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September 2, 2014

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Q+A: Andrea Bocelli talks Las Vegas, touring, Celine Dion and the importance of opera

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Tom Donoghue/DonoghuePhotography.com

Andrea Bocelli’s “One Night in Las Vegas” with conductor Eugene Kohn, soprano Maria Aleida and mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins at the sold-out MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012.

Andrea Bocelli at MGM Grand on Nov. 24, 2012

Andrea Bocelli's Launch slideshow »

Andrea Bocelli at MGM Grand Garden Arena

Andrea Bocelli performs at MGM Grand Garden Arena on Dec. 10, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Andrea Bocelli Passione

Classical and crossover-pop superstar Andrea Bocelli is the biggest-selling artist in the history of classical music. His chart successes are beyond awesome:

He’s recorded 14 solo studio albums, nine complete operas and three greatest-hits albums, selling nearly 100 million copies. Incredibly, 10 of his albums topped Billboard’s Top 10 of the U.S. classical charts, and he still holds the Guinness Book of World Record for simultaneously charting its Top Three slots.

It was no easy journey for the man hailed as the most popular Italian and classical singer in the world. Born with poor eyesight — congenital glaucoma — he became fully blind after a football accident when he was 12 in 1970. To put himself through school, he sang in piano bars and graduated with a law degree at the University of Pisa and was a court-appointed lawyer for a year.

Even more amazing, the 55-year-old tenor went back to school and received his master’s in vocal performance at Pucci Conservatory of Music in La Spezia this fall. His 70-page thesis about the value and meaning of opera included a contribution from fellow tenor Placido Domingo.

Andrea returns to America this month for a run of concerts that begins this Saturday at MGM Grand Garden Arena. This is his fifth concert performance at MGM, although he has made special appearances here for Andre Agassi’s Grand Slam and his first-ever appearance at Bellagio in 2000 for a high-roller private show. This time, Andrea will be joined by conductor Eugene Kohn, soprano Svetla Vassileva and Tony- and Grammy-winning guest vocalist Heather Headley.

As is now tradition, his holiday-timed U.S. tour wins loud cheers and standing ovations year after year. He’s celebrating the success of his most recent release, “Passione,” and the accompanying PBS special “Love in Portofino.” “Passione” is a lush collection of Mediterranean love songs featuring duets with Jennifer Lopez, Nelly Furtado and the late Edith Piaf and reunited him with my good friend Las Vegas regular and 16-time Grammy-winning producer David Foster. (He produced Andrea’s “Amore” from 2006, which has sold nearly 5 million copies.)

Andrea has won more awards than we have space to post, but suffice to say he has been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He lives in the Italian seaside town of Forte dei Marmi, just south of Milan, with his longtime partner Veronic Berti.

I have met Andrea a few times here but until now didn’t have the opportunity for a full interview. Before he left Italy for his new part-time residence in Miami, I received an invitation to conduct the following Q+A. It provides a rare, intimate and candid passport into the life and thoughts of one of the world’s best singers.

The interview is not edited in any way; the translation from Italian to English is left intact, including his own colloquial English. I hope you enjoy his answers as much as I did asking the questions.

Do you look forward to coming to Las Vegas to celebrate the holiday season?

I always come back very willingly. When I land in the U.S., I never feel that slight discomfort that I might sum up by saying I am abroad, meaning to be far from my roots. Despite the ocean dividing us, here I have many friends and many memories. And in Las Vegas perhaps even more. As it has already happened, alas, several times, my stay in your town will not be as long as I would have liked to, but I have to submit to the rhythms of my professional agenda. This year after a series of concerts, I will spend Christmas Eve and Day in the U.S. Even my two older sons will join us, and our family will gather in Florida.

What do you like about Las Vegas? Have you ever done something here to relax? Any favorite Vegas thing to do? Would you ever record in our studios here?

