How Opera Singer and Travel Lover Andrea Bocelli Defied the Odds
Andrea Bocelli has never been one to balk at a good challenge. Blind since age 12 due to congenital glaucoma worsened by a soccer mishap, the internationally beloved Italian tenor says, “I was a restless kid. I had grown a taste for challenges, with a tendency to do all that I was forbidden or suggested not to do—and, if possible, to do it better than the others, even with enormous sacrifices.” Indeed, before he became a father, Bocelli, now 55, says, “I did not miss out on the excitement of water-skiing and paragliding as well as the thrill of speed.” Add to the list snow skiing, riding horses and bicycles—even skydiving and driving a car—and you’ll begin to grasp the confident tenacity that enthralls millions of fans worldwide.
What’s not challenging for Bocelli these days is selling out massive venues as well as albums, more than 80 million of them, making him the best-selling classical solo artist ever and one of the best-selling artists in music history. Perhaps the one bastion that may never fall to the richly emotional charms of his fluid, versatile voice is the conservative opera-world establishment. “Andrea Bocelli is one of those crossover artists who infuriate the opera purists, but is loved by many for his musical gifts,” says Michael Sinclair, editor of The Opera Critic. “I don’t consider him an opera singer in the true sense of the word.” In this way, Bocelli’s career shares parallels with The Three Tenors phenomenon, when Luciano Pavarotti, Plàcido Domingo, and José Carreras brought opera and classical music to huge stadium audiences, an anathema to opera traditionalists.
Given that opera is Bocelli’s first love, enflamed when his nanny Oriana gave him a record of the late Franco Corelli, the famous Italian tenor who would later become his teacher, disdain from some critics must sting a bit—but only enough to reaffirm his disciplined dedication to improving his bel canto every day and with each performance. Earlier this year, Bocelli released Passione, a collection of Mediterranean love songs. Essentially a sequel to his highly popular Amore, a 2006 collaboration with Grammy Award-winning producer David Foster, the well-reviewed album features classics like “Garota De Ipanema” (Girl from Ipanema), “Love Me Tender,” and “Sará Settembre” (better known to English-speaking audiences as Neil Diamond’s “September Morn”).
On the album, Bocelli sings in six languages (Italian, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Neapolitan), is accompanied by Latin rhythms and a 63-piece orchestra recorded in London, and performs duets with pop stars Jennifer Lopez (“Quizás Quizás Quizás”), Nelly Furtado (“Corcovado”), and even the late French chanteuse Edith Piaf, whose vocal for “La Vie En Rose” Foster extracted from a 1940s-era master recording.
Many of the songs on Passione were among those often requested when Bocelli sang and played piano six nights a week in bars throughout Tuscany in the mid-1970s, to help pay for voice lessons with Corelli. During this time, he also studied law at the University of Pisa, near the family farm in Lajatico, where he and his younger brother, Alberto, grew up. Bocelli remembers these youthful days fondly: “It often happened that a beautiful girl who could sing in tune would come up and ask to sing something with me.” “I have always been singing, since I was a boy,” Bocelli says. “I used to compete, in the living room of my home, with the voices of my heroes whose interpretations came through the record player.” At age 6, he began studying classical piano, later learning to play the flute, saxophone, trumpet, guitar, drums, and more.
“Up to age 18, I had quite a radical attitude toward pop, excluding a priori all that was not classical or opera,” he says. But when he began playing “light music” in piano bars, he says, “an entirely new world opened up to me; I realized pop has its masterpieces.” For Bocelli, it’s easy to identify beauty in a piece of music, whatever the genre. “The fundamental difference is in the consequences it generates; it slowly gets inside you and helps you to grow, developing your spirituality.”
For a year, Bocelli worked as a stateappointed attorney. But his heart was in music. His big break came in 1992, when Italian rock star Zucchero called for tenors to make demo tapes of his song “Miserere,” hoping to convince Luciano Pavarotti to record a duet with him. Legend has it that Pavarotti refused to believe Bocelli’s tape was made by an unknown piano player, then told Zucchero to use him instead, famously saying, “There is no finer voice.” Pavarotti did, however, record the duet, but it was Bocelli who performed in his place on Zucchero’s European tour, quickly gaining a name for himself. Around this time, Caterina Caselli signed Bocelli to her Sugar record label. Three things drew her to the tenor she says: a “deeply marvelous” voice, with “low frequencies that creep into our emotional fields and conquer our hearts”; beauty (“He looked like the young and absolutely heart-throbbing Omar Sharif ”); and charisma that “enables him to relate to people from all walks of life.” In 1996, Bocelli recorded “Time to Say Goodbye,” a duet with English soprano Sarah Brightman that quickly shot to the top of the charts in Europe. In 1999, he began a grueling world tour, which included his first performances in the U.S. His opening performance at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. won several standing ovations. This marked the beginning of a special relationship with America and with New York City in particular, where then-mayor Rudy Guiliani granted him the Crystal Apple in 1999. In 2011, Bocelli gave a Central Park concert broadcast on PBS and attended by 60,000, singing with Tony Bennett, Celine Dion, and many others.
