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From Piano Bars to Puccini

Justin Davidson is music critic for Newsday

The Italian super-crooner Andrea Bocelli is a cluster of anomalies. He became a pop star without radio and a chart-topping lyric tenor virtually without singing opera. His 1997 CD “Romanza” is an album of moist ballads, but in his stadium concerts he belts out serious opera arias. He is a fixture of television who cannot see himself on screen, and a romantic idol who is pushing middle age. He has sold the world some 20 million records over the last six years but is nevertheless up for a Grammy for best new artist, the first classical musician to earn that nomination since soprano Leontyne Price in 1963. (She didn’t win.)

Bocelli is not a born performer. In concert, he stands motionless at the microphone, hands gripping a silk scarf, his talisman against stage fright. His blindness--triggered by a childhood soccer accident that aggravated a case of glaucoma--can make him seem merely contemplative, since his eyelids are permanently closed; his seriousness dissolves only briefly, between numbers. He offers no act, no mugging, no tabloid-tempting antics, no riotous love life or outrageous claims. He is self-effacing, diligent and unfailingly polite--social virtues of the sort to make a mother-in-law smile and a publicist cringe.

But though nothing about the 40-year-old singer’s vertiginous trajectory to worldwide celebrity has been ordinary or repeatable, he is nevertheless surfing on a vortex of marketing and trends in taste.

Already he has appeared on a steadily escalating series of broadcast “occasions”; he’s due to make an appearance at the Grammys on Wednesday; and he will almost certainly sing at the Oscars with Celine Dion on March 21--the brassiest TV ring of them all. (“The Prayer,” the song by Carol Bayer Sager they recorded for “Quest for Camelot,” has been nominated.)

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Bocelli has always made it clear that his first and perpetual love is opera, where things have been going more slowly for him. He has appeared in a few productions, in Italy’s provincial theaters, and he makes his U.S. operatic debut at Detroit’s Michigan Opera Theater next fall, singing the title role in Massenet’s “Werther” opposite mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. (He has also just finished recording Puccini’s “La Boheme” with soprano Barbara Frittoli and the Israel Philharmonic, conducted by Zubin Mehta.)

To the tenor, the fact that his late-blooming operatic life has been hitched to his pop success only shows that careers can move with mercurial unpredictability.

“When I was younger, if I had shown up to audition in an opera house, they would have suggested I check into a lunatic asylum,” Bocelli says. “So my misfortune turned into my good fortune. If I had been able to follow a more usual path, I would have done so, and I probably would have been less famous.”

The models for his dual career are as deceptive as they are obvious. Luciano Pavarotti translated his limited opera-house appeal to the world-spanning media of television and stadium tours; Bocelli is attempting to do the opposite. Enrico Caruso performed popular music as well as opera, but he gave mostly old Neapolitan ballads the full lyric treatment; Bocelli sings new songs in a lightly husky croon. Mario Lanza was a true pop tenor, but he had more operatic training than inclination; Bocelli has had to bring his technique up to the level of his passion.

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When classical music critics have responded to Bocelli’s operatic aspirations, it has generally been with brimstone. “His tone is occasionally sweet but more often thin and pallid, the musical equivalent of violet-flavored candy,” wrote Tim Page in the Washington Post when Bocelli made a rare unamplified appearance. “In short, Bocelli is a rank amateur, albeit one gifted with a few--very few--wonderful sounds.”

The tenor does not rise to the opportunity to defend himself from such attacks and seems almost to agree. “I’m never happy with the way I sing,” he says. “I just hope that, despite my defects, I can communicate my emotions.”

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Bocelli grew up on a Tuscan vineyard and, having sought out the great retired tenor Franco Corelli for lessons, spent his late 20s making the rounds of piano bars, leaving a law degree and a year as a public defender moldering on his resume. But when he eventually arrived in the right offices, he found that he was expected. Even as he was materializing, the apparatus for promoting him was already being assembled. By the time he was ready to be famous, he found the machinery loaded and cocked.

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The process began when one-name Italian pop singer Zucchero held auditions for a demo tape to send to Pavarotti in order to persuade the tenorissimo to join him in a duet. Bocelli won the audition and recorded the song, called “Miserere.” Pavarotti received the tape with an elegant and momentous brushoff: “Thank you for writing such a wonderful song. Yet you do not need me to sing it--let Andrea sing ‘Miserere’ with you, for there is no one finer.”

