When Sébastien Izambard was asked by Simon Cowell if he would like to join Il Divo, his first reaction was to turn the offer down. He was already carving out a successful career as a singer and songwriter in France and was not keen to give it up. He went to the audition out of curiosity as much as anything else. Unlike the other three members of the group, Urs Bühler, Carlos Marin and David Miller, Izambard was a pop singer and had never been classically trained. He wondered how he would fit into a group put together to bring classical music to a mass audience in a popular form.
All he really knew about Cowell was what he saw of him on television shows such as Pop Idol and American Idol as the acid-toned and often brutally honest judge whose opinion could make or break a young singer's career. Izambard had no idea that, as a record producer and entrepreneur, Cowell had been conducting worldwide auditions for two years in order to find the right mix for his new supergroup.
Today, Izambard laughs with a certain amount of disbelief at his initial lack of faith. The group stormed the popular music charts with its debut album, called simply Il Divo, selling five million copies in under a year and knocking Robbie Williams from the number-one slot. Since then, their particular blend of soaring operatic power and romantic popular songs has resulted in sales of more than 22 million albums and earned them a devoted following of fans of all ages.
"At first I wasn't very keen to join the group," Izambard says from his home in London. "Coming from a solo career, I have always been used to singing the songs I composed myself and being in control of my own career. "I was working on my second solo album when they told me they wanted to see me. Simon Cowell had a vision, when he heard the three tenors, of mixing songs in a pop opera kind of way. Then he looked for the right people who could physically do it. He considered singers from all over the world and it took him two years to put Il Divo together. The search covered 30 countries. When he finally decided upon the four of us, he was very truthful and said he hoped he could make it work. What he achieved was unbelievable. I have absolutely no regrets. I have to say that in general I made the right choice."
The others were also sceptical at first. Bühler thought being in the group would pay the rent for a year. As one of the three operatic singers, he was used to being selected in much the same way as an opera company is put together. Il Divo is scheduled to perform as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival at the Emirates Palace on Friday, and Izambard is looking forward to performing live again. "It's my first time in Abu Dhabi," he says. "We played in Dubai at a private party three years ago but I haven't been to the UAE since then. Three of us live in England and David lives in the States. We hardly ever meet except during the run-up to concerts and when we are on tour. This concert is a one-off, so it will be wonderful to be back on stage with them again with a live audience. That kind of contact is so different from being in a studio. As singers, that is what we are built for."
For those who are not familiar with the individual members of the group, Izambard is the devastatingly handsome French one, blue-eyed, messy-haired with dimpled chin and endearing gap between his front teeth. Marin is the dark-eyed Spaniard with matinee-idol looks and deep rich baritone. Bühler is the long-haired Swiss whose lyrically classical tenor falls somewhere in the middle of the range, and Miller is the younger looking, rather serious American who hits the high notes.
Izambard was chosen as much for his emotional delivery as his experience in the pop world. He believes that after seven years the group has at last left the "manufactured" tag behind. He shrugs off critics who deride them for being a bunch of pretty boys in Armani suits that Cowell put together in a studio. "Simon wanted someone from the pop world," Izambard says. "We are all there for a reason. Mine is not an operatic voice. I can't sing opera but my voice blends with the others.
"As for the look, it's very nice to be able to wear such beautiful clothes, and of course that helps with the image. But at home it's very much jeans and a T-shirt and my hair is much shorter than when we're on tour. "I find it embarrassing to talk about how I look - or how we look - but we hear that a lot: that Simon put together a group of good-looking guys who could sing. I don't believe that just being pretty is enough. There are a lot of good-looking guys out there. I am quite shy and I'm not used to compliments, so don't really know what to say when people ask me about all that. I hate seeing myself in pictures. I can't find a picture I like."
Cowell experimented with several looks for the ensemble but rejected the scruffy jeans style for sharp-suited elegance. He also abandoned early attempts to make them dance on stage and opted for the backlit, dramatic but simple device of having them stand still in a row and just sing. The other aspect of becoming a member of an ensemble was that the four men from different cultures and backgrounds were expected to become instant friends. That took time. While Marin and Izambard found a natural affinity and went clubbing together, it took some time for them to bond naturally as a group. "That's why tours are so important," he says. "We are together during that time and working very hard. The cultural differences give us an edge. We feel different things in a different way and we express them in a different way on records.
