Andrea Bocelli
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Review: Andrea Bocelli | American Airlines Center

Lend Me a Tenor

What is the draw of Andrea Bocelli, the biggest opera vocal star in the world? After his performance at the American Airlines Center, we're still trying to figure it out.

published Monday, December 3, 2012

There is really no way to explain the phenomena that is Andrea Bocelli. Friday evening, some 18,000 people streamed into the American Airlines Center in Dallas to hear an operatic tenor sing a variety of opera selections, many not well known, and some pop hits. They paid between $75 and $350 for the privilege. Compare this to the ticket price $25 to $275 range for the Dallas Opera's fully staged productions with world-class singers, which struggles to fill the 2,200 seats in the Winspear Opera House. You can even get into the Metropolitan Opera for $30.

Perhaps the bigger question is what caused the Great Tenor Wave of the last 20 years that gave us The Three Tenors, The Three Irish Tenors, The Celtic Tenors, The Canadian Tenors, The Filipino Tenors and even the Three Redneck Tenors. We also have tenor-driven "popera" boy bands such as Il Divo and Il Volo. Popera musicals, such as Les Mis and Miss Saigon, all ride to immortality on tenor-driven sounds.

Tenors, with their thrilling high notes, have always fascinated from Caruso of yesteryear to Placido Domingo and Juan Diego Flores of today. Pavarotti could fill a stadium as quickly as Bocelli in his day and, before him, Mario Lanza also easily crossed over from opera to pop and had them fainting in the aisles. So, what is it about Bocelli?

Classical music critics have routinely dissed his voice. It is basically a light lyric sound that he has pushed beyond its natural capabilities, and blessed with secure and well-placed high notes. On Friday, he sounded ragged and hoarse in the middle register; a dead giveaway of vocal distress from overuse. The high notes were still there, however, and they range from the massive speaker and sound enhancement system like the voice of God.

His performance was divided into two halves, with opera on the first and lighter fare on the second. Since the program cost $15, many in the audience had absolutely no idea what he was singing. The selections from Gounod's Roméo et Juliette are not well known, even to many opera fans. While the large screen projected some scenes from the opera, so you could eventually catch on, why there weren't projected subtitles, like in any opera house, is a mystery. Everyone cheered as each selection ended with one of his trademark high notes, even though they really didn't know what they heard.

The pop stuff on the second half was all better known, especially to the legions who buy his recordings. It was what everyone was waiting for as they dutifully sat through some obscure opera. Why doesn't Bocelli take a page from a singer like Alfie Boe, who has a truly great tenor voice, ditch the opera and just give the audience what they want?

Two female singers shared the honors, Cuban coloratura soprano Maria Aleida and Welsh Dancing with the Stars mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins. Aleida completely missed Juliette's innocent girlishness in her rendition of "Ah, je veux vivre" from the aforementioned Gounod opera, instead giving her a sultry sexiness more appropriate to Carmen. She could have left them weeping in the aisles with a trip through Puccini's "Un bel di" from Butterfly but instead offered a coloratura aria from Donizetti's little-known Linda di Chamounix, a hard sell even in the most hardcore opera audience. Her high Z above C at the end, when passed through the electronic marvels set to enhance Bocelli, might have otherwise been fine, but threatened the spectacles of half of the audience.

Jenkins takes the honors for the best voice of the evening. Dark and rich, her mezzo was memorable. But not to Bocelli, who mistakenly introduced her as Katherine McPhee, the American Idol runner-up and star of Smash.

The most disturbing factor of Bocelli's performance, and one that keeps the mystery of his attraction even more unfathomable, is that he is not expressive nor does he give any distinctive characterization to what he is singing. His version of "Di quella pira" from Verdi's Il Trovatore and "Donna non vidi mai" from Puccini's Manon Lescaut were practically indistinguishable. The only problem with that is that the former is sung by a son rallying the troops to save his mother from being burned at the stake and the latter is a young student who just met the girl of his dreams. The pop fare that made up the second half of the program received the same bland one-size-fits-all vocalization.

This seems to be the consensus. The critic Anne Midgette wrote in The New York Times that he has "a thinness of voice, oddly anemic phrasing [and]...a curious lack of expression." Steve Smith, the best of the young generation of critics and also writing in the New York Times agreed, saying that his "…his phrasing [is] wayward and oddly inexpressive."

So, the question remains: Why is he the top selling vocalist in the classical and popera music world?

In 1998, he was named one of People Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People. Pavarotti certainly never made it. He also posses a fine tenor voice that has a beautiful quality. He has a recognizable timbre and hearing a recording you could indentify that it is Bocelli after just a few notes, but the same could be said for many singers. His high notes are especially terrific and secure, but so are Domingo's. He has a compelling story, overcoming blindness to such an extent that he can even succeed in a staged opera. He is still handsome and sports a three-day scruff.

It all has to come down to that unidentifiable charisma, which he has in abundance.