At every break in the tour schedule, Bocelli traveled home to his expansive villa, a former hotel on the northern Italian coast near Pisa, to spend time with his two growing sons, Matteo and Amos. At a party in 2002, he met the younger woman who would become his fiancé and manager, Veronica Berti. “A few minutes after we met, he dedicated to me the romanza ‘Occhi di Fata’ [or Fairy Eyes],” she recalls. “That evening was enough for us both to decide to choose to spend our lives together.” Their light-filled home includes a large collection of musical instruments, ready for spontaneous harmonizing. Collaborator David Foster describes a typical scene: “We have so much fun when we’re working together. Andrea has an incredible sense of humor and his musical tastes are unbelievably varied. On any given night, while on a break, you could find us in the living room: me on piano; Pierpaolo, the sound engineer, on bass; Andrea’s sons on percussion; and Andrea himself on drums, playing and singing a Beatles song.”
Foster says the first time he heard Bocelli sing was a rare “aha” moment: “I was completely blown away by this powerful yet gentle voice singing in a style that I had never heard before. He is the only person I know who walks perfectly in both the pop world and the classical world. His pop voice is effortless and his knowledge of classical is vast. He prefers one over the other but he’s so clever that you will never figure out what his favorite is.” Those closest to Bocelli are clearly inspired by his will and passion for life, but are quick to add that these are balanced with a gentle humility, integrity and loyalty to his family, friends, and homeland. Together with his brother, Alberto, he owns a winery, “an adventure designed to honor and pass on the great love of our father, Sandro,” Alberto explains. “In the eighteenth century, the Bocelli family worked as sharecroppers on a property of the Corsini princes. The passion for our land has remained in our chromosomes.” Producing quality traditional Tuscan wines is a point of pride: “If we can recoup the expenses we are already happy.” In his hometown of Lajatico, Bocelli also helped sponsor construction of an open-air amphitheater, where he hosts a packed concert with special guests every July. Aptly named the Teatro del Silenzio, the venue goes dark the rest of the year. Growing up, Alberto watched his brother transform what could have been a limitation into opportunity for growth. “I think he grew his strong will in the difficult apprenticeship of childhood, when he used to do half the things because he liked them, and the other half to demonstrate how silly others’ prejudices were.”
His old friend Adriano Fiaschi says that during their endless youthful discussions of dreams, love, and life, he came to appreciate Bocelli’s unique perspective on the dichotomy between being and appearing. “Since he was a boy, Andrea has pursued ‘to be,’ not ‘to look’,” he says. “Those who do not have any sight problems may be misled by the superficiality of the appearance, while Andrea is prone to see the essence of things; he knows how to capture what matters. Sight implies practical advantages, no doubt, but in this sense, also some disadvantages.”
To select the songs for Passione, Foster spent two 14-day stretches at Bocelli’s villa, coming up with a list of 80 candidates. Asked what makes a great love song, Bocelli told Foster, “When I sing a song, I must first fall in love with it and feel it in my heart. It must arouse emotions and enter the fibers of those who are listening to it. It must become the voice of many in the world, so that they can mirror in it their most genuine feelings.” In the midst of his Passione tour this summer, Bocelli reflected on his ambivalence about touring. “Mine is a wandering life. The rhythms it requires still cost me physical and psychological strain today, as 20 years ago. I spend most part of the year abroad, and every time I have to leave the peace and the happiness of my house and most of all, my loved ones. At the same time, I am perfectly aware of how wonderful my work is, and I certainly do not complain.” His preparation for a tour is always the same, he says. But with rising fame and growing public expectations, he says, “I cannot afford leaving anything to chance. The set list is quite meticulously prepared and reasoned.
