This year Il Divo, the genre-busting singing troupe that straddles the worlds of pop and classical music, celebrates their 10th Anniversary. David, Carlos, Urs and Sebastien, – four different nationalities, training and sensibilities quickly became an international sensation.
But now they’re stepping outside the box to do something new yet again, and it is stretching them in exciting, new and challenging directions. They are taking themselves to Broadway – both in a new album called “A Musical Affair” and to the place itself in a concert engagement at the Marriott Marquis Theatre in November, located at the heart of America’s most legendary theatrical arena, that will introduce the album.
“It feels like we’re going to dive in a completely different world of music,” says Urs Bühler, the Swiss-born tenor. “I’ve been a singer in a rock band, which is one world and then I made the move into the classical, and then with Il Divo I combined the two and moved into the pop business,” he says of a career that saw him begin performing in a rock band as a teenager, before training in classical music that saw him graduate from Switzerland’s The Academy of School and Church Music before gaining a masters degree from the Amsterdam Conservatory. “But now we’re going to Broadway, which is somehow a different format again. Getting in touch with this whole world of music is out of my comfort zone, so it is exciting and challenging.”
That has been the constant challenge of Il Divo, both for its artists as well as its audience. “The thing that Il Divo brings to music in general is being outside the box and revamping something that people are already very familiar with,” explains David Miller, the American tenor of the group. “For instance, with ‘Unbreak my Heart’, we put it in a different language, so that gave it a layer of distance from the version everyone knows. It was men singing it, which was another layer; and then it was multiple voices, which is another layer. It goes further and further out of the box, but with a melody that everybody is familiar with – so when they first hear it, they’re not sure why they know this piece of music already. It’s as if they’re hearing it for the first time. At a certain moment, the lightbulb goes off, and they realise why it’s familiar. It shows that although music can get codified, it really has no boundaries in the way it can be interpreted and reinterpreted and reconfigured, and still have a huge impact.”
Sébastien Izambard, who came to Il Divo in the midst of a successful pop career in his native France, had some experience of musical theatre in Paris: “I was asked to appear in a French musical version of The Little Prince about twelve years ago, and I remember having to audition for it – that was unusual for me as a pop singer. So it was a real challenge to me.” But he got the
job, and remembers the experience was amazing: “Not only was it an opportunity to sing in a different way, as a bridge between opera and a pop musical, but also there was a lot of acting to do.”
So he is looking forward to embracing the world of Broadway now: “It’s a completely different world again. I remember when I first joined Il Divo, going into the studio and hearing the huge vibratos, I wondered what I was doing there – when you sing pop, you usually sing in straight tones. But when we did ‘Unbreak my Heart’ all four of us realised that we had something that could open the door to people who’d never heard opera – which included me – to appreciate it.”
Now Il Divo are looking forward to introducing their fans to the great works of Broadway. “This is going to be a fantastic surprise,” says Carlos Marin, the Spanish baritone. “The audience are going to be really, really pleased – we’ve got well-known songs here, but we have a new sound and concept for them, and being on Broadway will also be a chance to try something really new and theatrical for us.” Carlos has the most direct experience of appearing in musicals, having performed in leading roles in Grease, Les Miserables, Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan and the Man of La Mancha in his native Spain. “When we were were forming Il Divo, I was offered Phantom of the Opera, too, but I couldn’t do it. All of my career since I started at the age of eight, I’ve done musicals. I love them, so this is a very important album to me.”
Of course, this isn’t the first time Il Divo have sung Broadway songs: as David points out, “We’ve been doing selections here and there – ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story’ was on one of our earlier albums, we did ‘Music of the Night’ from The Phantom of the Opera with Barbra Streisand when we were on tour with her, and we once put together our own version of ‘The Impossible Dream’ from ‘The Man of La Mancha’ as an encore for one of our tours to add a piece of flair that wasn’t there before.”
But this is the first time, he adds, “we’ve brought out an album that is in its entirety a Broadway album. Those individual tracks had kept cropping up and were having a massive success with the audiences, so we thought what if we did a whole album of it? What if we devote a whole album to one genre? All of our previous albums had combined songs from different genres, so we’d have Frankie Goes to Hollywood next to Mariah Carey next to Frank Sinatra. They were very eclectic and across the board. Here we’ve got all one repertoire. But it is a very diverse one, if you look across the decades of how musical theatre has evolved, from how operettas turned into musicals, and how opera singers who used to sing in them didn’t want to destroy their voices doing eight performances a week. Then microphones got introduced to save their voices, and then different vocal techniques were possible – all of which culminated in Rent, and opened the door for a different type of musical.”
The fact that Rent is itself based on an opera La Boheme shows how far it has come – and it was, in fact, in Baz Luhrmann’s production of La Boheme that David made his Broadway debut 11 years ago, playing Rodolfo. David, who now lives in Manhattan, notes that musical theatre is in that city’s DNA, and also his own: “I’ve been singing musical theatre since I was about 14 years old when my first role was Rooster in Annie, and it was my entry into realising I had a voice. Then I played Noah in another musical called Two by Two, and Frederick in The Pirates of Penzance, when I realised that I really wanted to sing as my life career, and enrolled in a classical training.”
Il Divo may have been an arranged marriage, but David speaks of how complementary their interests and skills have turned out to be. “We have a very wide base of musical understandings.
Sebastien is a self-taught pop singer who had done a musical, so and is aware of the process. Carlos has done every type of music and many musicals – he has a big frame of reference. And I’ve done musical theatre since I was a kid. Urs probably has the least frame of reference, but he’s been in the theatre all of his life doing operas and operettas, which are most akin to musical theatre.”
For Carlos, musicals are a way of proving something else: “You need to show the audience that you’re not just a singer, but that you can dance, act and interpret songs. And when we do this onstage, we want to try to make it more real. We really see ourselves as artists, and the time you really feel an audience is when you do a live show. There’s only one chance to do it right – it’s where we show the world we are live singers!”
Sebastien is looking forward the closer proximity of a Broadway house. “We are used to touring in areas, but here’s an opportunity to have more closeness with an audience.”
They also, of course, bring their distinctive signature to the songs, too. As Urs says, “We give a different twist to all these songs, just purely from the fact that songs that were written as solo numbers are sung by the four of us. We’ve managed to create a version of these songs that is different to anything else out there. All these musicals have played all over the world, and interpreted by loads of different people. But our goal is always to take the musical material and do something with it that has not been heard before in that shape or fashion. As our voices share and blend, it is a sound that is different to a solo interpretation.”
They are joined by star guests on several tracks, including Broadway’s Kristin Chenoweth, Heather Headley and Nicole Scherzinger, as well as Britain’s own Michael Ball in a rendition of ‘Love Changes Everything’ from Aspects of Love (the first time they’ve ever been joined by another male voice). The Il Divo template is being changed once again: “I’m hoping,” says David, “that this will an opportunity to investigate how to take Il Divo out of its box and the format we’ve had from the last ten years, and by putting some constraints around it, expand it to another level. There is so much going on in this album, it is almost like going back to the first one which was a grand experiment: there were no preconceptions around it, and we had no idea what we were doing at the time, we just had a list of random songs and found different ways of structuring the songs to bring variety to them as we passed the ball between us.”
The key to their success, David believes, is variety: “The more balls you can have in the air when you’re juggling, the more exciting the juggler is. And that’s what we do – we have multiple languages and multiple voices, and sometimes it is one voice, sometimes it is all of them; sometimes we have a big ending, sometimes a small one.” Broadway thrives on such juxtapositions, and so will Il Divo.