From outselling Pavarotti to Songs Of Praise
Andrea Bocelli can’t resist the show’s 50th birthday
ANDREA BOCELLI’S vivacious fiancee Veronica Berti greets me at the door of the singer’s luxury hotel villa in the Sicilian coastal town of Siracusa.
In the lived-in lounge we walk past an open suitcase, his neatly lined-up white slip-on shoes on the carpet, and a white dress shirt from a performance the previous evening draped over an armchair. It’s a reminder of the day-to-day human side of this huge figure in opera.
Once I am seated on the terrace, Veronica guides Bocelli out and sits him opposite me. He trained as a lawyer and there is an air of deliberation about him. I’m not sure he needs the interpreter hired for the occasion, because his English is surprisingly fluent.
It’s said he lives in a rather cocooned world, and when I ask about another opera act, Il Divo, I can see why. When I tell him that it was he who inspired Simon Cowell to form Il Divo, he is perplexed.
There’s a quick discussion to find out who Simon Cowell is. How refreshing, though when I mention X Factor he has an inkling.
‘Yes, I’ve met Il Divo in a TV studio. They are very nice people,’ says Bocelli, noncommittal about their art.
Behind the considered, dignified air, there is no doubt a man of great passion. ‘Opera was always my passion. As a child I didn’t think about anything else, only music.
‘For me, opera is one of the highest forms of entertainment. It’s also one of the hardest art forms with the combination of many disciplines. There’s no reason why it can’t appeal to everyone.’
Last week, he performed for 60,000 people willing to brave the rain to see him at a free concert in New York’s Central Park, where he was joined by Celine Dion and Tony Bennett. This weekend, he is at Alexandra Palace, North London, joining in the 50th anniversary celebrations for BBC1’s Songs Of Praise.
A devout Catholic, he was taken as a child by his mother to Lourdes. Afterwards, she asked him if he had prayed for his sight. He said he had not, he had prayed for serenity.
Bocelli was born partially sighted before an accident rendered him completely blind at the age of 12, and I’ve been told the subject upsets him. It’s his strength of will that has made Bocelli the most successful opera singer of his generation with album sales topping 70 million, even more than Pavarotti, who first recognised his greatness as a tenor.
HIS PHENOMENAL international success began in 1995, when Time To Say Goodbye topped the charts. He has upset the posh end of the opera world ever since, who believe his technique is flawed, though they fail to acknowledge his gift for making a connection between his audience and opera.
As a child, Bocelli was energetic and impulsive, ignoring the fact he was blind. That didn’t stop him playing sports, riding his bicycle and the horse his father bought him. In adult life he took up boxing, skiing, windsurfing and surfing.
Is he still a risk taker? ‘No, no, I don’t like to take risks now. When I was younger I liked to take risks, physically, with horses, riding my bicycle, everything. I skydived once.’
Bocelli, who celebrated his 53rd birthday yesterday, added: ‘Now I might break some bones. My passion for horses has come back as I have a beautiful new horse. Though I’m more careful.
‘Yes, I was really lively, but now that I have sons I don’t want them to be like I used to be. I prefer them to be careful, so I have to set an example.’
Is his example of cautious living working? ‘For now, yes. The boys are much calmer than me.’
Amos, 16, and Matteo, 14, are both piano students, though their father doesn’t expect them to become musicians.
You get the sense he’s quite a disciplinarian. ‘Yes, of course I am a disciplinarian for their sake,’ he says. ‘ I try not to impose discipline on them. I try to make them love discipline. I try to make them understand that there is only one way. You must teach discipline through dialogue. You must talk a lot with your children.’
Bocelli is divorced from their mother, Enrica Cenzatti, who lives next door to him on his estate in the Tuscan seaside town of Forte dei Marmi.
Are he and Veronica planning to wed? ‘Naturally, when two people feel like we do, they want to make it a permanent arrangement. I hope it will happen from the religious and spiritual point of view but it is a legal matter.’ By this I take it to mean that as a divorced Catholic he is not able to marry in church again.
After our meeting, it was revealed that 28 - y e ar-ol d Veronica is pregnant and expecting her first child in the spring.
There’s an unexpectedly touching moment between him and Veronica, who helps manage him, as a photographer takes pictures while we talk.
SHE spots a smidgen of toothpaste by the side of his mouth and dashes over to rub it off with her fingers. He is not startled by this. Clearly it is a natural part of their world where she will come and tend to him.
His success is so all conquering that he is treated like a modern day Roman emperor — how does he avoid becoming arrogant?
‘If someone has received a lot in life, as in my case, they should be aware they owe a lot to other people f or helping make it happen,’ he says. ‘I’m certainly aware that I should be giving something back, not only in terms of money but primarily in terms of love. Love is the most valuable thing I have received and am able to give back. I think of the body as a shell that can contain different things.
‘If you put things of value into it, then that will help you become a modest person. Everything else is just vanity. As a man, I have my strengths and weaknesses. It’s for others to judge what they are.’
In February, he’s appearing in Romeo And Juliet in Genoa, Italy. I wonder what is his perfect woman like?
‘Wow,’ he smiles. I can hear Veronica laugh. ‘From the masculine point of view, what I primarily look for in a woman is femininity and then passion… and all the rest!’
Despite his achievements i n the world’s biggest cities, he says: ‘I don’t like big cities. I grew up in a village. And every time I go to London it’s raining, though I like the people.’
ANDREA BOCELLI will perform at the Songs Of Praise 50th anniversary at Alexandra Palace on Sunday, to be broadcast on BBC1 on October 2. Andrea Bocelli Live In Central Park will be released on CD and DVD on November 14.
Touching moment: Andrea Bocelli with his fiancee Veronica