Since the birth of opera, the favourite pastime of its followers has been to complain non-stop about the past, present and above all the future of opera. The words most commonly uttered by the older generation and megalomaniacs in their prime are: "The voices aren't what they used to be in the old days." It is a tragic refrain, like a dreadful music box that keeps repeating itself, and it is part of the traditional ritual of opera: not for nothing do we use the word "melodramatic" to describe someone who appears doleful, nostalgic and defeatist.
In fact the voices are, have always been, and will always be what they used to be, while times, ways of life and public demand change, creating that interplay of influences which is the lifeblood of the supremely spectacular, lavish and imaginative genre that is opera.
ANDREA BOCELLI's star rose at a crucial stage of major melodramatic debate. At a time when high-powered names no longer feature on the covers of best-selling operatic recordings, Bocelli is one of opera's most important and unexpected innovations. Just when we were reading and talking about reports of the demise of the operatic genre, with theatres dismally half empty, with the slump in record sales, with the virtual disappearance of opera from television schedules, suddenly the tenor Andrea Bocelli, a modern tenor in the old style as he likes to describe himself, appeared on the scene.
With his natural predisposition towards music and song, from an early, even very early, age, there was no other way for the tenor from Pisa, considering his extraordinary musicality. Clear, precise intonation, the almost fanatical search for perfection and exquisite taste together give Bocelli the extremely rare ability to adopt an instrumentalist's rather than a singer's approach to a score.
All this is combined with highly personal and persuasive vocal colour, and perfect diction, tinged with a subtle, barely-concealed melancholy that goes straight to the hearts of the listeners and is the reason for his spectacular success. It is the famous "something" that makes an artist unique.
After studying under the expert guidance of Maestro Luciano Bettarini, teacher of many great names including Ferruccio Tagliavini, Ettore Bastianini and Franco Corelli, Bocelli attended a masterclass in Turin with Franco Corelli, whom he truly idolises (and the feeling is reciprocated). The Pisa-born tenor made his stage debut in Verdi's Macbeth in 1994, with performances in Pisa, Mantova, Lucca and Livorno, under Claudio Desderi. This decisive debut under the banner of Verdi (one of the tenor's greatest sources of inspiration, along with his favourite Puccini) was followed by the CD "Viaggio italiano" with Vladimir Fedoseyev, released through Sugar in 1995.
The first wholly operatic concerts of international importance were at Cagliari and at the Puccini Festival at Torre del Lago in summer 1997, a real personal challenge which Bocelli confronted even in the face of some not exactly favourable criticism. On this occasion Bocelli sang arias and duets from Madama Butterfly and Tosca and, responding to rapturous applause, gave an encore of the "9 Cs" aria from La Fille du régiment.
In 1998 he made a second stage debut, this time in Cagliari, in the leading role of Rodolfo opposite Daniela Dessi in Puccini's La Bohème, conducted by Steven Mercurio. The opera, which he tackled with extraordinary commitment, was an even more important stage on Bocelli's journey to dramatic and vocal maturity. The same year he joined Zubin Mehta for a major concert in Tel Aviv. The celebrated conductor was so enthusiastic about Bocelli's gifts that he publicly praised the Tuscan tenor's musicality, preparation and taste. The same year saw the release of the album "Aria", one of the biggest classical successes of all time, leaping immediately to the top of the charts.
His debut at the Arena di Verona came in 1999, when he made a guest appearance in Lehár's Merry Widow, conducted by Anton Guadagno. Bocelli's top D-flat in "Tu che m'hai preso il cuor" (You are my Heart's Delight) and the "Brindisi" from La Traviata with Cecilia Gasdia, won him a standing ovation from 18,000 spectators.
In October of the same year, he made his US debut in Massenet's Werther in Detroit, with Steven Mercurio on the podium and Denyce Graves in the role of Charlotte. Italian listeners were able to hear excerpts from the second and third acts, including the encore of the aria "Pourquoi me réveiller", broadcast live on RAI Radiotre's popular programme "La Barcaccia". Also in 1999 came the CD "Sacred Arias", conducted by Myung-Whun Chung, in which Bocelli ranges from Bach/Gounod to Mozart and from Schubert to Rossini. Once again sales were sensational.
Since then the Bocelli myth, reinforced by his enormous success as a recording artist, has grown out of all proportion. Alternating on the podium for his concerts are superstars like Lorin Maazel (Classical tour, Munich 1999 and Verdi's Requiem, Verona 2000 and Munich 2001), Seiji Ozawa (Munich 2000), Valery Gergiev (Verdi's Requiem recorded in London, 2000) and again Zubin Mehta (Tel Aviv 2000). Bocelli's close collaboration with Myung-Whun Chung, Principal Conductor of the Orchestra dell' Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome culminated with the release of the "Sacred Arias" CD and major events broadcast worldwide. There were more challenges to be faced with recordings of the "Verdi" album, conducted by Zubin Mehta, made to mark the Verdi centenary, and the complete version of La Bohème.
January 2001 saw Bocelli's first appearance on stage at Verona's Teatro Filarmonico in the title role of Mascagni's L'amico Fritz, a role particularly well-suited to Bocelli's vocal talents, since it demands a very special kind of tenore di grazia with an extensive range and unusually polished timbre.
In summer 2002, he made his debut as Lieutenant Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly at Torre del Lago. In the autumn of 2003, his classical recording career continued when he joined forces with Maestro Lorin Maazel to release "Sentimento", an album of songs exploring the early twentieth century musical tradition of songs for voice and violin, once again released through Sugar. This highly romantic collection by composers such as Francesco Paolo Tosti and Franz Liszt were set to orchestra by Maestro Maazel, who also played the violin on the album. A huge success, Andrea was awarded two highly coveted UK Brit Awards for "Album of the Year" and the "Biggest Selling Classical Album of the Year" at the 2003 Awards Ceremony.
Andrea has since released his second complete opera recording, Tosca with Zubin Mehta, in May 2003 and Il Trovatore, Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana conducted by Steven Mercurio have also been recorded. Il Trovatore has been released at the end of May 2004 internationally. At the beginning of this year he performed Werther at Teatro Comunale in Bologna and a studio recording of this opera has been released. Just recently, he has performed "Tosca" on stage in Torre del Lago Puccini.
The career of the tenor from Pisa can certainly be described as extraordinary. The world of opera has seen very few like him. Obviously, the great novelty Andrea Bocelli represents has given rise to opposing factions. Beyond the virtues and the defects that can be found in his, and every other artist's, vocal style, one thing is certain. For the first time, at a moment of deep crisis, we are seeing theatres packed like rock stadiums, television companies eager to broadcast events and young people turning up at the opera. Andrea Bocelli is a myth and so at the same time a natural advertisement for a genre that the majority of youngsters think is antiquated and obsolete and belongs in a museum. Andrea Bocelli, with his unmistakable timbre and enchanting diction, is prolonging the life and restoring the dignity of a genre that seemed to belong only to the past and whose death was already being mourned. Andrea Bocelli has, at his own risk, entered the operatic fray without the aid of a microphone and achieved a miracle - that of overcoming his blindness and performing on stage as well as and even better than many of his colleagues. A series of challenges marking the beginning of a new era for opera: the most beautiful spectacle in existence, and this time with a tenor for everyone.
- Enrico Stinchelli