Losing his sight at the age of 12 hasn't been a hindrance to success or adventure for Andrea Bocelli. Refusing to be defined by blindness, the passionate Tuscan opera singer sees all the beauty and suffering in the world – but in a different way
THE rain has finally stopped in the seaside town of Forte Dei Marmi, shallow puddles glistening in the streetlights, rainwater dripping from chairs in the outside cafs like beads of stale sweat in the humid air.
The sea is calm. A 15-minute walk from the glossy town centre, past the quiet fish restaurants and pizzerias along the esplanade, a house looms on the corner behind a high fence and electronic gates. Only the eyes of the house, the upper windows, which are lit by small chandeliers, peer over the fence. Checking the directions, it must surely be Andrea Bocelli's house, though darkness has fallen now and it's hard to confirm that it is pink. But standing on the pavement beside a stretch of high bamboo-cane fence, I feel confident that I can leave and find it again in the morning for the interview, that this really is the world-renowned singer's house. Stop, listen. The identifying feature. Music thumps like a distant heart beat from its centre, out into the world outside.
Next morning, the dimmer-switch of Tuscany sunshine has been turned up full on upmarket Forte dei Marmi, with its Dolce & Gabbana and Versace shops and plethora of hotels. The electronic gates of the pink corner house open slowly. Bocelli's partner Veronica Berti, who is also chief executive of his management company, leads me into the foyer of the house, a big, light, open space in creamy pastels, with a seating area and vases of orange flowers. It used to be a small, famous hotel, this place. The gleaming black of a grand piano is just visible, peeking round the corner from the chairs.
Bocelli is led in, unsmiling. "I have a cold," he says, with that mixture of vulnerability and woebegone sullenness often found in small boys when they are ill and unhappy. But a cold perhaps underestimates it. A week ago he had to cancel his Birmingham concert due to bronchitis, and he is still clearly suffering.
There is an interpreter here to help with translation. Two obstacles to overcome: language difficulties that may hamper understanding; and blindness that may prevent all the non-verbal connections we instinctively make and take for granted, like eye-contact and smiles. Except Bocelli does not accept blindness as an obstacle to anything. His was caused mainly by congenital glaucoma when he was a child, but any remaining sight was destroyed in a football accident when he was 12 years old. The ball hit his head and caused internal haemorrhaging. His sight, I am told in advance, is the one thing he won't talk about.
He refuses to be defined as the blind opera singer because his musical achievements are not limited by his lack of sight. Bocelli has sold more than 60 million albums worldwide. His signature song, Time To Say Goodbye, was a worldwide number-one hit and his 1999 album, Sacred Arias, sold more than any other classical album by a solo artist. He earned a place in the Guinness Book Of Records for claiming the first, second and third places in the American classical charts and holding on to them for an astonishing three years. The people love him. The critics, less so.
Italian opera tenor Andrea Bocelli arrives on horseback for the annual concert at the Theatre of the Silence on July 18 this year
It is right he should not be defined by blindness. But of course it is relevant to an artist of any kind. How does not seeing the world affect your creative imagination? How does it affect the way you interpret your art? Bocelli blows his nose. "I saw, like you, for a time and then, when I stopped seeing, nothing changed. I kept on seeing in a different way." He quotes the words of the French writer Antoine de Saint Exupery. "The essential is invisible to the eye. That is so obvious that it is perhaps a little bit stupid." But then he says he is not interested in this subject. Why? What goes on inside someone's head is the most fascinating thing in the world. It's what distinguishes each of us from the person standing beside us.
Let's ask the question in a different way. What does he imagine when he sings? "When I sing, I think mostly about the music. But I know that, through singing, my body shows everything that I am. I am a very passionate man and I suffer a lot and have a lot of joy also. In my opinion, it is very important for me to find this stimulus and motivation for singing."
What causes him to suffer? "Just small things. You don't need big dramas. I suffer if I see a dog alone in the street. When in some part of the world I see children alone on the street, I suffer. I suffer if my relationship with my partner or friend does not work."
He is certainly drawn to beauty. "What is beautiful enchants me. I mean not just physical beauty but a wider concept of beauty. There is beauty in poetry and in great musical or singing performances. There is beauty everywhere if you can just see it."
That is partly what the public responds to in Bocelli's voice. His tone is generally regarded as very beautiful, his pitch secure. But he came to classical training late in his life and was virtually unknown up to the age of 34. Critics complain about the thinness of his voice, the faulty breathing and wayward phrasing. He needs a microphone, one opera singer tells me. But the public cares less about such things than opera buffs.