Las Vegas is the tangible expression of the strength of man, of his incredible potential. … I love the contrasts of this city. I am attracted by its architectural modernity and by its services, and this is even more striking because it’s opposed to a surrounding, fascinating but wild nature. Usually before a concert in Las Vegas, I am staying at the hotel to study and concentrate while my partner and my children take the opportunity to go shopping in the marvelous shops your city has to offer.

As for the recording studios, it would be a wonderful idea because I know the level of professionalism of your structures. I must confess that I find it convenient but also artistically fruitful to use the recording studio attached to my house where I regularly perform recording sessions for professional projects and my personal pleasure. I think that recording in my home studio has its importance; it provides a great deal of freedom, and it creates the ideal climate to give an artistic product of the best possible quality.

You can decide when it is the best time to turn on your microphone, according to the inspiration and to your voice health conditions, in an atmosphere of creativity and music, which surely contributes to a better result.

Do you enjoy the annual touring schedules? How strenuous is it for you? When do you enjoy off time, and where do you spend it? How many days a year do you travel for concerts?

I do not like flying, nor can I say that I have gotten used to leaving my home and my Tuscany, although for the past 20 years my life has been punctuated by aircrafts. Mine is a wandering life. The rhythms it requires always cost me physical and psychological strain. I spend most part of the year abroad, and every time I have to leave the peace and the happiness of my house and, most of all of my loved ones, this separation makes me suffer a lot.

At the same time, I am perfectly aware how wonderful my work is, and I feel real gratitude toward my public. I can watch all the time touching scenes during my concerts. How can I remain indifferent in the face of such, and never quite deserved, affection? I try to honor such a privilege, this great gift heaven has given me. And all this motivates me to move forward and to travel all over the world for the umpteenth time.

My stays in the U.S. are an exception if compared to my desire to get back home so much that I have recently taken a foothold in Miami where I allow myself a few days of rest. But in Europe, I try to minimize downtime, often to the point that I can leave and return within 24 hours.

Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion

Andrea Bocelli and David Foster in Las Vegas

Andrea Bocelli Nessun Dorma in Central Park in 2011

Andrea Bocelli Edith Piaf Veronic Berti La Vie En Rose

Britney Spears will have arrived in Las Vegas when you get here to start her new residency. What do you think of today’s music: rappers, Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus’ twerking?

I think all the best of every expression of human creativity. I think every genre has its own beauty and that it is capable of giving emotions (and messages) to people. I also think that in every field, there are great professionals to whom I extend all my admiration and respect for their activity and their successes. I do not have any kind of prejudice.

As I always say, my only discrimination is between good and bad music. And it is easy to distinguish it, as the fundamental difference lies in the consequences it generates. Beautiful music is the one that, though often more difficult to approach, slowly enters inside you and helps you to grow spiritually, making you feel better.

In a sense, Cato from Utica, an intellectual politician of Ancient Rome who lived 2,000 years ago, was perfectly right when he suggested the rulers of the time to prevent soldiers from listening to music because in his opinion this art was likely to soften their mood, thus making the warriors unable to fight. Today, as we don’t want any more conflicts or violence, music — good music because the bad one can generate the opposite — can be an important component to oppose aggression instinct, which may easily lead to violence.

Which leads into your thesis on the relevance of opera today in the third millennium. Congratulations! Why is it so important we keep the classics of music? Why did you decide to go back to school this year for a second time (after the law degree)? Is there a third educational achievement that you want to pursue?

This experience as a student has been very stimulating. I have had the possibility to deepen certain topics that — after 20 years of career — I perceive as fundamental for my artistic field. About the content of my thesis, I believe that the value and meaning of opera singing, at the beginning of the third millennium, remain intact.

In fact they acquire further and wider characteristics because in front of the predominant risk of giving way to superficiality in every field of expression, opera singing is able to deal with such a drift: It is a form of art that uplifts the spirit and allows you to express the inexpressible.

