The opening chords are unmistakable. It's one of the most iconic British pop songs of the '80s, with some of the most peculiar lyrics ("Protect you from the hooded claw, keep the vampires from your door"). Rendered in Italian, however, Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "The Power of Love" becomes a tender, operatic ballad, complete with four-part harmonies, classical guitar and full orchestral backing, coming to a close with a soft piano and tenor climax.
The quartet takes opera to the masses.
Il Divo transforms the song on "The Promise," the latest Syco/Columbia album from the classical-pop quartet. The concept that launched the group in 2005 seems improbable on paper. Take four singers from different countries (Switzerland, Spain, France and the United States), have them sing operatic versions of much-loved pop songs and give them an Italian name meaning "star"—although none of them is Italian.
Unlikely? Maybe. But successful? Definitely. So far, Il Divo has sold 25 million albums, according to the act's label, and more than 1.8 million concert tickets, according to its management company. The act has had 50 No. 1 albums globally and received 160 gold and platinum awards for albums that include "Il Divo," its 2005 debut; "The Christmas Collection," released in December of the same year; "Ancora" and "Siempre" in 2006; and "The Promise," released in November.
"The Promise" has sold 2.7 million copies, according to the act's label, and reached No. 1 in 12 countries, including the United States, Holland and Spain. The new album is a departure in that it features only one producer, Steve McCutcheon. It includes the aforementioned Frankie Goes to Hollywood track, a version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and ABBA's "Winner Takes It All." Its title derives from the Italian original "La Promessa," written by the Swedish pop writer Jörgen Elofsson (Britney Spears, Celine Dion).
Il Divo has performed in more than 30 countries on two previous sold-out world tours. The act has sung at the opening and closing ceremonies of the FIFA 2006 World Cup and—perhaps the ultimate accolade—it was the special guest of Barbra Streisand on her 2006 tour of North America, singing with her on three songs. The group's current world tour reaches the United States May 8 at the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Va.
Il Divo was conceived when the British music mogul Simon Cowell heard the Italian operatic tenor Andrea Bocelli singing on the soundtrack to the HBO series "The Sopranos" and realized the potential of the combination of classical music with gangster-chic imagery.
Along with his record label, Syco, Cowell sought four matinee-idol singers. And he found them in American tenor David Miller, Spanish baritone Carlos Marín, Swiss tenor Urs Bühler and French tenor Sébastien Izambard.
None of them was a struggling "American Idol"-style wannabe. In fact, Bühler had a successful career with the Netherlands Operaa Gezelschap, Marín was a sought-after star, and Miller had sung for President Bill Clinton and was fresh from appearing in the lead role of Rodolfo in Baz Luhrmann's successful 2002 Broadway version of Puccini's "La Bohème," which received seven Tony Award nominations. This wasn't Cowell's usual plucking-a-star-from-obscurity story.
In fact, not all the potential candidates were willing. "A couple of them took some persuading," says Peter Rudge of Octagon Music, the band's management company, based in London. "It was a great gamble at the time for everyone."
The band's commercial success has also been against the odds. Rudge says, "We don't really get radio play, which for years has been the promotional platform. We don't get our videos played on MTV. The opera critic doesn't like it, and the pop critic thinks it's pretentious."
But the fans love it. "We have captured a whole female audience who buy records to keep, not burn copies of them. Il Divo albums are gift purchases; sons buy them for their mothers and the mothers go to the gigs. This has helped us achieve phenomenal sales," Rudge says. The group also benefits from a wide demographic. "We see people from 16 to 76 coming to the shows now, and there aren't many artists who can boast that."
Il Divo's team has worked to reach its demographic in other ways. "We had to go outside the traditional model," Rudge says. "We alert our fans through [the British online shopping service] Tesco.com, and very early we connected with Amazon.com and we use MarthaStewart.com." An Il Divo fan, he adds, "is someone who makes a measured consumer response and sticks with the band through recordings and tours."
Syco managing director Sonny Takhar says, "It's quite simple. You put this band on TV and they sell records. TV is their oxygen." The band has appeared on major TV shows stateside, including "The Oprah Winfrey Show"(Oct. 24) and the United Kingdom's morning show "GMTV" (Nov. 10) and the star-search show "X Factor" (Dec. 6).
Though not the first act to cross over from the classical world, the group's impact has been huge, and not just on record sales. "Without Il Divo there would be no [British classical crossover band] Blake. There would be no [Welsh soprano] Katherine Jenkins," Rudge says.
Claire Jackson, the editor of Muso, the classical music magazine aimed at fans ages 16-30, tirelessly campaigns to break down elitism in classical music. "You can have the high art vs. low art debate until the cows come home, but there's no denying that Il Divo has whetted the opera appetite of millions with its accessible music," she says. "Rather than ruin the purity of the genre, this new breed of 'popera' acts—such as Blake, Katherine Jenkins and even ["X Factor" runner-up] G4—have introduced a new audience to classical."
It's hard to imagine that Cowell—the man behind "X Factor" and British singer/show victor Leona Lewis—not knowing what he was doing with Il Divo. But, Rudge says, "It's a very imprecise business and it was a big gamble. Lightning only strikes once. Much of the credit has to be given to the four guys. They are wonderful to their fans and because of that they are unbelievably loyal."
Il Divo's multinationality is an obvious boost. "The fact we're a global group gives us a lot of flexibility financially," Rudge says. "We have lots of markets and our biggest audiences are Spain and Holland. We're also very popular in Australia, Japan, Mexico, Britain and America."
