“It will be like finally being able to hug many friends I hadn’t seen in a long time.” That’s what Andrea Bocelli told Milwaukee Magazine in an interview before his concert at Fiserv Forum – his first performance in front of a live audience in more than a year and a half. The warmth of his voice and embrace of the audience lived up to that promise Wednesday night.
After an opening number from the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra directed by Steven Mercurio and accompanied by the UWM Concert Chorale, Bocelli was escorted onto the stage wearing a blue tuxedo. Bocelli received a standing ovation before even singing a note or saying a word.
During his time away from the stage, he released a new religious album and created one of the most-watched livestream musical performances ever at an empty cathedral in Italy for Easter Sunday. Believe is both the name of the new album and the tour that is taking him to 21 cities across North America.
After a short greeting – perhaps two sentences – Bocelli got right down to business with his velvety tenor voice. You could see the concentration and care this master of his craft put into each note through the movement of his eyebrows and creases of his forehead. At times, Bocelli’s vibrato was so powerful, the microphone literally trembled without even a touch.
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It became immediately apparent that this concert was not just to showcase Bocelli’s immense talent but to celebrate all of the classical arts. The first half was stuffed with performers: soprano Larísa Martinez and baritone Edward Parks each sang solos as well as duets with the headliner. Dancers executing choreographed numbers brought life to the stage as Bocelli struck his notes.
While the first half of the concert was dedicated to masterpieces of operatic repertory – and largely in Italian – the second part was intended for songs from his new album and hits that people traditionally associate with his voice.
Accompanying performers continued as well; the crowd was out of their seats hooting and hollering for Ayanna Witter-Johnson, a cellist and vocalist whose rendition of The Police classic “Roxanne” was absolutely captivating. She made music with the cello that I didn’t even know was possible on that instrument – strumming, drumming and even tapping with her nails to keep the beat. Her voice was stellar, too.
After Witter-Johnson’s performance, Bocelli was escorted back onto stage holding a guitar, the only instrument he used all night outside of his booming voice.
“Honestly, I play this song only on the beach,” he said. “But now is a strange moment for me because I get to play this on stage with my daughter.” The crowd roared as Virginia Bocelli, just 9 years old, walked on stage while her father told the audience she just arrived on a plane from Italy. “Yeah, I’m pretty jet-legged,” she quipped, to the amusement of everyone.
Bocelli started strumming the immediately recognizable notes of “Hallelujah.” Virginia took the first verse in English, her father the second in Italian. After a long, well-deserved applause, this little girl with a voice well beyond her years held up the guitar, which was nearly her height. “What are you doing with that guitar?” Mercurio asked. “I’m trying to sell it,” Virginia said matter-of-factly.
She then explained that they were auctioning off the guitar to raise funds for the Andrea Bocelli Foundation, a nonprofit with a mission of empowering people and communities suffering from disease, poverty and social exclusion by promoting and supporting humanitarian projects that help them overcome barriers and express their full potential.
It was from this moment on that Bocelli, quite literally took the audience to church. Virginia stayed on stage while her father sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the lead song on Believe. She sang along with the choir while her father sweetly held his hands on her shoulders.
The crowd then said goodbye to young Virginia and welcomed in Loren Allred, a pop singer best known for her vocals in the movie musical The Greatest Showman. Together, Bocelli and Allred sang “Amazing Grace” while Paul Barris and Brittany O’Connor danced across the stage. Allred followed with a captivating performance of her hit “Never Enough” from the movie, making me wonder why she couldn’t have been the voice and the face in the musical. She earned her standing O.
From there, Bocelli was in a full crescendo until the end of the concert. He performed “Con te partirò (Time to Say Goodbye)” with Martinez on soprano. Easily his most well-known ballad, Bocelli sang each note with meaning as if it were his first time belting it out, not the thousandth. And while it seemed like the concert was a wrap after this finale-worthy performance, he sang out three additional full-force solos, including “‘O Sole Mio,” to close out the inspirational evening.
As the musicians on the stage bowed, we were reminded of how rare performances of this grandeur have been in the last two years. In the MilMag interview prior to the show, Bocelli put it this way:
“Art is a gift from the heavens, a gift that aims to uphold the spirit. When we neglect to uphold the spirit, the risk is that it will retreat. Without culture, nothing can be resolved. It is a grave mistake to penalize culture or think that it is something we can do without, as, unfortunately, has happened in the course of the health crisis.”
His performance at Fiserv Forum was a reminder of the healing that can come from art. Milwaukee was lucky to have this man’s talent, if only for one night.