Andrea Bocelli is tinkling away at one of the grand pianos dotted throughout his Tuscany estate when the news breaks that his friend, Pope Benedict XVI, has dramatically resigned.
“I am really, really sorry about the news. I know him as a person,” says the Italian tenor, who has become an essential musical presence at any gathering of world leaders, temporal or spiritual. “I’m sure if he decided to resign it’s because his physical or psychological condition does not allow him to perform his duties properly.”
As the world’s biggest-selling solo classical artist, Bocelli is a figure whose stature in his home country is perhaps second only to the Pontiff himself. His villa in Forte dei Marmi is filled with the awards and platinum discs which are testament to his remarkable story. Diagnosed with congenital glaucoma at birth that made him partially blind, he lost his remaining sight completely at the age of 12 after he was accidentally hit on the head during a football game and suffered a brain haemorrhage.
Yet through his Foundation, the star is now funding a cutting-edge research project which will create new autonomous mobile robots, which could transform the lives of blind people. “We are investing in a project in MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] in Boston for the creation of an instrument that is able to help blind people to walk along everywhere,” he says.
Bocelli is working with professor Seth Teller, an artificial intelligence expert whose research focuses on enabling machines to become aware of their surroundings and interact naturally with people. Some of his lab’s recent projects include hand-held and body-worn devices that provide navigation assistance indoors and a voice-commandable robotic wheelchair.
“This is my goal,” Bocelli says. “To create new instruments to improve the quality of life for many people who are not so lucky.” Despite amassing a £30m fortune, he has not considered undergoing an operation that might restore his sight. “I don’t know honestly, in my case I am very lucky because I have songs and many good friends so I am never alone.”
Tall and tanned, the 54-year-old sits in an upstairs study, next to a huge glass table filled with hunting knives. The villa houses his own recording studio and a nursery; the walls are adorned with portraits of the singer, including one depicting him astride a stallion.
Speaking from behind a pair of designer shades, he switches between broken English and Italian, translated by an interpreter, when he strays on to more controversial topics.
He lives with his girlfriend and manager Veronica Berti, 25 years his junior, with whom he has a one-year-old baby, Virginia. His estranged wife, Enrica, lives with their two sons in a neighbouring villa. The arrangement appears to work happily for all.
“It’s simply an intelligent way to live your family life because it’s more intelligent to make peace rather than war,” says Bocelli, who admits he has not divorced partly because of his faith. “Yes, it is to do with the Catholic religion but it is more rooted in nature. Biologically, man is polygamous but in civilised societies what he aims at is a family life.”
Discovered by Pavarotti when he heard a demo tape, Bocelli abandoned his legal studies to forge a lucrative singing career mixing pure, operatic performances with the popular, crossover hits which have generated sales of 80 million records.
A red-blooded northern Italian, who enjoys riding Arab stallions at speed despite his blindness, the singer emphasises the important role sex plays in his music and life.
“I first started playing in piano bars for three reasons – to make money, to be in the company of my friends – and also to hook up with young girls. I always knew, even before I played in piano bars about the effect of my voice,” he says.
On his new album, Passione, Bocelli revisits those popular piano bar songs with collaborators chosen for their sexual chemistry, including Jennifer Lopez and Nelly Furtado.
“It inspires me to find this sensual connection with a singer I work with. I was impressed with Jennifer because she sang with sensuality. It’s not a mystery, I’m not ashamed about it. I’m a man!”
Bocelli will even abstain from sex before a big performance. “An opera singer is like an athlete before a match. An athlete cannot overdo anything. In order to perform at the highest possible level, you need to refrain from activities so as to be able to express this power.”
But has Bocelli used his undoubted vocal power wisely? After making his operatic debut in Verdi’s Macbeth, he has combined well-known arias with the kind of commercial, “Popera” material which critics despise but helps Bocelli fill arenas around the globe. “These critics forget, for example, that Caruso recorded many popular songs,” he says dismissively. “The main problem of so-called serious music today is that it has detached itself from the layman. You are much more likely to hear someone singing ‘La donna è mobile’ [from Verdi’s Rigoletto] in the street than a contemporary piece of classical music.”
Controversially, Bocelli is a pro-life advocate who has made a campaigning video in which he recalls a woman who was advised to terminate her pregnancy after a misdiagnosed case of appendicitis. She rejected the advice and had the child. The woman was his mother and he was the child.
“It is just a way to share these principles I believe in,” he says.
Throughout his life, Bocelli has refused to let his blindness compromise his ambitions. “Growing up, every day they told me ‘this is too dangerous’ but I don’t care. Everything is dangerous. To take the car and go out on the highway is also very dangerous or to fly in a helicopter. I like very much to ride horses. I like soccer, I have had a passion for boxing since I was a child although it would be stupid for me to box.”
Bocelli was made a Grand Officer of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 2006 and it’s possible to see him making a future transition into politics. He already rubs shoulders with heads of state during his regular appearances at political summits.
This month he gave a speech alongside President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington in which he praised the event for bringing together political figures from left and right. Bocelli is relaxed at the possibility of Silvio Berlusconi – another friend, although he never attended any “bunga bunga” parties – regaining power in Italy’s upcoming elections.
“Left and right in Italy are an optical illusion, a political illusion,” he says. “They don’t exist anymore. The Italian right until not long ago was represented by our former prime minister Berlusconi, who until he became a politician was a socialist.”
If Berlusconi returns to power, Bocelli tells The Independent he is optimistic that “our country will thrive” due to the creativity and hard work of ordinary Italians, in spite of the political class.
But as we talk, a tapping of the right leg indicates that Bocelli is becoming irritated with too many political inquiries. “We are moving far away from music. My work is to sing.”
And with that, the singer leaves the room and bounds down the steps, completely unaided, to return to his piano.
‘Passione’ is out now. Andrea Bocelli performs at the Leeds Arena on 14 September and Glasgow Hydro Arena on 15 SeptemberReuse content