From out­selling Pavarotti to Songs Of Praise

An­drea Bo­celli can’t re­sist the show’s 50th birth­day

Daily Mail - - It's Friday! Theatre - by Spencer Bright

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

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