HIDDEN tracks

Music was Pete Paphides' first love. And at this rate, it will be his last.

Il Divo

Tue, 1st January 2008

I feel something inside me turn, and it isn’t my stomach. It’s far worse than that. I think I enjoyed it.” Il Divo, 2008”

If Il Divo look bored, only the harshest observer would judge them. Three hours before the Paul O’Grady show goes live, Simon Cowell’s poperatic phenomenon are poised to run through their version of Charles Aznavour’s She. Urs Buhler – the group’s 37 year-old Swiss tenor wobbles a single impatient leg inside his Armani trousers and gently alerts a stagehand to the fact that he can’t hear himself on the monitor. Behind him, four roman candles – not real ones, but telly ones you switch on with a button – are spewing out sparks.

These days, however, Il Divo are so accustomed to pretend roman candles that they don’t even turn around to acknowledge them. Instead, when the music starts to play, they recommence their version of Charles Aznavour’s She once more. Depending where you sit in the studio, the angle of the roman candles in relation to Il Divo makes it look as though their heads have erupted. But even this mildly tittersome spectacle fails to avert a frightening realization from taking hold. When the four singers go studs up on the final verse – the one which ends, “the meaning of my life is she!” – I feel something inside me turn, and it isn’t my stomach. It’s far worse than that. I think I enjoyed it.

If a strange urge to scrub away these terrible thoughts takes hold, perhaps that’s how Il Divo – three-quarters of whom are formally trained opera singers – feel every time they do this. Before sitting down to talk, they have to pop off for a shower. As the group’s perma-tanned Spanish baritone Carlos Marín points out, “we have been in our suits since 5am this morning, when we went to GMTV.” But even in the midst of a day spent talking about themselves, Il Divo’s suspicion towards me is understandable. If your latest album kicked off with a Spanish version of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s The Power Of Love, you would also be suspicious towards broadsheet newspapers with their pesky “agendas”. As 35 year-old David Miller later explains, “We’ve had journalists come along to the shows and they can’t deal with the fact that people are having a good time.”

In the company of Il Divo, the age-old high-art, low-art conundrum rears its head like an uninvited guest. Over a hundred years ago, with no television to while away the long winter evenings, the two opposing schools of utilitarian philosophy, led by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, used to slug it out over the relative merits of “push-pin” (bowling) and poetry. If Miller, the Colorado-born son of a US military man, is disparaging towards people who turn their noses up Il Divo’s gasket-bursting attempt to put the aria in Mariah on their version of Hero, it has everything to do with the fact that he might have been one such critic. It was in 2003 that Miller heard, through his agent that Cowell was attempting to assemble a male group who would let their operatically-trained voices loose on well-known pop tunes. “If they had asked me three years previously,” says Miller, “I would have said no. But I had the experience of working with Baz Luhrmann’s production of La Boheme, which for me, brought a completely different frame of reference to bear on what the nature of opera was. We rehearsed it like a film, not even singing a note for the first three weeks.”

It isn’t the first time that someone from a pop background has attempted to co-opt the mores of classical music into a moneyspinning formula. In 1988, Malcolm McLaren formed the Bootzilla Orchestra and refused to take no for an answer when his musical enabler Bootsy Collins attempted to explain to him why, mathematically, you couldn’t make a modern dance record using a waltz-rhythm. And, indeed, you can detect a similar dynamic between Il Divo and the high-trousered mogul who always seems to get his way: the man with the potentially money-spinning idea; and the group charged with the job of making it work in exchange for some of that cash.

Of the four, it is Buhler who makes the least attempt to conceal his feelings towards Cowell. When his face pops up on a nearby TV screen and I say, “Look! It’s your friend!” Buhler turns around to see who I’m referring to, and sets me straight. “He is not my friend,” he flatly declares.

Miller says it would be misleading to deny that Il Divo wasn’t “a big compromise” in some ways. Whatever their old opera associates might think of what they do, all agree that, for the purposes of their self-esteem, there are certain lines they dare not cross. Hence, whenever meetings begin for a new album, and Cowell once again attempts to get them to do Nessun Dorma – not so much I Tre Tenori as I Quattro Formaggi – the answer continues to be no. “I used to be a conservative,” explains Buhler. “When Bocelli started off, I said ‘I will never do anything like that’. Things have changed, but certain remnants of that carry on. Mr Puccini has written Nessun Dorma and it is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. Sure, I would love to hear David sing it with the New York Metropolitan orchestra. But I do not see any reason for me to add a low harmony. It’s a nonsense.”

