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Il Divo: Popera’s fantastic four return

by Brandon Voss
It was late 2003 when “American Idol” icon Simon Cowell concluded his two-year international talent search and joined the vocal powers of four established singers — Switzerland’s Urs Buhler, Spain’s Carlos Marin, France’s Sebastien Izambard and America’s David Miller — to form Il Divo (Italian for “male divine performer”), fearlessly melding pop and opera, modern and classic, skill and sex appeal for purposes of conquering the world.

When I meet this musical dream team — who are even more handsome in person — I wonder aloud how I’m going to ensure I get quotes from each of them; should I have them raise their hands and call on them like an old schoolmarm? “We try to make sure we each express ourselves,” Sebastien says. “Trust me: You won’t be disappointed.”
To be honest, it’s hard to imagine Il Divo disappointing anyone. They’ve recently embarked on their long-awaited first world tour, which stopped at Radio City Music Hall for two dates in February. And following the same formula that made their self-titled debut a top five record in 26 countries (half of which reached No. 1), the multilingual megagroup teamed with über-producers Per Magnusson, David Kreuger and Steve Mac, who also produced their debut, to release “Ancora.”

The thrilling, passionate disc features new music and revisited contemporary chestnuts such as Mariah Carey’s “Hero” and Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself;” it is highlighted by vocal performances in four different languages — English, Spanish, French and Italian.
“This second album will make the first one sound like a rehearsal,” Carlos says, “because we know each other so well, we know which part is the best for each of our voices and we know what works best for Il Divo. It’s much easier now. We recorded the first album in four months and recorded the second album in six weeks.”

The group seems most proud of the track “I Believe in You (Je Crois En Toi),” a duet — or quintet, depending on how you look at it — recorded with Celine Dion. “For our voices, we needed someone who was really powerful as well,” says Sebastien. “It was incredible working with her.” The group’s resident skeptic, Sebastien admits: “I was very surprised with how well “Heroe” came out, too, because I’ve never liked that song. And I said that to Simon from the beginning.”

Thankfully, pessimism is usually met with optimism in Il Divo, just as yin generally meets yang. “We’re all so different and have such different voices,” says Carlos. “Each of us brings something special, and that is the magic of Il Divo. Also, we combine such different cultures, so we find different meanings in — and different ways of interpreting — the songs. The fact that we can express ourselves and touch people in different languages to make it more universal is such a great thing.”

While they’ve sold more than five million copies of their self-titled debut album worldwide, not to mention the success of the international version of “Ancora,” Il Divo doesn’t feel the connection with fans that they’d like — especially American ones. “We haven’t had a lot of chances to meet our fans in the U.S. because we’ve never toured until now,” David explains. “Plus, we haven’t had the same notoriety here because there’s such a heavy trend toward hip-hop and rap in this country. Trying to find a place for us is really difficult.”

Like many other fledgling artists before and since, Il Divo credits Oprah with helping launch their career in the States. “That was the first major television appearance that we had,” David recalls of Il Divo’s performance of Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart (Regresa A Mi)” on Winfrey’s talk show in April 2005. “Everyone who had been on the fence about us was like, ‘Oh yes, I want these guys!’ That support got us out to the masses.”

They’ll also reluctantly admit that their roguish good looks play a part in their success. “Obviously, in the pop business you must have a look,” says Carlos. “You must take good care of yourself and be a little metrosexual. People will see the cover of the album and say, ‘Well, that looks good — let’s see what’s happening inside.’ Then, hopefully, they’ll like what they hear. So it’s really a combination of everything.”

Sebastien, however, disagrees: “There are many singers who aren’t good-looking who have had great success. Personality is much more important than looks. It’s what’s on the inside that counts.” I bring up the Three Tenors, the operatic trio that isn’t exactly known for being easy on the eyes. “Their traditional style of singing allows for that old-fashioned look,” counters David. “One half of what we do has to do with our look. It’s all about what matches. If you were to put Blink 182 in our clothes on stage — or if you had us wearing ripped jeans and stuff — it would look ridiculous.”

Of course, this argument begs the question: In a brawl between the Three Tenors, Blink 182 and Il Divo, who would win? “Hmm, I don’t know,” says David menacingly.

“Sebastian’s pretty scrappy.” Sebastien’s endearing reply: “What’s ‘scrappy’ mean?”
A new levity in the room leads to a candid discussion on the price of international fame. “When you have success with a group like this, it’s not so much the people in the group who change, but the people around it. Friends, family, people you haven’t seen in years just call up, wanting something,” says Sebastien. “Girlfriends from 10 years ago,” adds Urs. ”And all the kids,” jokes Carlos, getting a rise from the other boys.

Secretly hoping this backslapping masks behind-the-scenes backstabbing, I try to get each member of Il Divo to admit that he’s the best singer in the group. But much to this reporter’s chagrin, there’s no competition in Il Divo — only camaraderie. “The thing is that we’re all in our 30s,” offers Carlos. “If we were 16, 18 years old, we could play that game. But we’ve got 10, 15 years of experience in our own solo careers, so we know what we can do. We don’t need to show off.”

Indeed, each gentleman was treading his own path to personal success before Cowell commissioned him to help make his grand vision a reality. Having sung lead with opera companies on four continents, David recently appeared on Broadway in Baz Luhrman’s “La Bohème.” A hard rocker as a teen, Urs spent seven years performing with the Amsterdam Opera. Carlos was a star of both Spanish opera and musical theater. The sole self-taught singer of the bunch, Sebastien is an established singer-songwriter with a pop-rock solo album under his belt.

They all met together for the first time only two days before they began recording their first album. While they’re far from the Spice Girls, Il Divo hope to shake the stigma of being an assembled group with the new album and tour. “When people see us singing live they’ll really get to see what Il Divo is all about,” Urs says. David, who’s quick to point out their vocal role in the collaborative process, admits, “People are always trying to put us in that box of being ‘manufactured,’ but it’s the same as putting together the cast of a ballet or an opera.” Adds Urs: “Simon Cowell had the idea of Il Divo, but we had to really make it happen.”

He may be the guy America loves to hate, but don’t expect an off-color comment about their British creator, either. (“I think Simon’s the guy that everybody hates to love,” David gushes.) Although, to be fair, Il Divo doesn’t have time to watch “American Idol.” In fact, they’ll be lucky to see the sights from their hotel room windows on their upcoming tour. “It’s a very tough schedule,” David says, “although there are more days off than we had during the promo schedule, when I think we went something like 37 days with no days off. But every time we do get a day off, we’re so exhausted we spend half the day in bed!”

“Did you see that movie ‘The Terminal?’” asks Sebastien. “I watched it the other day on the plane and I really felt like that. Our homes are like the lounges in airports because we’re traveling all the time.” Too busy even to spend their new riches? “We all have plans,” he continues. “Carlos wants to buy a house, I want to buy a house, pay off some loans for my family.” Urs, however, doesn’t see the point in splurging: “Buy a fancy car? What for? I don’t have time to drive it. I can buy a house, but I’m maybe home three weeks a year.”

Feeling a bit guilty that Il Divo’s fierce commitment to conquer the world has left them exhausted and homeless? Should you feel like making it up to the hardest working international superheroes in the biz, take these four singing studs home with you the next time you’re shopping for music. Trust me: You won’t be disappointed.
“Ancora” (Columbia Records) is now available in stores everywhere.

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