Beyond the criticism: Deconstructing Andrea Bocelli’s voice
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Steven Mercurio knows Andrea Bocelli well. The dynamic New York-based conductor has guided some of the world’s best singers, including Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo, on celebrated opera stages. Because of his passionate approach to all styles of music, and his natural talents as a teacher, Mercurio was called upon to school Bocelli through his first starring performance in an opera, Rodolfo in ‘La Boheme,’ in 1998. Since then Mercurio has conducted Bocelli in countless stage performances and recordings, arranged many of his songs, and been his good friend.
I didn’t want to devote my Los Angeles Times profile of Bocelli, who’s appearing Friday at Staples Center, to retreading the timeworn critical controversy over his voice. But I did want to hear from the straight-shooting Mercurio, whose infectious energy is matched by his musical intelligence. I asked him to explain, if he didn’t mind, Bocelli’s vocal range to me. He didn’t mind at all.
‘I believe Andrea’s voice is similar to the way people sang bel canto at the time bel canto was written,’ Mercurio said. ‘It was a chest voice admittedly up to G, maybe A-flat. Everything after that, basically from A-flat or A on, goes into a mixed voice. It’s half head, half chest. Andrea can get to a G, maybe an A-flat, in that full voice. After that, which was bel canto tradition, they turned it into, if not a real falsetto, a mixed voice. If you look at some of these old Donizetti things, written up to high Bs, by the time they were singing that high, they were singing in a falsetto. Andrea has always had this sort of half voice.
‘Now, if you’re trying to sing B-flat and Cs, which opera singers like the Marcello Giordanis of the world do, well, they’re singing those high notes in full voice. And when they sing over an orchestra, they cut glass. In other words, it gets really exciting. Whereas Andrea’s voice, amplified, is just fine. Singing that stuff on stage unamplified is where the issue is.’
How would he explain Bocelli’s popularity?
‘Andrea’s voice comes originally from the pop side,’ Mercurio said. ‘It comes from the pop side so it speaks clearly. And so when he sings opera in that style it doesn’t sound overly mannered. Now that has pros and cons. This is where the big battle comes. Because the opera purist will say, ‘Well, that’s not really an opera voice. Because he can’t do what the so-called real opera singers do on stage. He can’t do those high notes. They don’t grow and get bigger.’ But therefore he’s less histrionic. ‘So people who are coming from a non-opera background will say, ‘Oh, isn’t it nice to hear that?’ Because Andrea doesn’t sound like he’s exaggerating, he sounds like he’s just singing in a nice lyrical way. So it’s easy for people to approach that without feeling like they’re hearing somebody barking in that exaggerated operatic way. People who don’t know how to approach opera.
‘But people can get to opera by liking Andrea’s pop stuff. And when he sings opera or classical stuff, since it’s all amplified, and recorded, and he’s singing in that nice lyric way, they won’t feel put-off. That’s a big point of contention for the real opera fan or the real opera critic. They’re saying that’s not real. That’s a recording studio or an amplified reality. What happens to the poor opera singer who lives day in and day out, who’s screaming their guts out, trying to cut over an orchestra? Of course they’re going to sound more histrionic, even on recording, because that’s the way they sing. Likewise, that’s why a lot of opera singers, when they sing pop music, tend to sound exaggerated. Because they learn what the Italians call l'impostazione, a way of placing the voice in this way to cut glass over the second row, and they don’t know how to turn that off.’
-- Kevin Berger