Pavarotti’s compliment, as it turned out, was not just a vague, benevolent word tossed to a young unknown. Bocelli soon became an official Friend of Luciano and participated in one of his annual musical charity affairs. Soon, he had a record contract with the venerable Italian music company Sugar, which supplied him with a repertoire of palpitating melodies, a background of sticky synthesizers and a wash of electronic reverberation. Bocelli’s plangent, intimate voice was pleasing enough, but what distinguished his music from other soft-focus European pop were the refrains, in which he could open the valves of his larynx and let his lyric tenor flow.

It was that effortless vaulting between utterly different types of voice production that grabbed the lapels of Costa Pilavachi, president of PolyGram’s classical label Philips, in 1995. PolyGram had just signed Bocelli for international distribution, and executives at the company’s Dutch headquarters decided they needed the opinion of their expert in operatic affairs.

“I’d never heard of him,” Pilavachi said, “and when they played me [the pop tune] ‘Il mare calmo della sera,’ at first I didn’t know what they had called me for. Then I realized he has another dimension that no pop singer has ever had before.”

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Bocelli had already made a recording of opera arias, “Viaggio Italiano,” which was quickly cobbled together in Moscow with a rented Russian orchestra. It’s an oddly uneven recording by an unfinished tenor with a light and limpid voice, ringing top notes and wobbly technique. “La donna e mobile” begins brightly but then gets suddenly clumsy in the cascading runs at the end.

“I sent it to one of my producers in London without any name on it or any comment,” Pilavachi says. “And she wrote back, saying that she found it infuriating and inspiring, that half of it sounded better than any tenor she had ever heard and the other half made her want to sit down with him and give him some basic coaching.”

Pilavachi was sold, and he made the extraordinary move of signing Bocelli to the classical division months before he heard him sing live or without a microphone.

“A lot of tenors can sound insipid,” he says, “but here was a tenor voice with a baritonal tinge and a fast vibrato, which makes him sound more masculine and more virile. I found it very affecting.”

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To opera initiates, Bocelli’s light, polished-chrome sound and vigorous good manners recall a breed of Italian tenors that has all but disappeared. To the rest of the world, though, says Filippo Sugar of Sugar Records, “His voice is very contemporary. Andrea is more listenable for an audience that isn’t used to opera.” In other words, he may be a genuine lyric tenor, but he doesn’t sound like one.

It was as a pop singer that Bocelli collected European laurels, but those were successes that meant nothing in the United States. One crucial fact about pop music in this country is that it is sold over the radio, by drilling a few designated songs into the brains of 18-to 35-year-olds. And American pop stations--surprisingly parochial in the Global Age--won’t touch a song that isn’t in English.

But Bocelli’s arrival coincided with a new development in the music industry, and PolyGram was at the center of it: Call it crossover chic.

As classical music sales have flagged and hybrid styles have proliferated, versatile classical musicians capable of making credible stabs at popular genres have become increasingly precious. As recently as 1995, the core classical repertory accounted for 90% of sales at PolyGram’s classical labels, with crossover a 10% afterthought. Today, that ratio is about 50-50.

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The torchbearers of the new genre claim that it is not whittling away at the business of classical music but is actually bait to lure the unwashed into concert halls and opera houses. Yet crossover is no longer just an ancillary concept, but a corporate marketing entity of its own. (This year’s Grammys feature the first award for the classical crossover category--oddly, Bocelli is not a nominee.) Last May, PolyGram became the first company to create a separate marketing division that gives a home to homeless styles and erases the lines that crossover must cross. The head of that division in the United States is Lisa Altman, who speaks of Bocelli in tones generally reserved for fragments of Christ’s cross. “He’s the real, true crossover artist,” she says.

Altman was pregnant and on a regimen of bed rest when Pilavachi showed up at her home with a tape in January 1996. “I called him up [later] and I said, ‘Costa, I can sell this, this is fantastic; you’ve got to get this,’ ” she recalls. “But we need PBS.”

With radio not an option, Altman needed a marketing tool, and the audience for public television, she knew, shared a demographic profile with Bocelli’s natural public: women 40 and older--"lifelong learners” in the terminology of PBS. Altman and Pilavachi approached David Horn, the music programming director at New York’s WNET/13, who had put the Three Tenors on the air.

