The first time I heard Andrea Bocelli’s voice was in the Summer of my thirteenth birthday.
I used to spend the holidays somewhere in Southern Italy at my cousin’s place. We are 16 years apart, which doesn’t feel like a big deal today, but at 13, I felt a lot smaller even if I was already 0.6 ft taller than her.
To her advantage, she had something all the people my age were longing for.
She had a mobile. A silver Motorola StarTAC, to be precise. And she was using it all the time. She was constantly conspiring at the phone. Sometimes it didn’t even look like she was actually talking, but she just wanted to be seen using it as much as possible.
Until then, you only had a cell phone if you were a salesman messing around suspiciously in the middle of nowhere for weeks and you needed to carry one of those enormous black devices that weighed half a kilo and had worryingly long antennas to call your wife and say that you were still alive.
No one in Italy had a mobile back in 1997, but suddenly everybody wanted one.
All at once, these uninteresting devices had become glamorous and sought-after gadgets.
The reason was Andrea Bocelli.
The reason was the beautiful Con te partirò, being aired every ten minutes on the telly.
Andrea Bocelli’s fascinating signature song had just been chosen for an unforgettable tv commercial commissioned by Italian company TIM, which held the State monopoly of telecommunication services until 1998.
The spot announcement itself was very basic – it simply featured a well-known blonde TV presenter strolling around with her brand new mobile.
But the music.
Oh, the music.
And the song.
Oh, that song.
But we were already late.
Con Te Partirò had reached only number 4 at the Sanremo Music Festival two years earlier, in 1995, and had sold only 25,000 copies in Italy as opposed to 200,000 copies in the UK and as many as 900,000 copies in France.
I guess it would be very typical of somebody being in control somewhere in Rome or Milan to have grasped the song’s potential only after the Germans had made a fortune out of it.
In fact, Germany got Andrea Bocelli to duet with British Soprano Sarah Brightman in 1996 and marketed a new version of Con Te Partirò titled Time To Say Goodbye, with lyrics altered and partially chanted in English, released for the final match closing ceremony of German light-heavyweight boxing champion Henry Maske.
Time To Say Goodbye broke the all-time sales record in Germany selling over 2,750,000 copies and getting certified 11x Gold. In addition to that, it sold further 750,000 copies between Austria, Switzerland and the UK and reached number one in single charts all across Europe.
The single never arrived in Italy.
Con Te Partirò literally means “I’ll leave with you/I’ll go away with you”, so the tv advert implied that “you” in this case was your mobile, and that you ought to carry it in your bag whenever you were going.
The smashing success of that first commercial led to an endless flow of similar spot announcements that went on for years, telling all sort of stories of people travelling on very problematic trains.
My favourite is the train that gets stuck in front of a cow nonchalantly standing on railway tracks, and passenger Andrea Bocelli is asked to perform his beautiful encore Sogno (Dream) to entertain someone’s girlfriend at the phone; all of a sudden, a full-size symphonic orchestra magically appears behind him.
TV audiences aren’t notoriously too crazy for classical music, but Andrea Bocelli and his mind-blowing art managed to elevate the way people – including my cousin – looked at telecommunications, train delays, cows and classical music itself: Andrea Bocelli’s voice will still and will always mean home for anyone old enough to remember.
Bocelli is often referred to as the most world-famous Italian national alive, which is not surprising if you think that he managed to sell more than 90 million albums worldwide in a career that spans over 25 years.
His 1999 record Sacred Arias has been the biggest selling classical album ever sold by any solo artist in history with 5 million copies gone, earning him a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records as he simultaneously held all the three top positions on the US Classical Albums charts at the time.
His acclaimed duet The Prayer with Céline Dion, released in 1999 for the animated film Quest for Camelot, granted the movie a Golden Globe for Best Original Song, and also an Academy Award nomination for the same award category.
Andrea Bocelli’s first compilation Romanza, released in 1997, is still, as of today, the biggest ever selling album by an Italian solo artist in the world, with record sales of over 20 million units sold.
The astonishingly gifted Tenor received seven World Music Awards, seven Classical BRITs and a Golden Globe, and has performed at major international events including the World Cup and the Olympic Games.
In 2010, he was inducted in the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contribution to Live Theater.
Bocelli’s previous album, Sì, released in 2018, reached number one in both American and British charts.
In 2020, Andrea Bocelli released a Sugar/Decca Records album titled Believe, inspired by Christianity and the values of faith, hope and charity.
Following his record-breaking Music for Hope performance from the historic Milan Cathedral “Duomo” on Easter Sunday 2020 during the Covid quarantine – whose YouTube video has totalled nearly 42 million visits so far – Bocelli has composed his own settings for Padre Nostro and Ave Maria especially for this new record, which is a moving celebration of the inner power of music to soothe the human soul.
Believe encompasses classical, sacred and mainstream music, including well-known public favourites like Hallelujah and You’ll Never Walk Alone together with two duets with coloratura mezzo-soprano opera singer Cecilia Bartoli, an emotional rendition of Amazing Grace recorded with 27-time Grammy Award winner Alison Krauss and a previously unreleased composition from late world-renowned Academy Award winner Maestro Ennio Morricone, who passed away earlier this year aged 91.
What a huge, incredible honour has it been to interview one of the most world-famous tenors of all time and most celebrated singers in history to discuss the Christian values that inspired him to compose this new album, the invaluable work he carried out with Maestro Ennio Morricone and his long-term collaboration and friendship with Luciano Pavarotti.
