the indication that he’s made it in the music industry.
However, the man whom Celine Dion famously once described with the words “if God would have a singing voice, he would sound a lot like Andrea Bocelli”, is not one to talk up his own career achievements. While admitting that “reality has exceeded all my dreams”, he is honest in confessing that the specific reasons for his worldwide appeal are not something which he can personally pin down: “The reasons for my success, for each and every one of my successes, are and will remain a mystery to us all.” Instead, he can only give credit to his passionate and rigorous study, and of making the most of the experiences that came with making his first steps into the arena of popular music.
Classical music critics have sometimes looked apprehensively at Bocelli’s extraordinary album sales, duets with world famous pop stars (Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera and Mary J. Blige to name just a few), appearances at world showcase events such as the World Cup “Grande Finale Concert”and the Shanghai Word Expo and even his arena filling performances around the globe, from Brazil to Indonesia to the UK (his sold-out concert at the O2 in London was the most attended show in the venue’s history). Much like his mentor Luciano Pavarotti, they say that Andrea Bocelli is not a true classical musician but a pop star. Elements of his life story such as his total blindness since the age of 12 and his previous career as a lawyer (and hence late, unexpected arrival on the music scene) are seen as supplementary reasons for his success. However, Bocelli does not think that his mass popularity should be seen as a black mark, nor does he want to be judged on anything other than his music:
“I think that we have to wait for time and space to determine the extent of a talent, rather than dwelling on the origins or the way in which that talent comes to light… The public, and particularly the wider public, is without a doubt the most impartial and yet most implacable of judges. The public do not follow a guide in order to judge [what is good], it just knows. It is the public that determines musical tastes, that forms schools of thought, whose concepts will one day become the foundation that critics base their opinions on.”
In my written interview with the tenor he came across as a very measured person who looks at life with a certain calmness and positivity that is quite infectious. He quoted a famous Italian director saying that “people always have their own projects for the future, it is just a pity that the future sometimes has other plans for us”. He says that he manages to keep balance in his sometimes hectic and stressful life ,which sees him traveling around the world and kept away from his beloved Tuscany and family, by accepting everything with a smile and keeping an open mind to everything that life throws at him: “I strive to always see the the glass as being half full, even during the most difficult times, and remind myself that, as the Greeks well knew, after the rain comes the sun.” The source of Bocelli’s wonderful openness to life is unclear until you learn one thing: he is an Inter Milan fan. Following a team that can win the treble one year and then go through four mangers in sixteen months can do that to anybody. As he puts it, “my team is a bit crazy: it can win or lose against absolutely any team. Inter fans know this and accept it. This is the way love is. This is the way sporting loyalty is. This is the correct way for things like this to be, allowing adults to take pleasure in being like children.”
Bocelli is not one to correct others or tell them how to think but there was one issue that he wanted clarified during the course of our interview. Misinformed by Italian news reports from over ten years ago, I was under the impression that he had once made the audacious and unexpected move of completely shaving his head in honour of now-retired Brazilian legend Ronaldo (then an Inter player). “I must first clarify that I have never shaved my head in honour of anybody…I had once done something similar, but only to cope with an unbearable heat and in the process received vehement disapproval from my family and ridicule from my friends.”
Alistair Renton (with translation by Amedea Kelly-Taglianini)