You suspect that when Sebastien Izambard rejoins his wife and small children at their Notting Hill domicile, fellow pop-classical crossover hybrids such as Katherine Jenkins and Andrea Bocelli are strangers to the CD tray. In some ways, his presence in Il Divo is the most surprising of all. Prior to joining the group, he had a successful pop career in France writing and performing songs which – a mite fancifully, it has to be said – he claims were influenced by Radiohead and Muse. So, what’s [ital] he [ital] doing in Il Divo?

“It’s fun, simple as that,” he says blithely, “You get a certain amount of success in your own country, but this has thrown me open to a new level of experience.” For “new level of experience” read “the seemingly fathomless hysteria of millions of female fans all over the world.” The occasional private function can’t do any harm when it comes to paying off the mortgage. “That’s true,” he says, “although doing a birthday party under armed guard in Kiev was maybe a little intense.”

Contrary to when Izambard calls the “Germanic” axis of Il Divo – Buhler and Miller – Izambard and Marin seem to view the whole Il Divo experience with an air of amused relaxation. A recent string of shows in Colombia sticks in his mind, predominantly because of an unfortunate encounter with a fan when he was battling a stomach bug. “We had 200 people waiting for us outside the hotel, and I had no choice but to run through them and get to my hotel room as fast as possible. My room was on the second floor, so I didn’t think to draw the bathroom blind before I sat on the toilet. Next thing I knew, I looked up and there was a fan at the window shouting, ‘Te Quiero, Sebastien!’ before falling all the way down. Miraculously, she was ok.”

In Nottingham the following evening, a cursory glance from the side of the stage at the fans waiting for Il Divo suggests that old age is the only thing stopping several of their admirers emulating the wall-scaling exploits of their Colombian devotee. If Marin is especially excited by the prospect of this tour, he’s frank about the reasons. Thirteen years after marrying her in Disneyland, Marin recently divorced his wife. Given how delighted he sounds about this, it’s perhaps for the best that he isn’t given the lead vocal on his group’s version of The Winner Takes It All. Of the four, it’s also Marin who sounds the least conflicted about his current job. In fact, everything about him points to a man who wakes up every morning to realize that they have just won a competition to join Il Divo. He is, in the best possible sense, a simple man. He lives in a Chelsea apartment, and the last meal he cooked was “some eggs, quite a few months ago.” Marin is also the main target of Il Divo’s knicker-throwing contingent of fans. Sometimes, they write their phone numbers on them. Has he been tempted? “Um…”

“Imagine getting a call from Carlos,” interjects Izambard, “and hearing him say, ‘You’ll never guess where I had my nose right now.”

Marin lets out a peal of laugher. But hey, let’s be serious for a minute. “Before, I wouldn’t have done. But now?” Now there’s nothing to stop him calling a number scrawled on a fan’s knickers, right? “I wouldn’t mind! If she’s beautiful! Right now, I can do whatever I want!!” Which, in the case of this forthcoming tour, augurs very well for Marin and his sizeable contingent of admirers, “The thing about me is that I live during the night. I’m like a vampire. I just get so excited after the show that I can’t go to bed.”

If it’s hard to believe Izambard when he claims that being in Il Divo is “fun… an incredible adventure”, his claim makes more sense a few songs into that night’s show. What isn’t apparent in the lifeless environs of a TV studio, yet abundant in Nottingham, as Without You reaches warp factor ten, is just what a silly job they have. Really, when you accept that being in Il Divo is one or two levels up from being a kissogram, any more rarefied debate seems like a waste of time. From her seat just behind me, one 81 year-old woman gets out of her chair and ventures over to the walkway where Buhler is singing Unbreak My Heart. She hands him a small gift bag, which he graciously receives. What was in it? “Just some after shave for the Swiss lad,” she explains, “He’s lovely.”

It’s presumably for “the Swiss lad” that another fan has brought a family-sized bar of Toblerone, but when Buhler and Miller suddenly switch paths in the middle of Mama, the fan who has already made it as far as the stage, has no choice but to give it to Miller. All four look perpetually on the verge of corpsing. At this point I remember something Buhler said in conversation a couple of hours previously. Asked if he would listen to Il Divo if he wasn’t in them, he replied, “I would not. But not through snobbery. It’s just not the music I would choose to listen to. But does that make it any less enjoyable to sing? Absolutely not.”