Il Divo Reveals Its Christmas Playlist -- And There Are a Few Surprises

Barry King/FilmMagic
Il Divo perform at the Hollywood Christmas Celebration at The Grove on Nov. 13, 2011 in Los Angeles. 

The superstar international vocal quartet known as Il Divo has enjoyed crossover success in the years since they were formed by Simon Cowell 2003. In the intervening time, they've placed five albums in the top 10 of the Billboard 200, embarked on numerous global concert tours and cemented a legacy as one of music's most popular purveyors of classical and operatic pop.

Now, it's time to break out the jingle bells. This winter, they're on a cross-country holiday-themed tour (only their second seasonal jaunt) performing tracks from their 2005 platinum album The Christmas Collection and other time-honored classics. In the midst of their jolly tour, Il Divo's David Miller and Sébastien Izambard revealed to Billboard their holiday favorites, from both their stacked repertoire and beloved personal memories.

"During the holidays, everything stops and people come back to very simple values," explains Izambard. "What I really like about Christmas and Christmas music is that it brings peace back into our lives."

"Ave Maria"

For David Miller, a Denver native and the sole American member of Il Divo, his musical bread and butter is a foundation of classical tracks. "Pop is really fun to sing, but classical songs really resonate with my background," explains Miller, whose credits before joining Il Divo consist of performances in operas ranging from a star-making debut in Washington Opera's production of La Traviata in 1997 to Baz Luhrmann's 2002 production of La Boheme. "Powerful songs (like 'Ave Maria') are really what drew me into singing in the first place," he recalls. "In high school, I treated singing like it was an athletic experience and kept on gravitating towards the heavier, stronger and higher extremes of music. A song like 'Ave Maria' is smack dab in the center of all that."

While countless recordings of the Catholic prayer, which was put to music by Franz Schubert in 1825, have been cut, Miller has a clear favorite. "The one that sticks out for me is Pavrotti's version," he says of the iconic Italian tenor. "It's mind blowing and was very inspirational for me in terms of my expression and my voice."

"White Christmas"

Bing Crosby's holiday classic, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2017, is one of the most popular recordings in music history. It's a rich legacy that wasn't lost on a young Sébastien Izambard during his childhood in France. "I remember the first time I heard it, it was on the radio and I was in love with the classic sound of it; I find it very magical," he explains. "But it wasn't until we released a Christmas album did I ever sing the song."

According to Izambard, his approach to covering a song so ingrained in culture with Bing Crosby's specific voice is a delicate process. "When you're doing a cover, you have to try to forget about all of the other versions of the song," he notes. "We had to think about it as if it was written for the four of us, so you don't go in with any pre-judgment. It has to have our own spin. I'm really grateful and happy that when we go into the studio, that's what we're trying to achieve. We're not trying to do the same thing as another artist."

"O Holy Night"

Another powerful holiday classic, "O Holy Night" (which was based on a French poem and composed by Adolphe Adam in 1847) has been a long-time staple performed in every Il Divo holiday show. "Every setlist is always different, but we always do some variation of 'O Holy Night,'" says Miller.

With its deep resonance and religious themes, it's the perfect seasonal opener for the group. Oddly enough, Miller says he never previously sang the iconic track. "While I started out singing opera and classical music, my first time singing 'O Holy Night' was with Il Divo, surprisingly enough."

"Petit Papa Noël"

One seasonal track that Izambard says he's been lobbying for the group to sing without success is "Petit Papa Noël," a French Christmas classic originally recorded in 1946 by the singer Tino Rossi. "It translates to 'Little Father Christmas' and is absolutely divine," says Izambard, who notes he grew up with the track and it was the very first song he performed in public. "I sang it in church when I was about nine. It's the kind of song your parents would sing to you and gets passed through the generations."

Throughout the years, "Petit Papa Noël" has charted on a regular basis in France, whether Rossi's version, or most recently by Josh Groban in 2008. Says Izambard: "It just reminds me of Christmas memories every time I hear it."

"Over the Rainbow"

When it came to including the Judy Garland standard on their Christmas album, Miller is frank: "I was violently opposed to it and it took some convincing on everyone's part," he says with a laugh. While it may not be an overtly holiday track, the thinking behind including what the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts called the 20th century's No. 1 song does indeed have holiday roots.

"It's become part of the fabric of Christmas because of its repeat showings on television around the holidays," says Miller, referring to The Wizard of Oz. "With that in mind, we put it on the album and it ended up being a really great addition."

"Amazing Grace"

When Izambard takes on the reins of a song as moving as "Amazing Grace," he says he tries to simply be "in service" to the song. "It's about being myself and vulnerable to whatever comes out, which is really the most important thing to me," he says, noting that Il Divo will typically sing the classic as an encore, with the audience usually responding with visceral reactions.

"I'm very receptive to people's emotions and when I see people reacting emotionally I find it incredibly touching," he says, noting that their popular track "Mama" is another one that gets tears flowing. "It's really hard to keep it together when there are a lot of people being so touched by the music." Pass the tissues, please.


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