NEW YORK – When Luciano Pavarotti first heard a demo tape recorded by a young tenor 10 years ago, he is said to have exclaimed to a friend, "Who is this guy?"
The guy who got opera's most famous voice so excited was an unknown Italian named Andrea Bocelli, now a world-renowned singer. Bocelli's music ranges from opera to popular music, including duets with Sarah Brightman and Celine Dion, and has reached beyond the usual classical music fans.
"There's a story with him that people respond to," said Elliot Forrest, host of Breakfast With the Arts on A&E. "An element of romance and sex appeal that a wider group than just the traditional classic music audience pays attention to."
Bocelli's latest album, Sentimento, hits stores this week.
"He's brought classical music into the homes of people who were either afraid of it or didn't appreciate it," said Barbara Walters at a private concert at New York City's Museum of Natural History Monday where Bocelli performed some of his new album. "This new album is all love songs but they're all arias from operas."
Bocelli is accompanied on the album by New York Philharmonic Music Director Lorin Maazel, who plays his 18th Century Stradivarius violin on every track.
"I think the balance of the two is really good," said Forrest. "Having someone as revered and respected as Maazel, paired up with someone as widely known as Bocelli, is something to be very excited about."
And Bocelli is clearly excited about the collaboration. "It was one of the luckiest things that have happened to me in my career," the singer said after the private concert, speaking through an interpreter. "Every performer brings his own contribution to opera. That's what makes the music so good."
Bocelli, who is blind, grew up on a farm in rural Tuscany, Italy. Growing up, he said he'd sing for his relatives at their request. He became a lawyer before embarking on a career in music. "I don't think one decides to be a singer," he is quoted as saying in an online biography. "Other people decide it for you by their reactions."
Judging from the reactions to Sentimento at the recent private concert, Bocelli will continue to be in demand by audiences who swoon over his voice.
"I'm his number one fan," said syndicated columnist Victoria Gotti, daughter of the late reputed mob boss John Gotti. "There is something very old fashioned, very romantic about his voice."
And veteran actress Cathy Moriarty, who next stars in this year's Analyze That, also expressed awe over Bocelli. "He just lights up my heart. Who would have thought growing up in Brooklyn I'd be standing in the lobby of a museum waiting to see a private concert by Andrea Bocelli?"
Bocelli begins a U.S. tour later this month with stops in Connecticut, Detroit, Miami, Philadelphia and New Jersey, among other cities.
"I will try my best and hope I can give American audiences great feelings throughout the show," he said.