Interview with Andrea Bocelli

Andrea Bocelli, Believe album, credit by Giovanni De Sandre

Andrea Bocelli by Giovanni De Sandre ©

The first time I heard Andrea Bocelli’s singing was in the late 1990s at my cousin’s holiday place in Southern Italy. We are 16 years apart, I was a teenager and the cousin owned something that everybody my age was longing for.
She had a mobile phone.

It was a silver Motorola StarTAC and she was using it all the time. She was constantly whispering and jiggling on the phone. Sometimes it didn’t even look like she was actually talking, but she just wanted you to believe it.
Until then, mobile phones had been these enormous and costly black devices with endlessly long antennas which weighed half a kilo, were suspected to cause brain cancer and were only supplied to travelling salesmen.

No one owned a mobile in Italy in the 1990s, but suddenly everybody wanted one; these bulky machines were now turning into something glamorous, and the reason was Andrea Bocelli and his immensely beautiful melody Con te partirò.

Andrea Bocelli’s signature song had just been chosen for an unforgettable series of TV commercials commissioned by TIM, which held the State monopoly of telecommunication services in the country until 1998.
The first advert featured a well-known blonde TV presenter showing off her brand-new mobile. It was quite basic.
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 as few as 25,000 copies in Italy as opposed to 200,000 copies in the UK and a staggering 900,000 copies in France.

Andrea Bocelli recording in studio, credit by Lorenzo Montanelli

Andrea Bocelli by Lorenzo Montanelli ©

Around the same time, Andrea Bocelli was performing a new version of Con Te Partirò in Germany titled Time To Say Goodbye as a duet with British Soprano Sarah Brightman featuring lyrics altered and partially chanted in English and released for the 1996 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 a 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.
If you wonder why Italy is unable to recognise its own talents unless the rest of the planet does it first, that is another story – a story shockingly similar to the ones of Il Volo and Zucchero.

Yet against all odds, the smashing success of TIM’s first commercial featuring Andrea Bocelli’s song eventually led to a legendary series of similar TV adverts that went on for years and years telling all sorts of stories of people travelling on faulty trains and needing a mobile phone to call home.

My favourite one has a train halted by a cow on the tracks.
Passenger Andrea Bocelli is asked to perform his beautiful aria Sogno [Dream] to entertain someone’s girlfriend on the phone; all of a sudden, a full-size symphonic orchestra magically appears behind him.

 

Now, TV audiences aren’t notoriously too crazy for classical music, but Andrea Bocelli and his mind-blowing singing managed to elevate the way people – including my cousin and the rest of us – looked at mobiles, telecommunications, delayed trains, cows and classical music itself: Andrea Bocelli’s voice still means and will always mean home to any Italian old enough to remember the 1990s.

Bocelli is often referred to as the most world-famous Italian national alive, which is not surprising if you think that he has 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.

Andrea Bocelli walking in fields, credit by Giovanni De Sandre

Andrea Bocelli by Giovanni De Sandre ©

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 in 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.

As of 2020, the astonishingly gifted Tenor has 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 into the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contribution to Live Theater.

After his work Sì reached number one in both American and British charts in 2018, Andrea Bocelli released a Sugar/Decca Records album titled Believe in 2020, which is 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 that year, whose YouTube video totalled over 40 million views – Bocelli composed his own settings for Padre Nostro and Ave Maria especially for this record, which is a moving celebration of the inner power of music to soothe the soul.

Andrea Bocelli, Believe album cover

Believe by Andrea Bocelli

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 world-renowned  Academy Award winner Maestro Ennio Morricone who passed away in 2020.

And so, 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, discuss the Christian values that inspired him to compose this album, the invaluable work he carried out with Maestro Ennio Morricone and his long-term collaboration and friendship with Luciano Pavarotti.

Embed from Getty Images

Andrea, how would you describe Believe?

In Believe, I framed a message of spirituality particularly close to my heart, and, to be able to deliver it the way I wished, I relayed on a much-varied music range, rather than the 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 think of Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen and You’ll Never Walk Alone by Rodgers and Hammerstein. As modest, incomplete and subjective as it may sound, this album conveys a religious path by collecting together pieces that speak directly to the heart and soul, prompting people to walk towards their inner spiritual self.

Believe is inspired by the three theological virtues of Christianity: faith, hope and charity. Where did your journey towards the album begin?

I felt a 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 Holy Mary. This was in March 2020, it was the beginning of a very complex time we all know about. During those unprecedented times, I felt it was crucial for people not to lose hope and faith, and to calm their nerves: without hope, we risk wallowing in 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 speaking directly to the soul, good music can be a remarkable antidote to the poison of anxiety and fear.

You also recorded a new version of You’ll Never Walk Alone, which also happens to be Liverpool Football Club’s anthem.

You’ll Never Walk Alone is not a piece of sacred music, but 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 US, students have been singing it at their graduation ceremonies for decades. You’ll Never Walk Alone has the inner ability to give voice to unity, to bring people together in friendships and give them confidence, fearlessness and calm after the storm.

The album includes a previously unreleased original composition by the late Maestro Ennio Morricone titled Inno Sussurato [Whispered Hymn]. When was it written?

I had the honour to have met Maestro Ennio Morricone, have performed for him and have discussed music together several times over the years. Inno Sussurrato 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 favourite memories from your time 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. I had the privilege to have spent time with him over the years, we would often discuss vocal techniques and interpretation, and the technical advice and tips he gave me have been invaluable. I enjoy remembering those endless overseas calls we would make at night when one or both of us were abroad. The last time we met in person before he died was in his penthouse in Manhattan, New York City, in 2007. 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 can be done to make classical music and Opera more relevant to the general public?

Even though Opera is intrinsically an act carrying a widely popular and universal appeal, it takes people a more committed listening act 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 renewing it and making 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 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 to the theatres and start to meet young people and make them understand the revolutionary power of going to see Operas and taking part in such a beautiful art form.

Andrea Bocelli with a little rabbit, credit by Giovanni De Sandre

Andrea Bocelli by Giovanni De Sandre ©

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