If tenor Andrea Bocelli could take only one record with him to a desert island, he knows what it would be. "I would select L'improvviso ( Un dì all'azzuro spazio) from the opera Andrea Chenier by [Umberto] Giordano, in the unforgettable edition by Franco Corelli," the 54-year-old singer says in an e-mail interview.
The aria was one of the first classical recordings (he prefers to call them "lyrical" recordings) he owned and was a gift from his nanny, Oriana. "This is the piece of music through which, as a child, I first heard the voice of the person who many years later would become my teacher … That certainly marked my destiny and it still thrills me today," he says.
Bocelli once said Corelli's voice was one of those that had "tears inside" and it is perhaps for that high emotional aspect of the lyrical voice that Bocelli has himself become most celebrated.
He is said to be the most successful Italian singer since Luciano Pavarotti, who died in 2007. He has sold nearly 80 million records since 1994, and performs around the world to sold-out arenas with thousands of people willing to pay high prices for tickets - at his next show in Hong Kong, which takes place on May 3, the cheapest seats are HK$780 and the most expensive nearly HK$4,000.
In a world full of talented tenors, Bocelli's success is due to more than just talent. Some might say it is the combination of the poignancy of his voice with the unashamed sentimentality of his songs - which are from both operatic and pop traditions. They might also say that Bocelli is not only the Italian tenor who sings the music of the people: he is the Italian tenor who sounds as if he knows what it is like to be sad.
They might also say, more cynically, that Bocelli The Phenomenon is partly the product also of an enthusiastic public relations team, who write prose for him on the lines of: "At last, a legend for the new millennium. A legend in the Homeric sense of a myth, the 'word that speaks', flowered through singing, just like Caruso, Gigli, Del Monaco, Corelli … A legend of Andrea Bocelli's stature cannot be built through design: not even the most astute marketing would be able to come up with such a result."
But if this career could not have been "built through design", how did it come about?
Bocelli loved music from when he was a baby. "My parents used to say that as soon as I heard a piece of music, I used to stop crying. Music is my medicine."
He started studying it more seriously when he was six, a country boy from Tuscany, growing up on a farm and with his early passion for nature and horse riding quite undeterred, apparently, by the fact that he was born with congenital glaucoma, able to see only with one eye.
Bocelli first played the piano, and soon afterwards picked up the flute and the saxophone (plus the drums too). But from the beginning it was clear: not only did the young Andrea have a facility with music in general, but also a beautiful soprano voice. "I used to listen, to learn the great arias and then I tried to emulate the great interpretations."
In 1970 he won a singing competition. That he won it with a song (the 19th-century Neapolitan classic O Sole Mio [ My Sunshine], and a staple of Italian opera cafes) that crosses the bridge between popular music and classical, is indicative of what happened later in his career. At the same time, something else happened, much darker, which he prefers not to talk about: when he was 12, a football hit his one good eye, blinding him completely.
Bocelli decided to study law, graduating from the University of Pisa, while taking singing lessons first from Luciano Bettarini and later from his childhood hero, Corelli. He paid for his lessons by performing in cocktail bars and nightclubs.
His career would take off in his mid-30s, but it is to this time, struggling for funds in Pisa, that he would return for his latest and sixth album, Passione, released in January. "Aged 20, playing as a pianist in piano bars, I came across [some] immortal arias. Every night there was someone asking me to sing Corcovado, Love Me Tender, Tristeza, La Vie En Rose, When I Fall in Love," Bocelli recalls. Some artists would grow to hate such nightly requests, but Bocelli says he continues to love them with a passion. Indeed, he says, Passione "is a collection of the songs I have most loved".
It certainly contains the magic formula of popularity and lyricism, and has led to a world tour - combining opera music to celebrate the bicentenary of Giuseppe Verdi's birth with songs from Passione - that in the next two months alone takes him to Taipei, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Bucharest, Berlin, Prague, Denver, New York, New Jersey and the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.
"The only way I have to respond to the great affection shown to me everywhere, is to get on a plane once again," Bocelli says. "And every time for me it is a little great pain because I suffer to be separated from my sons, Amos and Matteo, who often cannot join me because of their school engagements."
His strategy to deal with this extraordinary schedule is three-fold. He takes private jets, which makes it easier, and travels always with his partner, Veronica Berti, as well as with a team of trusted assistants and colleagues. But also - and in this might be a clue to how he has found his place in the hearts of so many millions - he takes concentrated steps to remain focused on the task by blocking out things that are not strictly necessary.
"Inside this frantic rhythm, sometimes I think I have been able to make a small oasis of relaxation. First, I try to avoid being informed in detail about the medium- and long-term engagements. Instead I focus on the upcoming event. I face one thing at a time, giving importance to every day and to every meeting.
"I try to optimise the breaks, I read a lot in the dressing room, or I write poems and aphorisms in order not to give in to laziness. The fact of crossing the oceans so many times a year still makes me a bit nervous. But I try not to think of it."
What he does sometimes think about is the possibility of waking up one day and finding that he no longer has his voice. And when that day comes, he believes he will accept it peacefully.
"I will go on singing, as long as our sweet Lord gives me the chance to do so. But I am perfectly convinced that life offers an enormous quantity of other extraordinary things to do, and that even music - which is an essential part of my life - can be lived in many other ways."
Bocelli is about to celebrate his first 20 years of an international career and, thinking forward to the next 20 years, he has a simple ambition. "Just one year ago I became a father once again," he says. "In 2033, my daughter Virginia will be 21 years old. It would be nice, God willing, to wish her a happy birthday. By singing."
Andrea Bocelli, May 3, 8pm, Convention and Exhibition Centre, 1 Harbour Rd, Wan Chai, HK$780-HK$3,980 HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 2905 8134Topics: Andrea Bocelli