Does Bocelli himself want to be loved by people or admired by critics as one of the great tenors, like Pavarotti or Carreras? Bocelli reacts at the name Pavarotti, talks quickly in Italian to the interpreter. Pavarotti publicly admired Bocelli's voice and played a part in the younger man becoming famous. But Pavarotti was not completely accepted either. His second wife, Nicoletta, who was much younger than Pavarotti, told Bocelli that it was only after her husband died that she read praise of him. Bocelli has always stressed the importance of humility, and says he accepts criticism if it is constructive. He learns from it. "But if a critic talks about an artist and destroys them … why should a critic do that? I think we need to sing for the people," he says.
It is true that a great singer cannot be distilled into pure technique. There is something about Bocelli, a personal intensity, a liquid emotion in his voice, that women in particular respond to. (He may not like it, but his blindness adds to the sense of emotional vulnerability that his voice provokes.) Bocelli, one female fan tells me, is the only man apart from her husband who reduces her to tears. "I forgive them both and love Andrea more." Actress Liz Taylor said he had been kissed by God, while singer Celine Dion said if God had a singing voice it would sound like Bocelli's.
In his autobiography The Music Of Silence, Bocelli called himself Amos, the name of an old friend who tutored him throughout both his childhood and university days. Amos was a very important influence in his life, and Bocelli even called his eldest son after him. When his mentor died in an accident on Bocelli's 40th birthday, Bocelli ran to his first wife, Enrica, screaming that Amos was dead. Enrica became hysterical, thinking he meant their son. "It was a very hard day for me," says Bocelli, "because he was a point of reference. He was the place where I found all my certainties. But I learned from him to be brave, to have the strength to carry on."
Bocelli's book was more about his philosophy on life than a factual account of events. Now he says that he wrote it in a hurry because his father was dying and that the translation was not entirely satisfactory. "My style in Italian is very old-style," he says. Actually, that is exactly what the translation captures. "I try to describe my point of view in this life, why we are here. Where we go."
There is one advantage for an interviewer when their subject is blind. You can study them in a way that social convention normally makes impossible. Dressed simply in a white polo shirt, Bocelli sits still, but there is a restless quality, an irritation with confinement. His eyes are cast down most of the time, but every so often there is a flash of grey-blue. Grey hair curling up at the collar, warm skin tones, designer stubble: a conventionally handsome face, youthful for his 51 years, yet tempered in its attractiveness by an almost sullen quality today. There is a sense from Bocelli that he is a man of moods. Today he smiles little, makes none of the usual attempts at small talk that interviewees often do, especially when you have travelled a long way to see them. It is an observation rather than a criticism. If moody, he is also gentle, and one pop singer who performed with him told me how very kind he was to her. Besides, whatever drives Bocelli's emotional moods makes him the singer that he is.
He was born in Lajatico, in Tuscany, and brought up on his parents' farm. His glaucoma meant he had to go away to boarding schools that, from his descriptions, sound both austere and character-forming. Ironically, given the effect of his singing voice, he has always been drawn to danger, to things other people warned him away from: spirited horses, fast water sports and skiing. He had one brother, and of the two Bocelli boys, it was Andrea who was the more exuberant and difficult to handle. The Earthquake, they called him. But the one thing that calmed him from his youngest days was music. When he was in hospital as a child, his mother remembers him being fretful until he heard music through the wall from the room next door. He pressed himself up against the wall to listen.
From then on, he was given recordings of great Italian singers. His inspiration has always been the tenor Franco Corelli, who would later praise Bocelli's voice and give him masterclasses. Corelli is regarded by opera singers as the real deal, but even he was criticised in his lifetime for over-dramatic delivery. Knowing why he loved Corelli might give insight into the kind of singer Bocelli aspires to be. Why was he drawn to him? "Because he touched my heart." It is what he hopes he does for others. "I always hope to convey to others what I received. Music is able to make a person dream. When you dream, you dream of something good, something beautiful, and when you dream, you always dream of yourself better than you are."
He grew up in a close family. A shadow passes his face when asked about his father, Alessandro, who died in 2000. "I had a big admiration for him and kept many aspects of his personality. I admired his honesty and courage. He was a very quiet man."
His mother, Edi, is not so quiet. "She is a very strong woman. I am a character also, and we fight very often, me and my mother. But now, much better." He talks in English until the questions get more complex. In fact, his understanding of English is excellent. He even corrects the interpreter at one point, but at others hides behind him. His language failures seem selective.