And what makes me even more proud is that – just like what happened with internationally renowned blues-rock icon Zucchero who also dueted with Bocelli and Pavarotti – the only way I have found to get an interview with a fellow Italian it’s been passing through England.
Sometimes you just have no choice but to be proud of having never had it easy.
That’s the line between losers and warriors.
How is Believe different from all your previous records?
In Believe, I am framing a message of spirituality which is particularly close to my heart, and, in order to deliver it the way I wish, I am relying on a much-varied music range, rather than on a classical sacred music repertoire alone. The challenge here was to allow myself and my music to be guided by my heart and soul and encompass everything, from the greatest classical music pieces by Mozart, Fauré and Bizet, as well as Puccini and Ennio Morricone, to songs that are more modern and – despite not being strictly religious – are still deeply connected to spirituality. I am thinking about Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen and You’ll Never Walk Alone by Rodgers and Hammerstein. As modest and incomplete and subjective as it may sound, this album conveys the need to suggest a new path to religiousness by collecting together pieces that talk directly to the heart and soul, prompting people to walk towards their inner spiritual self.
Believe is said to be built around the three theological virtues of Christianity: faith, hope and charity; what did inspire you towards this concept? Were you influenced by the unprecedented times we are living in?
I had this spark as I was at the piano composing a new setting for Ave Maria, which is also included in the album. Music seemed to pour straight from my soul, it was perfectly harmonised and had the perfect prosody for the words of this well-known pray to Mary. This was in March this year, it was just the beginning of this very complex moment we are still living in and which does not appear to be over yet. During these unprecedented times, I feel it is crucial for people not to lose hope and faith, and to keep steady nerves: without hope, we risk the quagmire of despair; without faith, life is just a predictable tragedy, and without charity, there cannot be either faith or hope. When it gets to speak directly to the soul, good music can be a remarkable antidote to the poison of anxiety and fear.
You recorded a new version of You’ll Never Walk Alone, which also happens to be the football anthem of Liverpool F.C…
You’ll Never Walk Alone is not a piece of sacred music, but it still holds such a strong spiritual energy. The song originates from an American musical that dates back three-quarters of a century and still carries a profound message: the composition is full of hope and love, and also much loved by sports supporters. In the U.S., students have been singing it on their graduation ceremony for decades. You’ll Never Walk Alone has the inner ability to give voice to unity, to bring people together in friendships and gives them confidence, fearlessness and “calmness after the storm”.
The album includes a previously unreleased original composition by late Maestro Ennio Morricone, titled Inno sussurato (Whispered Hymn). When was it written?
I had the honour to have met Maestro Ennio Morricone, to have performed for him and to have discussed music together several times over the years. This piece may in fact have been the last score he penned; I have been told it was put together just a few days before his death. The drafts he left included verses and choruses, and we completed it by putting together a hymn that begins as a whisper and then grows louder until becoming a sort of universal invocation. This is a powerful piece and I find it heart-warming that Ennio Morricone’s last act in music has actually been a prayer.
Are there any special memories about your long-time collaboration with Luciano Pavarotti you would like to share?
Luciano Pavarotti was an exceptionally talented artist who set such an inspiring example for everyone in music to follow. To me – and I believe most people will agree – he had one of the most beautiful voices in the last hundred years. Over the many years I had the privilege of spending time with him, we would often discuss vocal techniques and interpretation, and his technical advice and tips were invaluable – I enjoy to remember those endless overseas calls we would make at night when one or both of us were abroad. Our last in-person meeting before he died in 2007 was in his penthouse in Manhattan, New York City – he clearly knew he did not have much time left, but when he talked about music, the light started to shine again all through his eyes and voice, to the point that he would actually explain what he meant by singing. Those were the last notes I heard from him. Luciano had always been very generous to me, he was both a friend and a mentor, and I will be forever grateful to him for that.
In your opinion, what could be done to bring classical music and Opera closer to the general public?
Even though Opera is intrinsically an act carrying a widely popular and universal appeal, it takes people more commitment to following operatic works as opposed to songs. Having evolved over many centuries, the classical music repertoire usually offers more complex music, and every great composer has contributed to renew it and make it develop. One misconception that needs to be addressed is the idea that this repertoire is either too elitist – which is a false and anti-historical insinuation, or that it is not very fun. I can certainly say that if you take the audience – any kind of audience, no matter how old they are or where they are from – by the hand, they would absolutely be willing to discover together a repertoire that may at first appear difficult, but that can definitely offer a lot of inner joy and elation. I am not an advocate for mixing music genres to start with, but I believe classical music can have such a strong impact on people, including younger audiences when it is presented, for example, in sports arenas. The first move should be up to us, up to those working in the music industry: we should go out the theatres and start to meet young people and make them understand the revolutionary power of going to see Opera and taking part in such a beautiful art form.
★ For more memories about singing with Pavarotti, read our interview with Skunk Anansie’s Skin who performed with him in Pavarotti & Friends for Cambodia and Tibet in 2000
★ If you like classical and operatic music, you may also find interesting our interviews with Il Volo, Ludovico Einaudi, Academy Award-nominated composer Stephan Moccio, UK’s number one Soprano Joanna Forest, Albanian cellist Redi Hasa, Emmy and BRIT nominee composer Sarah Class, Italian film score composer Stefano Fasce, neo-classical music composer Stephen Emmer and cinematic instrumental duo AVAWaves
★ For further complaints about Italy, read this