November has been a good month for classical music lovers in the UAE.
In addition to concerts by the Netherlands' famous Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Lebanese Symphony Orchestra at Emirates Palace, Dubai Opera hosted the Dresden Opera Ball, featuring Spanish tenor Placido Domingo.
One artist who has helped to boost the popularity of the genre in the UAE is Andrea Bocelli.
The Italian tenor, who will be performing at Etihad Park in Abu Dhabi on Thursday, was one of the first to showcase classical music's potential to the capital when, in 2009, 11,000 people attended his debut concert at Emirates Palace. Large-scale promoters soon took note and artists Jose Carreras, Sarah Brightman and Il Divo all being booked to perform in the UAE in subsequent years.
Bocelli praises the region’s cultural dynamism for allowing relatively niche genres such as opera to flourish.
“I believe that the quality and quantity of music festivals, individual shows, and the artists involved are a testament to the region's hard work to establish itself as a destination for classical music,” he tells The National.
“There have been great leaps to the point that today the region is considered to be one of the most influential stages for us as classical musicians globally.
“I am thrilled that in such a special land, where you can grasp both the power of nature and the ingenuity and dynamism of modern man, such ample space is given to culture, classical music, and opera singing — including a repertoire that is the peculiar product of Italian creativity developed over centuries.”
A universal prayer
Bocelli further exemplifies the artistry of the medium with one of his most stirring albums.
Released in 2020, Believe is a collection of songs inspiring his life, including Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, the Christian hymn Amazing Grace and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical hit You'll Never Walk Alone.
Bocelli says the album was inspired by the reception to his Music for Hope: Live From Duomo di Milano concert.
Live-streamed from the empty church amid in the midst of global Covid-19 lockdowns, the event resonated globally and received more than 35 million views within the 24 hours.
Stark and majestic, the 30-minute performance soothed the angst and loneliness many felt during the height of the pandemic as Bocelli performed four songs, including hymns Panis Angelicus and Ave Maria, alongside altar and cathedral organist Emanuele Vianelli.
“I was convinced of the importance of the purpose during that exact moment in time,” he says. “The Duomo was empty, but it was only an apparent loneliness — virtually, we were millions, coming together and uniting in the face of a global tragedy.
“It was deeply emotional to feel so much unity and fraternity during a moment of such forced separation.”
Bocelli says the turmoil caused by the pandemic and the ongoing war in Ukraine underscores the need for a unifying force provided by the arts.
“I think we all strongly need to invest in making art and cultivating conversations around culture,” he says. “As an artist, I now feel the responsibility to speak to people's hearts more than ever before; to continue practising, disseminating and encouraging beauty.
“Arts and culture are, at every latitude, a powerful tool of mutual knowledge and support for development and peace.”
A family affair
It is a message Bocelli is taking on the road this year as part of an extensive world tour taking in Australia, Europe, North and South America.
Joining him on stage for many of these dates is son Matteo Bocelli, 25, who is a burgeoning opera talent of his own.
Both can be heard on Bocelli's latest release, A Family Christmas, a new album of carols and seasonal classics.
“I am and always will be, first and foremost, his father. Yet with Matteo, we have become in effect also colleagues, and it is a beautiful experience, a further gift of life, to be able to share with him the stage or the recording room,” Bocelli says.
“Matteo has matured a lot in only a few years. He is establishing himself independently, his first solo album is about to be released, and I think he has already managed to show the public his talent and personality.”
If Matteo needs any advice on navigating his career, he can look no further than the pioneering path set by his father.
Born visually impaired with congenital glaucoma before losing his sight completely at aged 12, Bocelli began by performing in local piano bars and singing competitions in rural Tuscany as a teenager.
He found national fame when winning the newcomers category of the 1994 Sanremo Music Festival, a popular Italian television song contest.
Bocelli finished fourth the following year with his take on Con te partiro, a song that went on to become global hit in 1995 with a re-recorded English version, Time to Say Goodbye, with British soprano Sarah Brightman.
With nearly 100 million albums sold and revered as one of the world’s most loved opera singers, Bocelli describes his career as one forged through faith, hope and graft.
“My story, the path of my voice, and with it of my existence, might seem like a fairy tale with a happy ending. But it is also true that to achieve this level of success, I have also faced many closed doors,” he says.
“Making music a profession, for a country boy with an extra obstacle, was a quest with no promised outcomes.
“The obstacles were there, as were the dark moments, but if the story of my life can teach anything to the younger generation, the moral is to never lose confidence.
“Work hard and trust the plan that Heaven has designed for each of us.”
Andrea Bocelli performs at Etihad Park on Thursday. Doors open at 7.30pm; tickets, from Dh395 are available at ticketmaster.ae