Opera singing is in every way of inestimable value; a real heritage for all mankind that has been reached over centuries of studies, attempts, flights of the spirit. Just in the last pages of my thesis, I remark how music and as a consequence singing to which it belongs are as once brilliantly said by the famous German philosopher from Leipzig, Leibniz, “a hidden arithmetic exercise of the soul which does not know that it is counting.”

Do you “feel” the music and the words better, more intimately, more meaningfully than being able to look at them? Please explain that added sense you possess.

Singing is not just to modulate a song by means of the voice: We sing the masterpiece of art that is inside us (the mirror, for a believer as I am, of the wonder of creation), we celebrate the beauty that we can grow and live every day. Whatever is the repertoire, the subject of the verb “to sing” inevitably reflects in the direct object of his/her inner life.

If you want to sing and give emotions to those who are listening, you must have something to tell through your singing; you must use singing as an instrument to tell something. This something is the sum of experience; it is the richness you acquire living. To sing well, you must have many passions; you must learn how to develop a passion for life.

I am not being insensitive, so forgive me, but what do you “see” better than we do? How do you sense an audience and a new city?

When I sing, I do not make any difference, neither the place nor the dimensions of my audience, if it is a new “place” or one where I have already been other times. In front of a huge crowd or in my house for a few close friends, for me it is the same. If I look back, I am tempted to say that I have appreciated every concert the same way because every performance has had its importance. … A career is like a house made of many bricks; you can’t throw away any, otherwise the house can run the risk to collapse.

By nature, I am emotional and inevitably every time I get onstage I feel a little bit of apprehension, which gradually melts while performing. After all, I think that to feel excited is a legitimate feeling, when you have a great respect for music and for your public. A public made of people who have decided to spend a little of their precious time to listen to you and who also paid money for that.

Do you have more goals in your future to still achieve?

What I would like to do is, simply, to keep on singing until the public asks me to stop. The important thing is to communicate emotions, go on, never ceasing to believe in one’s own passion. … My goal is to succeed to enter the heart of those who are listening to me giving a moment of happiness and optimism.

What’s the one vocal thing you would like to do that as of now you haven’t? What are your future recording plans?

They are many, too many to list, the operas I have not yet addressed, but that I love with the whole of my heart. … In the classical field, I have planned the recording of “Manon Lescaut” by Puccini, a masterpiece that has always fascinated me. As for the pop side, it is too early to talk about it, also because there is not yet a defined project. I can only say that this is a very creative period and that I am listening to a lot of new music.

If you could give a dinner party for singers only, who would be your other five guests and why — living or deceased?

In the world dream, I would definitely like to have next to me Franco Corelli, my teacher, the artist who has represented the coup de foudre that has marked my destiny. I have loved this great tenor since I first listened to him, since the day, when still a child, I received as a gift his interpretation of the “Improvviso” from the opera “Andrea Chenier.” A legendary singer, a charismatic presence, a fantastic voice. … Around this ideal table might also sit other legendary singers like Enrico Caruso, Mario Lanza, Beniamino Gigli, Mario Del Monaco and many others.

My editor requested I ask you of all the world’s top singers and divas you have performed with, who are your favorites?

Among the many colleagues I had the pleasure to perform a duet with, had I to choose the most exciting one, I would say Celine Dion, a great professional and a great friend, a simple person who loves her job.

Andrea Bocelli and Tony Bennett

In the opera field, it is difficult to express a preference. But I have to stress how I remember with much pride the times I had the privilege to sing with Luciano Pavarotti, with Placido Domingo and with many other colleagues. In September 2011 on the stage of Central Park in New York, I had the honor to sing a duet with the living legend Tony Bennett.

Thank you for your time and for your wonderful answers. Las Vegas extends a very warm welcome to you, and we hope you return time and time again to thrill us all. From everybody at Vegas DeLuxe, a Happy Holiday Season to you and your family.

Andrea Bocelli is at MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday at 8 p.m. in a one-night-only concert.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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