"But you have to keep reinventing yourself in order to move forward. I don't know where we will end up but we must keep trying to make ourselves better and more interesting. Otherwise we will get bored. It's really important to keep us all happy with what we are doing and how we are presenting ourselves." While Cowell was very hands-on to begin with and just asked the men to "trust him", the situation gradually reversed itself as the group matured. They work with producers to find songs that suit their blend of operatic technique and popular singing, though that sometimes means their style is rather unflatteringly dubbed "popera".
"It isn't easy," Izambard says. "We were meant to record a month ago, but we haven't even started yet. I don't think we have the right songs. In fact, we only have one song confirmed. We should be recording in May for release in October." Their first three albums, Il Divo, Ancora and Siempre, scored 36 number-one chart positions in 26 countries. Their next album, The Promise, released in November 2008, was another number-one hit in the UK.
Two sell-out world tours have taken them to 30 countries, performing for more than 1.5 million people. They appeared at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Fifa 2006 World Cup, singing the official theme song with Toni Braxton. And they were special guests of Barbra Streisand on her 2006 tour of North America. To say that Izambard's life has changed utterly since becoming part of Il Divo is something of an understatement. He has moved countries, married and become the father of twins. He met and married Renée Murphy, an Australian former Sony BMG publicist, on tour in Australia five years ago and their two-year-old children are called Luca and Rose.
"They keep us very busy," he says. "They are wonderful and they keep me grounded. There is absolutely no such thing as being famous once you get into your own home. The children tell me that with their eyes. I might fly in after a long trip and as soon as I walk in there's no such thing as being tired, either. "When I am away from them it is tough, but I am a very proud father. I have been fortunate to travel the world but I love spending time with my family and long to get home to them. If the babies are sick all you want to do is get home to them. Sometimes it is really tough when you are away for three months at a time. I feel I need to help my wife with them."
Now 37, Izambard is driven by a desire to become the best singer that he can be. "I have been taking singing lessons, as the only untrained classical opera voice in the group. You should never stop learning and I have never had lessons before. It was something that, for whatever reason, I wanted to do. I needed to reach the next level. I'm also taking acting lessons and am just trying to get better."
He says he would dearly love to write a song that Il Divo could sing, but is hesitant to try to force one of his songs on the group. "I have thought about writing for Il Divo but it might be awkward for the others. They might find it hard to sing something I wrote, and I don't want to trigger any kind of awkwardness within the group. It's very difficult for ego reasons, so maybe this is something for me in the future."
Before he joined the group, he had already released a solo album called Libre in France, and his song Si Tu Savais reached number one in the French charts. He has written many songs for French artists, and he performed with Johnny Halliday in Paris in 2001. He has also performed in musicals and plays. "I haven't altogether given up what I used to do, and that is composing. I write a lot of music on the side and have been doing that for many years. I would like to try and compose something for Leona Lewis. She has a very modern sound. I like the songs she sings. I like to try to do things that I'm not used to doing."
"When we first started six years ago, I was blown away when we went to number one in the UK. We didn't even have a single and just released the album. This is something that hadn't happened since the 1970s. We just came from nowhere and were embraced by the world. We worked so hard that we hardly had time to think." All four take time to talk to fans and sign autographs at concerts but Izambard says he never really gets used to being recognised.
"I still can't get used to people staring at me. We all get it a lot. People sometimes can't work out who I am when they see me without the other three. You can see by the expression on their faces that they think they know me but can't work out from where. It happened a lot when I used to live in Notting Hill. "The ability to be able to move about without being recognised everywhere is really important to me. I don't think I could keep doing what I do otherwise. As a family and as a father I don't think I would be able to have a proper life."
The four took a year-long break in 2007 and when they got back together for the last album felt more of a team than before. "We have all matured and we are able to work closely together," Izambard says. "We don't want to just do the same thing. We are all professional musicians and although people think we were put together in a reality show, we feel very different now. "Also we see a very different side of Simon. He isn't like the person we see on television. He trusts us now and doesn't interfere. And we trust and respect each other. Some people thought we wouldn't last but here we are seven years later and the schedule is as crazy as ever.
"So many of my musician friends say they would love to do what we do, so I'm not going to complain about my life." * Il Divo is scheduled to perform as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival at the Emirates Palace at 7.30 on Friday. For details, visit www.abudhabifestival.ae.