The performance of the pieces, especially the opera ones needs constant study.” Thankfully, tour logistics are handled by his staff, ‘an enlarged family.’ And after a decade of exhausting airport waits and delays, he now travels by private plane, a luxury which affords him “the perception of a family ambiance even when I am among clouds, traveling from one continent to the other,” he says. While on tour, Bocelli maintains a strict regimen. “Between concerts, I try to spend my time in isolation. I avoid drinking wine, coffee, and other pleasant things. I follow the diet of an athlete and take with me a gym ball, a simple tool to keep in shape. I try to speak as little as possible and to maintain the maximum concentration. Therefore, there’s usually no shop- ping, no trips. In fact, I can say I have traveled the world wide and far, but most of the time, I just know the airport, my hotel room and the dressing room of the theater. Before concerts, I study, read, or write myself (poems and aphorisms) in order not to give in to laziness and to keep my brain fit.”
Caselli vouches for his disciplined work ethic. “Andrea always aims for the sky and gives his very best, even when he is not in tiptop shape,” she says. “I recall seeing him perform live on Good Morning America at 7 a.m. without a speck of hesitation, after waking up jet-lagged at 5 a.m. And this, let me say, is a rather unlikely practice among performing artists, who normally refuse to sing anything sooner than the early afternoon.” The day before any live performance, she says, he has a strict rule of almost religious silence: no interviews, no phone calls for the sake of his voice.
Shows share with all Bocelli’s live performances a special quality—an alchemy born of the magical effect his voice seems to have on his dedicated fans. His former piano teacher and collaborator for 20 years, Carlo Bernini, describes the effect, especially common in large concerts in the United States and South America. “[His] singing interacts at a deep level with the listener,” he says. “I see many couples arrive and absentmindedly occupy their places. Gradually, as the concert proceeds, people have a happier disposition and end up hugging or holding hands, or one is weeping and the other one is encircling his or her head. At the end of the concert, the public comes out visibly regenerated, pacified, and full of new energy.” Part of the magic is that his audience senses that Bocelli himself quite naturally embodies passion and romance.
“I’m still very much in love with life. Love, the engine of the world, and even romance are essential ingredients of a whole existence, regardless of the passing of time. I think it is a priceless privilege for man to have the possibility to interpret, poetically, their own adventure on Earth,” he says. “What is often too large to be contained in the rational mechanisms of our minds, we can perhaps, if not really achieve, at least perceive through a poem, or perhaps a musical phrase.” With his fairy tale life and overwhelmingly positive outlook, Bocelli has little patience for labels like crossover artist or for petty critiques from opera-world purists. At the June opening of the opera season in Verona, he reportedly remarked with characteristic pragmatism to a journalist’s question about the attendance crisis in opera [houses] today, “We should invite young people to the theaters, to rehearsals. We have to spread it just as we do with sport. In a word, opera needs to be supported by an adequate marketing operation. For the rest, opera is more than alive and enjoys good health.”
When he looks ahead, Bocelli sees plenty of music projects— and a desire to give back something of what life has given him. He recently founded the Andrea Bocelli Foundation, which works to help people around the world who are in need due to illness, disability, poverty, and social exclusion. “I created a foundation to put all our strengths together, to make sure that my actions are not ‘a drop in the sea’ but united with all other drops—as Mother Teresa teaches us—to become an ocean,” he wrote in a letter on the nonprofit’s website. Appropriately, one of the first grants went to the MIT Fifth Sense Project, where researchers are working to develop a technology that can help blind people to perform the activities of daily life more independently and efficiently. Another, named Project Virginia, supports high-risk pregnancy care at a hospital in Haiti. After this tour wraps at the end of the year, Bocelli says he’s dreaming of just one thing. “At the top of my desires, there is always the peace and the quietness of my home in Tuscany, together with my children and the people I love,” he says. “That is my favorite holiday, the main goal in my wish list.”
Concierge Simona Bresciani’s List for Tuscany
Spa: Relax at Espa, a modern wellness center tucked into Castello del Nero, a 12th-century palace located among the rolling hills of western Chianti. After a massage and skin treatment, take in the view of vineyards and olive groves from its heated pool.
Meal: Steps away from the duomo (cathedral) in Siena sits Antica Osteria Da Divo, which serves classic Tuscan fare in ancient Etruscan underground rooms carved out of the region’s soft volcanic rock. Wine: Combine two Italian classics into one with a guided road trip in tiny 1960s’ vintage Fiat 500 cars that ends at a 15th-century villa and vineyard. Harvest grapes, stomp them into juice, and learn the Italian way to producing wine.