Bocelli, with his packed basketball stadiums, has a golden opportunity to revive the troublesome prospects of opera in this country when he sings for thousands of breathless fans around the country. If he could entice even a small portion of them to experience the wonder that is opera, he would have an unimaginable impact. But in order to do so, he has to do something so simple that it is inconceivable that no one has mentioned it to him.

All he has to do is add supertitles to his operatic selections and give a brief synopsis of what is going on so that the 95 percent of the audience unfamiliar with his selections can follow along.

Oh, and he needs to bring those words to life. Thanks For Reading


Victor writes:
Monday, December 3 at 10:49AM

Who ever wrote this is clearly delusional about the importance of his opinion.

Carolyn writes:
Monday, December 3 at 1:52PM

Victor - the person who wrote this is a bona fide opera fan.

Mary Doyle writes:
Monday, December 3 at 4:42PM

Bocelli has made his fans aware of opera - more than any other opera star. He loves opera and wants his fans to hear it and love it, as well. He should get points for that. And I agree with Celine Dione - his voice is absolutely beautiful. He doesn't have to change anything as far as I am concerned. I listen to him every day and enjoy his music more than any other performer. He puts deep feeling in each number and even if you don't see it on his face and in his gestures - you hear it in his voice. I guess that is why 18,000 people are willing to pay dearly to see him in Dallas. I even went to Tuscany to see him in concert there. Priceless!

K writes:
Monday, December 3 at 7:24PM

Maria Aleida is a coloratura and should avoid singing spinto roles such as Butterfly (even though "Un bel di" is gorgeous). I was blown away by her voice. The ease of her upper register made me envious. That high G just soared. She had the best voice in my opinion. Katherine Jenkins sang very well, but she didn't have that shimmer nor the affect that Aleida had. The thing with Bocelli is the purity of his voice. Yes, he could give a little more. However, he has no tension in his voice and it shows in his free posture. Singing as long as he has and still being able to let those high notes ring with no sign of "hooking" is an incredible feat. Listen to some famous tenors and you can hear that "hook" (not all of them do). I had the honor of being in the choir and it was an incredible experience. Hearing people scream for "Nessun dorma" was amazing. If he can have this many people enjoy opera arias, then he has my respect.

Tasha writes:
Tuesday, December 4 at 3:32PM

I like him because he sounds vulnerable. Most opera singers and a lot of pop stars sound like egotists.

Gregory Sullivan Isaacs writes:
Wednesday, December 5 at 2:50AM

First of all, thanks for all the (mostly) civil and intelligent comments. I sincerely hope that all of you will continue to comment on my reviews. They are just my opinion and aspire to nothing else. Other opinions are more than welcome, actually encouraged, in this comment forum. Even "delusional about the importance of my opinion" was welcome, which I may use on my new business card.

I hold a master degree in opera from Indiana University. As to opera, I have sung 13, conducted 22, and written 3 (one of which was nominated for the Pulitzer). I also realize that this qualifies me for absolutely nothing, even offering an opinion, which is just as valid as anyone's - with or without any of that history.

Fun story. When I was singing and living in New York City, my neighbor downstairs was an illiterate Italian laborer in his 90s, and he knew more about opera than any of my professors ever did. I loved taking with him for hours (in my crummy Italian since he spoke no English) and learned so much that I can never repay him for all the insights he offered.

Tasha, you have it right, but so do lots of singers. It has to be something other than that. If I didn't define it, maybe you can help.

K, I am thrilled that 18,000 people were screaming for Nessun Dorma. That is terrific and it is a great aria, no doubt. However, what I really hope for is that Bocelli will have succeeded in his opera advocacy and that even 1/16 of the 18,000 will buy tickets to see the Dallas Opera's spectacular production of Turandot, which is where the aria comes from (BTW), on April 5, 7, 10, 13, 19, 21, 2013 (this spring). Believe me, it works even better in context that it does as an encore.

Mary, are you buying a ticket to TDO's production? Closer than Tuscany.

Victor - my opinion is just that. I try to recreate the experience of my being there for the reader. No more, no less. Your experience, and that of everyone else in attendance, is something different. How terrible would it be if everyone had the same opinion about something - anything. True, I presumed to make a suggestion on how I think the concert could have been more effective (subtitles-hardly original), but I would faint dead away if they did that because I said so.

Everyone = Keep these comments coming. They are most welcome.

BTW, I review a lot and rarely get comments. Do you folks only read me when it is someone like Bocelli? (Now I am hurt.) Come on. Give me a hard time about my thoughts on the use of minimal vibrato in Baroque performance practices. Highly controversial, you know. Let's get a good chain going on that subject.

Leslie G-R writes:
Thursday, December 6 at 10:57PM

Had the pleasure of seeing him in Las Vegas earlier this month, it was my first time hearing him live. It was everything I could have hoped for and much more. I was very lucky to be raised in a home filled with classical music and opra. I am so happy to have stumbled onto this page, and look forward to more of your reviews. By the way, opinions are the root of intelligent converation, and I appreciate all of them.

nmlhats writes:
Thursday, December 6 at 11:22PM

<3 Keep it up, Gregory!

