Countering Classical Gripes Against Andrea Bocelli
Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli has sold over 75 million records worldwide since bursting onto the classical scene at the Sanremo Festival in 1994, becoming the genre’s biggest selling artist in the process, as well as achieving nominations at the Grammy, Golden Globe and Academy Awards, scoring eight Billboard classical chart number ones and receiving a knighthood in his homeland for services to the arts.
However, rather than celebrate his monumental success, the slightly stuffy world of opera has instead chosen to sneer at his achievements and dismiss his talents as a credible artist. Indeed the list of charges brought against him by his harshest critics is endless. Lack of technique, inadequate breath control, careless phrasing, unclear diction, rasping thin tone, wayward intonation, poor expression – just some of the multitude of sins Bocelli is apparently guilty of on a regular basis.
Alongside professional reviewers such as New York Times’ Bernard Holland (“The critics’ duty is to report that Andrea Bocelli is not a very good singer”), Zachary Woolfe (“In Mr Bocelli’s conception of the canon, there is little audible difference between Handel and Gounod, and little urgency to either, a bland homogeneity”) and Norman Lebrecht (“Bocelli is plain and simple a San Remo smoocher who was snapped up by desperate classical labels as a marketing gimmick”) some of his fellow artists have also expressed their disdain at his popularity, including the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Richard Tognetti (“There is a glossification in music. I mean we are humped into the same industry as Bocelli. It’s ridiculous”).
However, without any formal training, it’s perhaps understandable that the Tuscan multi-instrumentalist may not possess the same qualities as those who have studied at the most prestigious conservatoire. According to Steven Mercurio, the New York-based conductor who guided Bocelli through his first starring performance in an opera as La Boheme’s Rodolfo in 1998, his former cohort’s technique is admittedly far more inspired by the way people sang bel canto in the late 17th century, a half-head, half-chest voice which sounds warmer and less exaggerated than the operatic approach, but one which lacks the power to be projected unamplified above a full orchestra.
Considering the vitriol launched against him by some circles, however, it’s easy to forget that Bocelli was in fact championed by arguably one of the most celebrated and respected tenors of the 20th Century in Luciano Pavarotti, who after hearing an early demo tape, urged Zucchero, albeit unsuccessfully, to record 1992’s “Miserere” with a then-unknown Bocelli instead of him. Whilst the equally lauded Placido Domingo invited Bocelli to perform Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle with him back in 2008.
Of course, it’s the collaborators at the more mainstream pop end of the spectrum that have helped Bocelli to shift the kind of units that even most stadium rock acts would struggle to surpass. From soul diva Mary J. Blige (“What Child Is This”) to power balladeer Celine Dion (“The Prayer”) to French chanteuse Helene Segara (“Je Vis Pour Elle”), Bocelli’s star-studded duets have been instrumental in the rise of the classical crossover genre, none more so than “Time To Say Goodbye (Con Te Partiro),” the romantic ballad featuring Sarah Brightman that sold an incredible 12 million copies over the summer of 1997.
Unsurprisingly, it’s this willingness to experiment with acts outside the constraints of the classical world that has encouraged purists to get their claws out again, arguing that such partnerships sully the classical canon, tarnish the reputation of the genre and give people the wrong impression about their much-loved music of choice.
But while his performances on ITV celebrity talent show Popstar To Operastar and rendition of “Jingle Bells” on The Muppets may not be in keeping with the elite’s idea of what classical music should be about, they may be imperative to its survival. Indeed, it’s unlikely that audiences who grew up on MTV are ever likely to dive headfirst into the world of Caruso and Callas without experiencing a taste of less challenging fare, of which the likes of 1999’s Sogno and 2006’s Amore are evidently far more sophisticated than say Cowell’s opera boyband Il Divo.
As for Bocelli himself, he doesn’t seem too concerned about his detractors (“Who could reasonably hope to be beyond criticism? The secret is succeeding in distinguishing constructive criticism from the rest, as it helps us to grow and improve. The rest is simply useless”). But it still seems rather unfortunate that the man who single-handedly made such a demanding form of art accessible to a wider audience should be pilloried for doing so.