Interview: Andrea Bocelli

The world famous tenor on his faith, his critics and why blindness is no obstacle

In dark glasses and framed against a window in his suite at the Ritz-Carlton, over- looking Manhattan’s Central Park, Andrea Bocelli looks every inch the Italian star: composed, elegant and calm.

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He’s flanked by assistants and an interpreter, though it’s not clear he needs one – he understands and speaks English, though prefers to conduct interviews mainly in his native tongue. A single, white-patent-leather shoe, worn on stage the previous evening in the park before a crowd of 60,000, lies discarded on the carpet. Bocelli’s mother is sitting at the table sewing; Veronica Berti, his heavily pregnant girlfriend, is resting in an adjoining bedroom.

The 53-year-old Italian tenor is in good spirits. “Despite the weather conditions, all went well,” he says. It’s typical of the superstar tenor’s optimistic outlook that the “weather conditions” he refers to were in fact the vestiges of Hurricane Maria. Wind and rain lashed the crowd, threatening to turn the park’s Great Lawn into a lake.

It is a testament to Bocelli’s remarkable popularity that the forces of nature blasting New York did nothing to diminish the enthusiasm of the audience and his appreciation of their response. “It’s the simplest thing in the world,” he says. “The thermometer that gives you the warmth of the audience is infallible.”

Despite the reluctance of opera buffs to take Bocelli seriously as a world-class tenor – and his refusal to pay heed to their often harsh judgements – he has a massive worldwide fan base.

The New York event, echoing as it did a legendary 1993 concert when Luciano Pavarotti played Central Park, capped a long-held ambition for Bocelli and completed an emotional obligation. It was at the suggestion of his late father, Sandro, that he’d set his sights on the US. “It was my father’s dream that I go to America because that, he said to me, is the place where dreams come true. He believed I should shoot for that.”

For a man whose job it is to reach for an emotional response in the listener, Bocelli says he tried not to think of his father during the show. “I actually try to think of nothing – or as little as possible – that might get me emotional,” he reveals. “I cannot allow my feelings to take over and so far I have always managed to keep them at bay.”

It’s that discipline that has helped him to become the most successful Italian singer since Pavarotti. With 70 million albums sold since his first release in 1994, countless sell-out performances and having sung for princes, prime ministers, popes and the Queen, Bocelli now has the freedom to be both a pop and an opera singer.

On Sunday, Bocelli can be seen performing for the 50th anniversary of Songs of Praise, from London’s Alexandra Palace. He’s excited to appear and appreciates British audiences. “They’re very attentive and respectful,” he says. “They’re connoisseurs of the repertoire.”

A religious performance is unlikely to faze Bocelli, a man not shy of discussing God; he even sang for Pope John Paul on the day his own father died in 2000. “That was one of the situations when keeping my emotions at bay was critical,” he says.

It has not been a struggle for him to keep his faith, he says. “It’s something that comes from the grace of God – it’s not something you decide or not decide to have.”

In Central Park he sang Amazing Grace and repeats the opening lines now in faltering English. “‘Amazing grace… How sweet the sound … that saved a wretch … like me.’ It’s the song that really touches my heart,” Bocelli considers. “Just two lines, but in them is the secret of religiosity.”

So how has God helped you?
“It wouldn’t be enough to have an entire day to answer that question. I’ve always looked for God, and God has always answered my prayers. I believe the obstacles God gives us to overcome are in proportion to the strengths and abilities he gives us to overcome them.”

It is natural to assume Bocelli is referring to his sight. Born with congenital glaucoma, he lost his vision completely aged 12, after receiving a blow to the head during a game of football.

Bocelli does not like to discuss his blindness, and corrects the impression that he was referring to his sight. “I do not understand the obstacle you are referring to because that’s not the obstacle I’m referring to,” he says, his fingers tapping the table with impatience.

“I do not see it as an obstacle – absolutely not.” He mentions the horses he rides on his farm near Versilia in Tuscany. As he describes it, riding horses is as natural for a blind person as it is for one who’s sighted. “You may not know this,” he says, “but in the Italian military, soldiers are taught to jump obstacles blindfolded.”

What this goes to prove is that Bocelli will no more accept the limitations of his blindness than he will the critical jibe that he is a pop singer who sings opera, and in a voice that’s limited at best.

Clearly, his commercial popularity has not been diminished by the critics, though it’s obvious he’s vexed by their refusal to acknowledge (as they did again in the notices for his Central Park concert) that his voice is up to the job.

“People sometimes find the abilities of another extraordinary because they cannot comprehend their own extraordinary inability,” Bocelli retorts. Ouch!

Critical approval, or rather its absence, may be the price Bocelli will always pay for his popularity. You could say the same about Elton John or Sting or Paul McCartney, all of whom endure similar sneers. “I read good reviews, but unfortunately the bad reviews are the ones that are broadcast,” he says. Critics themselves, he believes, should also be held to account. “In order to make a criticism or judgement, a critic must

avoid giving the impression that he or she is simply using the fame of the singer. You need critics with nothing to gain and nothing to lose.”

Recently, Bocelli’s image has been closer to that of a rock star than a classical singer. Perhaps he was taking advice from Sting – who likes to talk about his tantric abilities and was in the audience in New York – when it was reported that he had said he did not like to sleep with his girlfriend before a big singing engagement.

Bocelli is keen to put the record straight. “I didn’t say I didn’t sleep with my girlfriend before a concert,” he said of the reported comments. “I said I shouldn’t.” If Bocelli could wink, he probably would. “In any event,” he continues, “I think rules are made to be broken…”

he comment raised the subject of his domestic life. Bocelli prefers not to discuss
his complex family arrangements, but his personal assistant had explained that the home he shares with his girlfriend, Veronica Berti, is close by that of his wife, Enrica, from whom he separated in 2002, and their two teenage sons. The arrangement works smoothly, says the PA, because Veronica puts time and energy into ensuring that it does.

Having made a career moving between classical and pop, he says he’s always drawn to the classical first, and is preparing to perform in Charles Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet next year.

“When my voice is used up and there are clear signals that it’s time to quit, then I hope I will have time to enjoy it. I will probably go back to my roots in the countryside to be with my animals and my old friends.

“It’s the quality of what you do that matters – not the quantity, the prestige or the sales,” he says. “The important thing is to be convinced that you have done something artistically meaningful. The objective of music is to reach people’s hearts and to make the human soul more receptive – more fertile – so other seeds can grow.”

Songs of Praise: 50th Birthday Celebration is on Sunday 5.30pm on BBC1

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The album Andrea Bocelli Live in Central Park is released in November (Decca Records)