Bobbi writes:
Friday, December 7 at 3:02PM

Gregory, thanks for your mention of Alfie Boe - "a truly great tenor voice" indeed! And one who fills his singing with emotion. I don't think that he's closed the door on opera, just pursuing other music right now. If only he could have just a bit of the fame here in the US as Bocelli (who leaves me wanting to hear Alfie whenever I hear him!) Check out Alfie's version of Nessun Dorma on YouTube, sung in Matt Lucas' kitchen.

Gregory Sullivan Isaacs writes:
Sunday, December 9 at 11:54AM

Vibbi - I did an interview with Alfie Boe. Very enjoyable conversation. You can find it by doing a search for his name after clicking "Search Our Archives" in the gray box to the left of the TheaterJones flag at top of page.

Miguel Castro-The Filipino Tenors writes:
Sunday, December 9 at 7:02PM

Andrea Bocelli is big in Manila as well. His music is an inspiration to aspiring classical singers here in the Philippines. I have always thought that a singer, in whatever genre is very effective if, like an artwork, moves and affects the emotion of the listener. Many of his followers and fans comes to his show (in my opinion) not just to hear his wonderful voice, but to see and feel his enigmatic character. He is a total performer as I see it, with the right charisma, voice, self projection. There are great singers who came and then was lost or in many cases still "just around", because they did not hit a Formula, that tickles the senses of the audience. For singers like us, that is a continous study.Not all has the perfect combination of a total performer.

Miguel Castro-The Filipino Tenors writes:
Sunday, December 9 at 7:06PM

And thank you Gregory for mentioning The Filipino Tenors. Like any other group singers we are continously trying to share our music even through the net. We hope we can soon visit the US for shows :)

Lorie writes:
Wednesday, December 12 at 6:03PM

Thank you for mentioning Alfie Boe. He can sing rings around anyone one out there today, and in their own genre too: opera, musicals, ballads, classics, pop, gospel, jazz and rock. Alfie does Elvis -- and quite well, too! I am at a loss as to why he hasn't cracked the US market yet. You'd think the 25th Les Miserables would have done it. It might have happened this past June with the Queen's Diamond Jubilee concert in London, if ABC hadn't cut him entirely in their rebroadcast for the US. For heaven's sake, he and Renee Fleming (a great American soprano) sang "Somewhere" from West Side Story from THE balcony at Buckingham Palace. Geez, you'd think at least that would have been worth a look. But if want opera now, I'll listen to Alfie who really is a real opera singer and has sung in houses in Britain and Europe. I always say, "Go for the real thing."

Voz Earl writes:
Wednesday, February 6 at 3:23AM

I think the reason that many opera critics cannot understand Bocelli's popularity is that they are TOO close to their own profession with all of its idiosyncrasies and nitpickery of technical aspects. They are unable to take a step back and experience the performance on its own terms without judging it on a rigid set of rubrics employed in the opera world but meaningless to outsiders. It reminds me of bluegrass "All-Star" bands in which musicians take turns strutting their stuff, impressing one another with their technical wizardry no doubt, but losing the soul of the music somewhere in the process and leaving the audience feeling flat. I used to listen to opera on my Sony Walkman as a kid and love good music of any genre, but whereas Bocelli's Con Te Partiro brings a tear to my eyes, the last opera I attended in San Francisco nearly BORED me to tears. I'm sure it was technically impressive, but it did nothing for me.

vf writes:
Tuesday, February 12 at 1:55AM

Such a nice tone to this discussion, this opera v popera can get heated. Anyway, I hope people who like Bocelli would try out opera on YouTube. Just look for the aria with the most views and most likely (if its not Bocelli or some other popera) it will be an outstanding version. I just tried to listen to that Con Te Partiro by Bocelli on YouTube and I couldn't finish it. His voice seems harsh to me. I think I've been spoiled by much better voices you can sample on YouTube. Nessum Dorma is so beautiful and I've checked it out on YouTube, seems like people think it was sung best by Franco Corelli, you can see his versions with hundreds of thousands of hits. I like this version which just got posted. (Search for "Franco Corelli - The Monte Carlo "Nessun Dorma" with Encore" on YouTube). It's a live performance, the audience was so enthusiastic they wouldn't let the opera continue and he had to sing it again for them (they won't do that anymore) Such emotion and vocal power, to hear a singer in his prime even on YouTube, to me it's exciting. YouTube is great for opera sampling I think. People have posted arias by the legends. You don't have to commit a ton of time. You can compare them, other versions show up on YouTube's sidebar and other arias by the same singer. I think people who like Bocelli are looking for real singing that you just don't get on the radio anymore and they might like opera too. Try opera on YouTube, see if you don't get hooked, I did just by listening to YouTubes and now I listen to whole operas on Sirius and got a subscription to local opera company and have watched Met in movie theaters. I don't listen to it all the time, but surprised myself, turns out I really do like opera. Give it a shot! (and that story about the 90 year old Italian opera expert is great! Great article)

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Lend Me a Tenor
What is the draw of Andrea Bocelli, the biggest opera vocal star in the world? After his performance at the American Airlines Center, we're still trying to figure it out.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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