The Italian singer Andrea Bocelli hit Number One on the albums chart this week, selling more copies of Si over seven days in the U.S. — 126,000 — than he had with any of his non-Christmas albums in the last decade.
In one respect, this is not surprising. Over the course of a lengthy career, the 60-year-old Bocelli has sold a shit-ton of albums — at least 21.5 million in the U.S. alone, according to the RIAA — with a voice that makes wealthy grandmas weep. That means he can still play arenas here, so he wisely bundled downloads of Si with ticket sales to his 2019 North American tour, relying on the chart-topping trick-de-jour (for non-rappers from P!nk to LCD Soundsystem to Arcade Fire) to help him to Number One.
Even so, Si‘s success is bizarre. Bocelli references traditions from classical music and opera — though critics who work in those spaces tend to keep him at arm’s length, if not view him with open hostility — which means that, in modern pop music, he is a fish so far out of water he might as well be in the Sahara. And at a time when streaming support is crucial to foreign-language albums’ success in the U.S. — see the K-pop group BTS and the Puerto Rican star Ozuna — Bocelli has no streaming story to speak of.
Graham Parker, now president of Universal Music Classics U.S. after a stint as general manager of WQXR, the most-listened to classical music radio station in the nation, believes Bocelli’s latest success is further evidence that “people have many misconceptions about the audience for classical music.” “They think it’s all the people who go to symphony halls — they’re a part of the audience,” Parker adds. “But the audience is much more varied and a little bit younger than people realize. There are lots of on-ramps into classical.”
Parker and Danny Bennett, President of Verve Label Group, cast Si as a “return to the roots” project for Bocelli. After the commercial whiff Cinema, which sold just 30,000 copies in its opening week, the singer’s team decided they needed to refocus their efforts in order to coax that varied classical audience back to those on-ramps. “What were the core aspects of him as an artist that really engaged with audiences in the beginning of his career?” Parker asks.
They thought they knew some of the answers already, but the label dug into fan chatter on social media to get a more complete picture. “Rather than guessing these days, we have analytics tools that are able to aggregate Facebook and Twitter and we can look: What are the 20 top topics that Andrea’s fans want?” Bennett explains. “It’s a little bit creepy,” he adds, “but we’re not the CIA — it’s in the right hands. We’re able to really dig in and listen to the audience. What do they want? Beautiful melodies sung in Italian. Meaningful duets.”
Songs and singing partners were commissioned accordingly. “We found material that allowed him a broad dramatic arc,” says producer Bob Ezrin. “He could go all the way from sublimely intimate to hugely masculine and powerful.” Bocelli has a long tradition of duetting with younger pop singers, from Jennifer Lopez to Ariana Grande; Ed Sheeran and Dua Lipa show up this time around.
Ezrin, who once audaciously added classical elements to albums by Alice Cooper, Kiss and Pink Floyd, was then tasked with “creating a contemporary record that’s built on a classical foundation.” “I was referring to it as classico nuovo,” he says. “It’s an orchestra, much of the time, though we have used some programming and some rhythm instruments. It doesn’t jump out at you, and it was never meant to. But when you listen to the record, you don’t think you’re listening to a 200-year-old piece of music.”
Even when Si references serious oldies like “Ave Maria,” it’s via a new variation on the track penned for the album. “It sounds like it’s been around forever,” Ezrin says. “But it was written specifically for this project.”
Parker describes Ezrin as Si‘s “secret sauce.” “He’s very fluent in orchestral writing — maybe previous records hadn’t made that clear, but he was a master of what he was doing,” Parker adds. “It was so clear right away that once Bob spent time with Andrea, it blossomed into an opportunity for him to find another sound for himself.”
With help from the bundle and a billboard in Times Square, Si also rebooted Bocelli’s commercial potential in the U.S. — and afforded a classical or classical-adjacent artist a rare bit of mainstream visibility. “If this is the first time that anyone purchases a classical record and that’s what they think is classical music, I am thrilled,” Parker says. “If other people find other albums, that’s great too. But this is classical music, and we should embrace it, and we’re very excited that we got a Number One.”