“The advantage we had with Bocelli,” Horn says, “is that in addition to this voice, there’s something that’s appealing to this guy. He’s good-looking, and Americans really embrace someone who speaks broken English.”

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PolyGram paid for, produced and controlled “Bocelli, a Night in Tuscany,” which first aired nationwide during the December 1997 pledge campaign and served the dual function of boosting Bocelli’s records and PBS’ coffers. It’s a tricky symbiosis. Horn insists that he did not agree to make the show just because PolyGram was providing free content, but he does concede that, “If I didn’t believe in it artistically, it would be like [PolyGram’s] buying air time.” Which means that the Bocelli phenomenon is the result of yet another form of crossover: the dissolving distinction between product and promotion.

One ancillary benefit to PolyGram was that showing Bocelli on camera would bring out an affecting disability that the company did not want to emphasize explicitly. Bocelli’s blindness, Altman says a trifle defensively, has “never been something that we’ve mentioned or played to. If anything, we’ve completely avoided it. It’s only been through the course of interviews that the question gets raised. We’ve done nothing to play that up.”

Horn is pragmatic about the issue. “Originally, I thought that his blindness would be perceived as a gimmick,” he says. “But my premise was that this guy was selling romance and, because he’s blind, he has a certain vulnerability. So we went to Italy, we put him in an environment, we did some packaging. It was ‘A Room With a View.’ ”

The program showed the singer riding a white horse through creamy morning light, inspecting the family vines with his brother and father, strolling along the beach with his wife and son, surrounded by kin and chatter at a long lunch table, and giving a concert of opera arias in the main piazza of Pisa, Italy. For PolyGram, the effect was immediate: “Romanza” (which contains no opera) went gold within three weeks. For PBS, the show was more of a time-release capsule.

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“Most shows find their fund-raising value decreasing after they get seen once,” Horn says. “This one made more money as stations kept showing it. It hasn’t stopped yet.”

Among PBS’ “lifelong learners” is Elaine Wynn, wife of Mirage Resorts Chairman Steve Wynn and a casual opera lover, and it was she who brought to its apogee the process of mutual marketing that surrounds Bocelli. When Bellagio, the Wynns’ Italianate city-state of a resort in Las Vegas, opened in October, the TV spots for it came bundled with an anthem: Bocelli’s voice serenading a smoldering couple with his signature song “Con te partiro.” Suddenly, record stores everywhere were flooded with customers looking for music by the anonymous heart-melter, and PolyGram began affixing a new sticker to copies of “Romanza”: “The voice in the Bellagio resort TV commercial.” Television came to life on New Year’s Eve, when Bocelli gave a concert at the resort.

To Elaine Wynn, the Bocelli connection was another luxury attribute of a place that aspired to buck Las Vegas’ reputation for cut-rate neon.

“In trying to establish the resort as the new statement in the world of romance and charm and elegance with an Italian connection, we’ve tried to elevate the perception of the property in many ways,” she says. “We have an art collection and more award-winning chefs under one roof than anywhere in the world. The performing arts are part of that, too.”

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Whether Bocelli’s evident success in peddling a hazy Italian fantasy will translate into an operatic career is difficult to predict, but that is clearly what he wants. He would gladly give up pop music altogether, except, he says, that “I don’t feel I’m really credible enough yet [as an opera singer]. I still have to suffer a little while longer.”

There is another problem, too: He has turned into his own franchise. “What I would really need now is to call a halt and give myself a year or two off for reflection and study,” he says. “But that’s not possible--if I stop, a whole machinery grinds to a halt.”

In the meantime, he has continued to study voice since “Viaggio Italiano” was made, and Mehta does not qualify his praise for his new Rodolfo in “La Boheme”: “He is really singing with a great Italian opera style, he knows the traditions very well and pronounces beautifully, which in Italian opera goes a long way. Also, there’s a certain phenomenon of communication. He can’t see me conduct, but he feels and hears so wonderfully.”

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Bocelli is philosophical about his prospects: “Fellini used to say, ‘We have a lot of plans for the future, but often the future has completely different plans for us.’ So, if opera finds a need for me, it will find me at its disposal.”


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