Andrea Bocelli: ‘I owe my parents an awful lot’

The global operatic phenomenon talks his first time on stage, why he'd show his youngest self his 2011 concert in Central Park with Tony Bennett and Celine Dion and his existential questions around faith

I was a very vivacious teenager, even a bit naughty, always willing to crack a joke and have a laugh. As they say where I come from, I was… “always up to something”. When I lost my sight [aged 12 following a football accident, having already been born with glaucoma] I cried, but only for a short while. I then set aside any form of self-pity and decided I needed to be positive and optimistic about life, finding ways to explore it. This did not affect in any way my musical training. People may perceive it as my main issue, but it never was and never is.

I would not say I had any teenage ‘angst’. But I was restless for sure and I was always curious about everything, as well as stubborn. Maybe at times, as part of family life, there may have been the odd spark, some arguing with my parents or my brother, but overall we were a united and peaceful family. Love always prevailed, mutual fondness softened any kind of friction that might have emerged.

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1994: At home with his parents in Italy in the year he made his operatic debut

I think I was an ambitious teenager and a dreamer. I have always wanted to earn my living with my music. It was an ongoing ambition from the time I was in secondary school and also later during my university years. I succeeded, albeit many years later, after I turned 35, after lots of hurdles and many “nos” had severely tested my pipe dreams. 

I owe my parents an awful lot. My father Sandro and my mother Edi moulded my character, offering me an education that was invaluable during my whole life. Among the many teachings I received, I would mention the determination not to give up. This is what my parents showed during my mother’s pregnancy when the doctors advised her to have an abortion because the baby would be born with severe illnesses. She ignored their advice and carried on with my father’s support. Without their courage and faith I would not be here today to tell the story.

It is legitimate and wonderful to be able to dream, but as an adult one must never lose touch with reality

My father and I were very similar in character. We were both strong-natured and we have argued over time. Even though there was never any family opposition to my passion for music my father did not think I could succeed and be able to support myself relying only on my voice. He used to say if you enjoy it, sing but you must first get an education! He also used to try and restrain my youthful eagerness (and sometimes my recklessness) with his fatherly love and typical parental apprehension that I only understood later once I became a father myself.

The first time I was on stage I was about eight years old, during the end-of-school-year concert. I remember a small wooden stage in the school hall, where I spent the first five years of my studies. I was anxious and emotional and I sang O sole mio. That was the first applause outside the family circle. I was still in short trousers, at the age of 12, when my uncle insisted I took part in a summer competition run by the Caffè Margherita in Viareggio (a Tuscan seaside resort). I won and that was my first success, and the first time I felt the affection of an audience. Many years later, on the stage of the Sanremo Festival, I felt the enthusiasm of the audience and I understood that, maybe, my career was at last taking off.

If I met the teenage Andrea today, overall I think I would like him. Maybe the difference between us would be the impetuousness that I learned to tone down over the years. And a pinch of recklessness that at the time made me take some risks, especially in sport, and that I have learned to contain as I developed a sense of responsibility. I would envy the teenage Andrea his youth. But the young Andrea might envy other joys that come with middle age.

As a young boy I was agnostic. The young Andrea would probably not understand that today I believe in faith and great values, in the need to be pious every day. Over the years I have come to believe that faith cannot be acquired effortlessly: just as any other discipline, it requires commitment, perseverance and sacrifice. To be committed to faith, means we need to comply with simple deeds that may even appear tedious. If we want to improve our faith, we have to submit to prayer.

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2011: Performing with Celine Dion in New York City's Central Park

Out of all the performances I’ve done, I would probably show the young Andrea the concert in Central Park [Bocelli performed alongside artists like Tony Bennett and Celine Dion for the 2011 event in NYC which was broadcast live, then turned into a US Top Five album]. Or one of the operas I have interpreted all over the world (this was always my dream, a dream I had nourished with plenty of enthusiasm and little hope). Or possibly my duet with Luciano Pavarotti, or with José Carreras or Placido Domingo. Something difficult to fully grasp as a teenager, but that becomes very clear as we grow up, is that notoriety itself is not a value, and fame can even be an obstacle in acquiring true humanity… It is legitimate and wonderful to be able to dream, but as an adult one must never lose touch with reality: unless we keep both feet firmly on the ground we risk losing our way. 

Earlier I was saying that the young Andrea used to say he was agnostic, but that was a ploy to avoid the real issue. In adulthood, some pressing existential questions cropped up. Reading a small and wonderful book by Tolstoy, A Confession, later followed by all his other masterpieces, helped me a lot along the path to faith. To believe that life is determined by chance is not only unsuitable but illogical and not very sensible. The basic rationale that allows us to take the right path when reaching the first fundamental crossroads is to believe or not to believe… To my mind this is a choice and there is no alternative.

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2018: With his family at the European premiere of 'The Nutcracker' in London

If I could have one last conversation with anyone it would be my father – to thank him. It would be enough to have him near me, to sense his smile. Any other words would be excessive.

I try and focus on the here and now, on each day. I never look back and I do not want to know what my programme is for tomorrow. As far as criticism is concerned, I fully respect other people’s opinions – it is impossible to please everybody! Artists are subject to positive and negative criticism during their career, it’s life. I have already told you what I think about fame, I do not consider it to be a value. As for priorities, children always come first. This was clear to me from the moment I became a father. If I could go back and relive one moment in life, it would be the moment I held my first-born in my arms for the first time.

Andrea Bocelli’s album Si is out now on Decca. For tour dates see andreabocelli.com

Image: Mark Seliger/Decca Records