Bocelli studied piano and sang regularly as a child, winning local singing competitions. But at first music was his passion rather than his vocation, and he studied to be a lawyer at Pisa University. Later he would sing in bars, waiting for his musical break. His book suggests he longed for success and did not take a regular job while pursuing it. But now Bocelli says it wasn't so dramatic, that life would not have been a failure if he hadn't made it. "Success is just an indigestion," he says.
It's like a huge meal that makes you unwilling to look at food for a while. "This is something we need to defend ourselves from. You lose childish enthusiasm, which is so indispensable for an artist. Naturally, I suffered from all consequences of this indigestion, and when I realised the risk I was running, then I stepped back from all this world made of lies and misunderstandings and found my childish soul."
Perhaps his marriage failure was a consequence of the indigestion? Bocelli had two sons, Amos and Matteo, with his wife Enrica, but they divorced in 2002. "We cannot blame just one thing," says Bocelli. Perhaps, he admits, success played its part. "But the marriage also broke because maybe there was not that much happiness. Otherwise it wouldn't be broken. Love is a vase that breaks up when fragile."
He sounds as if he liked women a lot when he was younger. "I said before I am a passionate man. Without love, there is darkness. Without love, it is cold." He falls in love easily? "In the past, I fell in love often, maybe confusing love with desire, which is something else. There is one and then the other."
Being with Veronica, he hopes, is the solution. She is an efficient, competent woman more than 20 years his junior. He has not married again; speculation has been that it is because of his Catholic faith. Bocelli has that very Italian combination of religious devotion and pragmatic love of life and women, but he says he is at peace because he has faith. "Without faith, one is in confusion every day because every day we have a day less for our lives. Or we believe in something after that, which is an inspiration."
He believes absolutely in God? "Every day is confirmation." Why? "Physicists suggest things happen by accident. I have a deep mistrust of that. Nothing happens by accident. I know that if I meet a car, somebody made that car. If I listen to eight strokes in time, then I know something reproduced the strokes. Man is a very complex machine that works and is designed, is created, and has a purpose on this earth."
I wonder if his purpose is only music. "It is a tool to work out what I am supposed to do." As a boy, he went through a period of being interested in both Karl Marx and Chinese communism. Has becoming wealthy changed any egalitarian instincts he might once have had? "I have been anti-communist since I was a child, but I have a serious sense of egalitarianism in my heart. Communism just aims at creating some kind of fake economic equality.
"There are no populations where communism succeeded in creating wealth for everyone. Who is beautiful remains beautiful and who is happy remains happy. Who is smart remains smart, who is healthy remains healthy and who is ill remains ill. So what sort of equality is that? What sort of equality is it if it does not come out of your heart? If a wealthy person can decide to help other people, this is the important thing. I believe in that communism. I believe in Christ's equality." He pauses. "Punto," he adds. "Full stop."
A man cannot plan the future, he says. All he can do is lay the foundations for it. But in the immediate future, he has a Christmas album out. It covers everything from secular favourites such as White Christmas, Jingle Bells and Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, to religious classics such as Silent Night, What Child Is This and Angels We Have Heard On High. It is Barti who gives me the list of songs when the interview is over. Andrea won't tell you, she says. He is an artist. He won't sell himself.
Certainly, he has little knowledge of his schedule. He will be singing in Glasgow next month, but when I ask him about it, he doesn't know he is going there. "I don't like travelling," he admits. "I hate the flights, the aeroplanes, the changed rooms every day. But I accept this condition because I am a lucky man with a gift from God. Music is a passion for me, something that I cannot be without. The day it is not like this, it won't be my job any more."
It begins and ends with music. Barti returns with an assistant to conclude the interview. I ask another question or two, but the caged quality from Bocelli is overwhelming. As soon as I say thank you, he stands up instantly, fervently, like a bird making for an open window. He heads straight to the gleaming piano and sits down to play. Stunning music, such very famous notes.
Later, on the train back to the airport, I realise Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata is trapped inside my head. It must have been that. At the time, I was too mesmerised by Bocelli's detachment to analyse the beautiful sound that filled the space between all of us in the room. He sat at the piano alone, seemingly oblivious to everything and everyone, an absolute study of self-containment.
Andrea Bocelli is playing at the SECC, Glasgow, on 8 November. His album, My Christmas, is released on 30 November
This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 25 October 2009