When he took to the stage in Saudi Arabia's Al Ula on Thursday, Andrea Bocelli was moved by the "great privilege" of becoming the first artist to perform at the Unesco World Heritage Site of Hegra.
Set among the Nabataean tombs of the ancient city, the Italian tenor enchanted audiences and, when he left, took with him the "splendour of the silences" he experienced in the desert.
"Al Ula is an archaeological paradise of overwhelming beauty, and it is not surprising that it is recognised as a Unesco World Heritage site," Bocelli, 62, tells The National in an exclusive interview. "I am proud to have once again lent my voice to an evening that ideally involved East and West in a great embrace."
The star is no stranger to Al Ula, having previously performed twice at the Winter at Tantora Festival. Thursday's intimate concert, which was performed in front of fewer than 300 people, is believed to be the first to take place within the walls of Hegra.
Bocelli describes the region's desert as a "rugged and dazzling beauty", adding he and his family "fell in love" with Saudi Arabia.
"It is a land that never ceases to amaze us, from the refinement of the food to the depth of its artistic and cultural heritage," he says. "Returning to Italy, I carry with me the memory of one of the most evocative places in the world."
During last week's show, Bocelli performed for the first time with his children Virginia and Matteo, along with musicians from the Arabian Philharmonic orchestra and special musical guests Loren Allred, soprano Francesca Maionchi and pianist Eugene Kohn.
"As I jokingly remarked in front of the AI Ula audience, singing at the Bocelli house seems to be contagious," says the tenor.
Bocelli and Matteo, 23, performed Fall On Me, while Virginia, 9, sang a rendition of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah with her father.
"Singing with my children is a further gift that I receive from life and that fills me with joy," says Bocelli. "My family is my strength and it was wonderful to have them by my side, in a place that speaks to the heart and testifies to another large family, the one – thousands of years old – that embraces all human beings, an interconnected community."
The ancient desert city, built in the first century BCE by the Nabataean Kingdom, is home to thousands of tombs cut into sandstone mountains. At least 100 tombs have elaborate carved facades, showing off the skills of Nabataean craftsmen.
When asked what continues to inspire him creatively, Bocelli encapsulated his answer in a single word: love.
"Love is fire, the engine of the world: without it, life would have no meaning," he says. "I set up my entire existence by paying homage, through singing, to the power of love and therefore to life, which is the most beautiful and the greatest of gifts."
During Thursday's performance, the Andrea Bocelli Foundation (ABF) put a guitar autographed by the tenor up for auction to raise money for the charity, which works to support communities affected by poverty, illiteracy and illness.
The star describes his philanthropic efforts as "not just a moral duty", instead deeming it "an act of intelligence".
"For me, solidarity means the joy of sharing," he says.
Bocelli describes his namesake foundation, established in 2011, as "a large extended family that carries out ... projects aimed at giving opportunities".
"I dream for our children and for future generations a planet without wars, where good wins over evil," he says. "And, despite everything, I remain optimistic: in spite of all those who do not pursue the good, the world is getting better and people of goodwill are more and more."