Gig preview: Il Divo, First Direct Arena, Leeds

Il Divo
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THE perma-suited world of singers Il Divo may appear to be one of jet setting and high refinement but, admits Swiss tenor Urs Buhler, it’s not all glamour on their concert tours.

“That does not mean it’s not fun or it’s not great,” says the 42-year-old from Willisau, near Lucerne. “It’s not like we are staying in bunk beds. We do travel in business class and stay in great hotels, we’re well taken care of.”

But work and travel do take their toll.

“Nobody understands that unless you are in it. When occasionally we have people travelling with us everybody says, ‘Rather you than me, I’ll go back to a quiet life.’

“Our work life is so intense. We travel the world, go to great places, but all you do is you are constantly exhausted. We have to sing, that’s why we are given the chance to travel and we owe it to everybody to be on top of our game, so you have to be responsible, you have to go to bed, you don’t go out.

“Every now and again we get days off and we go sightseeing or have a nice meal and a few drinks, but that’s only occasional.

“People think it’s like pop stars and rock stars, lots of big wild parties backstage where the champagne flows, but it’s not like people imagine. Still, it’s a lot of fun, we love singing, but we do take things seriously.”

The quartet, who’ve successfully bridged the gap between pop and classical in a career spanning 10 years and 26 million album sales, are about to embark on a world tour to accompany their new album, A Musical Affair.

“It’s songs from musicals,” explains Buhler. “There’s a cross section all the way back from the 40s and 50s to the present – We Will Rock You, Andrew Lloyd Webber. We tried to choose the most beautiful melodies.”

Whereas on the past five or six albums the multi-national group – who comprise Buhler, Spanish baritone Carlos Marin, French pop singer Sebastien Izambard and American tenor David Miller – chose pop songs “left and right at will”, this time they wanted to work to a theme.

“With the release of the Greatest Hits last year we thought we had done enough of that,” says Buhler. We wanted to do something more directional, to choose one genre of music for the album. We had a few ideas but musical theatre fitted into place.”

For Buhler, who trained at the Sweelinck Conservatorium in Amsterdam, and was tutored by world-renowned tenors Christian Papis and Gosta Winbergh, choosing songs for this album was something of a voyage into the unknown. Prior to this project, his background in musical theatre was largely limited to singing Don’t Cry For Me Argentina and Music of the Night with the group.

Marin and Miller, who are more schooled in musicals, “made a lot of the initial proposals of the songs”.

“I must say I did not know a lot of it,” says Buhler, “I knew Chicago and Fame and The Sound of Music but I did not know Carousel or South Pacific. They were new discoveries for me.”

Though he’d once appeared in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat “about 20 years ago”, Buhler says musical theatre was “not a repertoire I’ve listened to ever”.

“For me the project was a journey of discovery. But there’s big co-operation, everybody is involved in Il Divo – other record companies, friends we’ve made over the years who we’d ask for suggestions. A big list comes together then we start narrowing it down and try a few things in the studio.”

The album features a stellar cast of guests, including Michael Ball, Heather Headley and Nicole Scherzinger. Buhler is particularly proud of the duet with Barbra Streisand on Music of the Night.

“That recording was from a tour in 2006. We had only started in 2003 and being invited by her to join her for her tour was a big honour for us, mostly because she wanted to integrate us properly into her show. We didn’t just open for her, we joined her on stage and sang our own repertoire as well.

“We were newcomers at the time, it was a great experience. There’s hardly anybody out there of that calibre of artist any more. She’s from the generation of Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. She’s so talented and versatile – singing, acting, directing. She’s the nicest person, there was never the slightest feeling of ‘I’m Barbra Streisand and you are the little Il Divo’. We were taken as equals.”

Nicole Scherzinger, with whom they recorded Memory from the musical Cats, was someone they’d met a few times at the Royal Variety show and at an Andrew Lloyd Webber television special. Buhler was impressed by “the way she’s made from the Pussycat Dolls – that was not about singing – to a lady who has got a great voice”.

Buhler believes she has “a great career in musical theatre on Broadway ahead – she’s so expressive, so beautiful”. He hopes she will perform live with Il Divo in future.

The album was launched with a residency at the Marquee Theatre in New York. Transferring the show from a 1,600-seat theatre to London’s O2 Arena, which has a capacity of 16,000, is a feat for Il Divo’s backstage crew. “It’s difficult but it’s not up to us,” says Buhler. “It’s up to our technical department to have the skill there to take it around the world.

“We’ll be using a lot of video sections and projection. It’s not a Broadway show, it’s not an evening that has a story line from A to Z, we will create an atmosphere from various musicals. It’s modern, it’s something that’s of our time. It gives you the possibility of creating depth and imagery, whatever you want.”

October 31, First Direct Arena, Leeds, 6pm, from £35. www.firstdirectarena.com

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