The opera singer Andrea Bocelli talks about his childhood blindness, singing for Pope Francis - and why's he's careful about his wine intake
It is a crisp winter’s day in New York City, and Andrea Bocelli, tall and elegant at 59, is talking about his faith. “In religion,” he says slowly, “is the meaning of life.”
He is in America for a series of concerts and speaks unhurriedly and deliberately, partly with the help of the elegant lady translator who sits to his left and partly, when he feels inspired, in his imperfect but adequate English, for which he unnecessarily but disarmingly volunteers an apology: “When I began to speak it I was already too old to learn very well. I do my best.” For religion, he is tackling it in English.
“I want to warn you,” he says, “that if we start talking about this we will not end soon – and I want to go to bed at some point today. But in just a few words … Either we are children of hazard, of chance – and I think that from my point of view, this would be quite disappointing and not very believable – or we consider ourselves as children of Somebody that wanted this, an intelligent entity that wanted us to exist. And if you choose to follow the road of believing that, then you start on a path that you cannot abandon afterwards. And that will give you many, many and very pleasant surprises.”
If anyone has earned his right to some pleasant surprises it is Bocelli. He is the elder of two sons from a middle-class family which owned a farm that sold agricultural machinery and made wine in the small Tuscan village of La Sterza. He suffered trauma before birth when his mother was rushed to hospital with appendicitis, which the doctors feared would have a disastrous effect on her unborn son.
“The doctors had to apply some ice on her stomach,” he once recounted at a concert, “and when the treatments ended the doctors suggested that she abort the child. They told her it was the best solution because the baby would be born with some disability. But the young brave wife decided not to abort, and the child was born. That woman was my mother, and I was the child. Maybe I’m partisan, but I can say it was the right choice.”
Although otherwise healthy, the young Andrea suffered from glaucoma and became completely blind at the age of 12 after being hit in the eye while playing football. His life was changed irredeemably. “Had it been an advantage,” he says now, dryly, of his condition, “people would not call it a handicap.” Luckily for him, he had his love of music to help him through.
“In my first 15 years I would listen almost exclusively to classical music and opera. When I was a kid I was kind of extremist in my view of music, so that anything that was not one of those two was B-rated for me. Of course none of my schoolmates were listening to this. They were all listening to pop or to the current success. They would make fun of me and say that I was listening to these people who were just yelling, and I would tell them that they were listening to music made by people who had no voice.
“And then I grew up and realised that in the world there isn’t just black and white, but there are a lot of shades in between. I learned that there is some very interesting music that is not opera, and I learned that there is some opera that is quite boring, too.”
From childhood, he was blessed with a celestial voice. “Since I was a boy I grew up knowing that I was a singer because everybody was asking me to sing. It would happen everywhere – at home, at school, and in church. There was just the one period when my voice changed. There’s a time during the life of everyone when this happens but especially in males when it changes totally. For a while I was no longer able to sing anything. And that was extremely frustrating for me and created a lot of difficulties.”
After he left school, and following the suggestion of his father, Alessandro, a lawyer, he went to the University of Pisa to study law, and even spent a year working as a court-appointed lawyer. But he admits now that his heart was never in it.
“I studied to become a lawyer to honour the family tradition and also in order not to make my father worry too much. And lastly because, although I was pretty young at that point, I realised that studying those sorts of things would have been useful for me later in life. But I never seriously thought that I would be a lawyer – not really.”
These days, of course, he is one of the most popular singers in the world, effortlessly crossing genres, from opera, to the once despised pop, to religious music.
His album Sacred Arias has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and remains the most successful classical crossover album by a solo artist of all time.
After some years of agnosticism in his youth, he was led back to the Church. “My faith was born in adulthood,” he told the Australian magazine The Catholic Leader, “when some existential questions became urgent. I realised that making any choice, we stand at a fork in the road – one path is leading towards the good, the second in the direction of evil … I chose the path that seemed more logical, which my intelligence, though limited, identified as a path without alternative. Faith is a truly priceless gift that I try to maintain and deepen, and it supports me day after day.”
He says that singing in front of Pope Francis is among his proudest achievements. As he recently wrote in Time magazine: “Having the chance to sing … in front of the Holy Father, for whom I have deep and sincere devotion, offering my humble contribution as a fervent Catholic, is a great honour for me. St Augustine notoriously reminds us that singing is an extraordinary form of prayer. And that is my goal, my purpose and my joy: to pray together.”
His current tour is a more secular one. Like many of his tours, it is something of a whistle-stop one. Ask him about it and he looks a little dazed. “I sang already in Cleveland and in Detroit yesterday – for this I am a little bit tired. And next week I will be in Chicago and … then I don’t remember. My programmes for my life are never beyond 48 hours. Someone told me that people who make plans for more than 24 hours in advance, that is not wise of them. But luckily there are not-so-wise people in my life who make plans for me, and that allows me to go ahead with my work.”
When he is not working he lives quietly with his wife and manager, Veronica Berti, between their two homes in Forte dei Marmi, Tuscany, and Miami Beach, Florida. He lives simply, but enjoys the occasional glass of the family wine. “The most typical of their wines is a Sangiovese, and it’s called Terra di Sandro, Lands of Sandro – Sandro was my father. I don’t want to advertise it here because it’s not the right place, but they make a very good wine.
“The problem is that there is an expression in Italy that says ‘Wine makes you sing, but it makes you sing badly’. So my singing voice is not due to too much wine. There is another saying in Italy, that when you do something too much, then you ruin it. You have to do things in the right amount.”
And Andrea Bocelli appears to be doing exactly that.
Gabrielle Donnelly is a freelance journalist
This article first appeared in the December 22 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here