Mamma mia! According to my tape recorder, just six minutes and 52 seconds have elapsed since I met the tenor Andrea Bocelli and he has just announced that he “haf a beeg reeespect for sex.” A big respect for sex? “Yes, a beeg reeespect for sex.”
There are several of us in this New York hotel room, but I appear to be the only one with a blush rising from their neck, and I soon realise that this is because I am the only one who is not from Italy. Of course Bocelli haf a beeg reeespect for sex. He is Italian, the most famous Italian after Silvio Berlusconi now I come to think about it – a section of the Adriatic coast is named after him – and, much like the Italian prime minister, Bocelli’s voice seems to make women’s clothes fall off, as witnessed the night before when he performed to a packed Central Park.
It was tipping with rain and so cold that the teeth of the pregnant woman sitting next to me started to chatter, and we had to fashion a blanket for her out of various cagoules, yet still she swooned as the Italian love god made his way through arias from La Traviata and La Bohème. Opera snobs are terribly snooty about Bocelli’s particular brand of “popera” – Time To Say Goodbye, which he does with Sarah Brightman, is possibly the cheesiest song ever to have been recorded – but I imagine that as he sang to the crowd in Central Park, he couldn’t have given two hoots.
He is the first “classical crossover artist”, which is another way of saying “popular”, and has sold more than 70 million albums worldwide. It’s amazing how many seemingly cool and hip people have a Bocelli ferreted away on their iPod. Anyway, as Celine Dion joined him on stage, I must confess that I, too, embraced the cheese. Chuck in a rendition of Time to Say Goodbye, finish with a rousing Nessun Dorma, and Manhattan felt as if it might just float away on a cloud of oestrogen.
Fast-forward to the next day, and Bocelli, 53, has just announced that he “haf a beeg reeespect for sex”. This is confusing, to put it mildly. I’ve just asked him what he thinks about the likes of Lady Gaga and Rihanna in their uniforms of PVC and I wonder if we haven’t got something lost in translation; he speaks very little English, I know barely any Italian, and so someone must sit between us in an attempt to make sense of everything. It’s a rather tortuous process, and one that hardly makes for the most free-flowing of interviews.
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“I am a verry passionate man,” he says in pidgin English. “I do haf a verry beeg reeespect for sex.” All right, Andrea, I know. “And so it is for thees reason that I do not like it when sex becomes an eenstrument for music.” An instrument for music? “Si.”
He is too much of an Italian gentleman to call the likes of Rihanna and Gaga whores of Babylon –“I express judgments only on things that I know very well such as opera and classical music and in this case I can’t” – but it wouldn’t surprise me if he was thinking something along those lines.
He is a committed Catholic. He tells me that religion has “first place in my life. I do not think anyone can ever do anything without the help and will of God.” He is passionately pro-life, and last year filmed a video expressing his views, which, when posted on the web, was hailed by anti-abortion campaigners as “one of the most beautiful, authentic things ever seen”.
In it, Bocelli sits at a piano and tells the camera that he wants to recount a “little story” about a young pregnant woman who is admitted to hospital with a misdiagnosed case of appendicitis. After tests, “the doctors advised her to abort the child. They told her that would be the best solution because the child would doubtless be born with some kind of disability. But the courageous young wife decided not to terminate the pregnancy, and the child was born. The woman was my mother, I was the child.”
Bocelli was born with sight problems and was eventually diagnosed with congenital glaucoma. At the age of 12, he went completely blind following an accident during a football game. But this hasn’t held him back. You get the sense that many people are actually endeared to him because of it, but he refuses to talk about his blindness, perhaps because he is tired of being defined by it. “Let’s go to the next question,” he says when I bring the subject up.
His views on abortion are well rehearsed, and he has heard about Nadine Dorries and her recent attempt to strip termination clinics of their counselling roles. He interrupts the translator as she relays my question and says very firmly, which I repeat in full here: “You ask me before of my point of view about religion, and I told you I am very religious. It means that before I fight against something, I try to fight in favour of something.
“It is not Christian to go against someone. I am in favour of life. And, of course, personally I do not share the idea of
being able to interrupt life arbitrarily. But I cannot be the judge of those who decide in a different way. As much as I can, I show them an example and act as a role model, because I believe this is the only way.”
He isn’t cross when he says this – on the contrary, the tone is calm and measured.
Bocelli has two teenage sons with his estranged wife – the boys are here with him in New York – though his Catholicism has perhaps prevented him from divorcing her and he is about to have a third child with his girlfriend and manager, Veronica Berti. “I am a very lazy man, so, for me, the dream is to be at home on the chair [I think he means sofa] with my family.” Later that day, he will decide at a moment’s notice to fly back to his home in Tuscany on his private jet.
Does he worry about Italy? Downstairs in the hotel lobby, his 30-year-old assistant Francesco spoke passionately about how disgusted he was by Berlusconi, how disillusioned he was with what the country had become. “I have met him [Berlusconi] several times,” says Bocelli.
“He is a very intelligent man. He is very, very kind and, err, he has a great will.” Really? “A strong will.” Goodness, I’d hate to see him when he’s being weak-willed, then. “Of course, I am not happy about this as an Italian citizen.” Would he ever run for prime minister? A smile creeps across his face. “I prefer to work for my country in a free and independent way. I was born free, and I want to die free. I am always suspicious of ideology. Instead, I respect men with ideas.”
I tell him he is very wise. “Grazie mille,” he says nodding. Then the most popular Italian in the world loses his battle with a yawn, and I take my cue to leave. Tiredness is a language we all understand.
‘Andrea Bocelli Concerto: One Night In Central Park’ is out on November 14 2011 on Sugar/Universal
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