Born with congenital glaucoma, Bocelli always had weak eyesight. But when he was 12, he was hit in the head with a soccer ball during a game and became completely blind. It’s a topic he doesn’t like to discuss, and I don’t bring it up — not out of deference but out of pragmatism. The man’s granted hundreds if not thousands of interviews, and he’s tired of talking about a disability that, he has said over and over, is not connected in any way to his passion for music. I waste no time trampling on tilled ground, and instead ask about his latest album, Passione, a collection of Mediterranean love songs due out at the end of January and featuring duets with pop stars such as Jennifer Lopez and Nelly Furtado.
If you think these are odd vocal pairings for a tenor with deep roots in opera, then you don’t know Bocelli, a consummate crossover artist who has performed with everyone from Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo to Bono, Bryan Adams, Tony Bennett and Sesame Street’s Elmo. “It’s a real luck and privilege to combine my voice with that of other people,” he says. “To be able to work with artists who also have a passion for music is a great satisfaction to me.”
It’s difficult to speak about music, he says, because it’s meant to be listened to, not discussed, but his latest album is one he’s dreamed of making for a long time. The songs are reminiscent of those he sang in piano bars, nightclubs, country festivals and weddings in the early 1980s to help pay for singing lessons with the late Franco Corelli, another famous Italian tenor. During this time, Bocelli was also studying law at the University of Pisa, not far from the farm in Lajatico where he and his older brother grew up.
When I ask him about this period, which he refers to as the “best of his life,” Bocelli will speak only in generalities, saying, “Memories of going back to that time are very good. Youth is always a time with rich and sweet memories.”
But in his memoir, The Music of Silence, Bocelli writes of a “carefree existence which soon turned into wild living, dissolution and every kind of excess.” After performances, Bocelli would invite friends and fans back to his tiny apartment for gatherings that overflowed with wine, “lively female company” and Tuscan cigars. “By the time everybody went home to bed, it was always past daybreak,” he writes.
After graduating from law school in 1985, he spent a year working as a court-appointed attorney. One can easily imagine Bocelli as a lawyer. His dignified intensity would translate easily to the courtroom, and he weighs his words with careful calculation. He’s also incredibly hard-working and persistent. But practicing law, he says, was merely a means to a steady income, whereas music is in his blood. “Music has always been a part of me,” he says. “It’s a complete addiction.”
At the age of 6, Bocelli started taking piano lessons and later learned to play the flute, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, harp, guitar and drums. He also spent a lot of time in his room singing along to his parents’ records. “I was shy,” he says. “I hated to perform in front of other people.”