It's fair to say that not all of Il Divo's appeal is musical—it's no coincidence that all four men are easy on the eye. But, Rudge says, "I do take offense that people label them as a 'boy band.' They're all incredibly good performers with successful careers, but of course it was a strategic thought when all this was put together. Wasn't Elvis Presley good-looking?" Syco's Takhar adds, "Anyone who thinks their appeal isn't musical should see them live. These are four of the best voices in the world and that's what people are going to see."
Nonetheless, it seems entirely natural that the band's designer of choice is Giorgio Armani and that it performed at the One Night Only at Budokan event during the opening of the Armani/Ginza tower in Tokyo in November 2007.
It's a good fit, as Giorgio Armani Group is one of the leading fashion and luxury goods companies in the world. During the tour, the band wears a selection of classic Armani tuxedos and Armani himself has described the group as having a "mesmerizing stage presence."
For four classically trained musicians, the thought of suiting up and recording pop chestnuts might not be a dream job. The song choices aren't the obvious ones for a boy who trained at the Oberlin (Ohio) Conservatory. But, Miller says, "It's inescapable. There is no point in making an album without marketability.
"Everyone has a different idea but we all put our bids into the pot," he adds. "Sometimes we're listened to, sometimes we're not. But we're all striving for the same thing."
Bühler is candid about the perceived career downshift. "We are always a bit compromised," he says. "We have our interests in certain types of repertoire and the album is always going to be a compromise. But people listen to us, so we have to be sensible.
"I have always been happy to sing," he adds, "and being a classical singer I sang things which I didn't think were the best songs. Standing onstage making music with other people is what I love doing."
Syco's Takhar says there will definitely be another album next year. "We have talked about doing a more classical album," he says, "but Il Divo's demographic doesn't really change its tastes so it's not as transient as others. As long as the quality of the repertoire is good we don't need to worry too much about changing direction."
Il Divo's Personal Playlists
As the classical-pop quartet Il Divo brings their global tour to the United States, promoting their current album "The Promise," Billboard asked the full-throated foursome for a look at the diverse singles and albums on their personal playlists – including some surprising choices.
Dokken, "Breaking the Chains"
"I could make a very long list of songs by this 80's L.A. metal band which I absolutely love, but this one is from their first album, and it's just the perfect straight forward old school rock song to me."
"My favorite album by my favorite current band. And there are hardly any current bands I'm actually listening to."
Mozart, "Don Giovanni"
"The `Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft' recording by Herbert von Karajan with Samuel Ramey in the title role was the first opera recording I ever had, and still one of the best I've ever heard."
Ozzy Osbourne and Randy Rhoads, "Tribute"
"This is always going to be one of my favorite records, because it contains some of the most brilliant guitars that have ever been recorded. And the fact that it is played live adds a dimension and depth to the expressionwhich never leaves me indifferent when I hear it."
Mozart, "Die Zauberfloete"
"Karl Boehm's recording with my favorite Tenor of all time, Fritz Wunderlich as `Tamino' has probably been the most influential record for me in my singing career. It is brilliantly executed by each single singer, as well as by the orchestra and will always have a very special place in my heart."
Kings of Leon, "Sex On Fire"
"I like this song because it's so energetic and has such a great melody, it brings me back to where I've come from."
Coldplay, "Viva La Vida"
"I think they are the best pop band right now with great melody and lyrics."
Tito Puente, "Pachito Eche"
"His music really takes me on a journey, I love it. It always makes me feel like being on holidays!"
Radiohead, "No Surprises"
"Can you believe the version of the song on the album is the first take recorded? From the album that I think definitely established Radiohead as one of the most inventive and rewarding guitar rock bands of the '90s"
The Killers, "Human"
"I love the lyrics and they are such a melodic band. Brandon [Flowers] is also a great front man."
"I love this because it was the track that got me into techno."
Gustav Holst, "Mars Bringer of War Opus 32: 1" from "The Planets"
"`The Planets' is for me some of the most beautiful and emotionally packed music ever written. Much of modern day movie music is actually based on `The Planets.' The movement of `Mars' is very powerful. Besides the agitated percussive nature of the supporting music behind the melody, the 5/4 time signature gives the listener an added sense of unease. It feels like you are on the front lines, about to go to war with some mythical army of the gods."
Nine Inch Nails, "The Perfect Drug" from the soundtrack to the movie "Lost Highway"
"Trent Reznor is, in my book, a genius. His ability to combine elements electro, techno, backbeat, drum and bass and downtempo all in the same song and so seamlessly is the mark of a brilliant musical mind."
The Postal Service, "Such Great Heights"
"Postal Service is a very creative minimalist electro group with a poetic melancholy that belies the upbeat nature of the tracks. Quite romantic."
Luciano Pavarotti, "Che Gelida Manina" from Puccini's opera "La Boheme"
" This was the track that inspired me to become an opera singer. Pavarotti's voice was and still is one of the greatest ever recorded and when I first heard a recording of his in 1992, it threw a bucket of gasoline on the opera fire that was already in my soul."
Queen, "Who Wants to Live Forever"
"One of the most powerful groups ever.. They create such great moods and drama. I don't think there is ANY song from Queen I don't like!"
Tom Jones, "Love Me Tonight"
" I really think Tom Jones is one of the greatest singers of all time, and I love his stage manner. It's very hard to pick just one song but `Love Me Tonight' has such a great melody."
Innocence, "The Show Must Go On"
"Also because of my love of Queen, but this interpretation of the Show Must Go On by my ex wife Geraldine Larossa is really dramatic. She's a very talented singer and I produced the album its on so I'm quite proud of it."
Michael Jackson, "Billie Jean"
"I think everyone must have a favorite Michael Jackson track. I like all the earlier songs, it's classic `80s to me. Billie Jean is such a signature song and I have a lot of fond memories when hearing it."
Duran Duran, "A View To A Kill"
"What a classic band, and this track is also one of my favorite James Bond film themes."