Andrea Bocelli is standing in front of the stalls in the auditorium of Palermo's magnificent Teatro Massimo, waiting patiently to be called on stage for rehearsal. The French conductor Michel Plasson is putting the orchestra through its paces for a new production of Faust by Charles Gounod, and Bocelli is listening intently. As his turn approaches he feels his way along the front of the stage and suddenly hoists his 190cm frame up in one agile movement.
He could, of course, have used one of the two short flights of stairs on either side of the stage, but despite his blindness, Bocelli never seems to choose the easy option. Roberto Scandiuzzi, Mephistopheles to Bocelli's Dr Faust, rushes anxiously forward to help, but there is no need, and the two position themselves by the conductor's podium ready to begin. Bocelli is in Palermo for two performances of Faust before flying to Abu Dhabi for his one-off concert in the gardens of the Emirates Palace on Friday.
As he launches into a duet with Scandiuzzi it's clear that he has recovered from a nasty bout of bronchitis and the velvety tenor voice that has sold over 65 million albums worldwide is in fine form, filling the acoustically excellent red plush and gold auditorium without the aid of amplification. That's a touchy subject with the 50-year-old who has been stung by criticism that his voice needs a microphone - something that opera purists abhor. In his dressing room in one of the labyrinthine corridors of the opera house, he explain why he prickles at the suggestion.
"If I had bought a ticket to an opera and I realised that a singer is using a microphone I would ask to have my money back. People want to listen to a real voice and not one that is amplified by microphones. A critic once wrote that 'Bocelli sings with a microphone' but it's not true," he says, adding that if people did not believe him they should come and listen to him. It's clearly something that bothers him although he tries to appear unconcerned. "Who could reasonably hope to be beyond criticism? The secret is to be able to distinguish constructive criticism from the rest, because that helps you to grow and to improve. The other sort is simply useless, a waste of energy," he says. Today he is more concerned about keeping healthy.
"Two months before I was due to sing Faust I got bronchitis. Everyone around me had it. I couldn't get rid of it, so the whole time I was learning the opera I had it." Faust is a demanding work in five acts. Bocelli has never shied away from physically challenging roles, despite the practical problems his blindness poses. He has performed in and recorded seven operas and, in one performance of Massenet's Werther, rode on stage on a horse - something most opera stars would think several times before doing, regardless of ability or disability.
Mariani says that Bocelli memorises his stage positions physically: "For example, he works out that there are 10 centimetres between himself and a glass he has to pick up and if he has to move towards someone he asks them to make a little tapping noise to help him measure the distance. He works extremely hard and has never made a mistake. In fact, sometimes he is more together and in time than the others."
The Abu Dhabi concert will be an entirely different type of performance. The fourth stop on his current Incanto album tour, it is his only date in the Middle East. He will be singing a mix of arias and ballads, accompanied by the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, conducted by Marcello Rota with the soprano Paola Sanguinetti and the baritone Gianfranco Montresor. "My aim is to take that eternally beautiful repertoire which is traditional of the Italian tenor around the world. It spans from operatic arias to great ballads and Neapolitan melodies as well as a few other selected pieces which people associate with my voice. I am singing in Abu Dhabi for the first time and as always it will be very exciting," he says.
As always, he will be accompanied by the beautiful Veronica Berti, who shares his life and is never far from his side. A professional singer, the 27-year-old soprano now devotes her life to organising his. They make a handsome couple and she clearly adores him, touching his face, smoothing his tousled mop of thick grey hair. She seems to have perfected an unobtrusive way of guiding him around without drawing too much attention to his blindness. A light tap on the shoulder, a whispered instruction and they are off, striding briskly down a corridor with others trailing in their wake.
Bocelli is an astonishingly good-looking man, tall, muscular and suntanned with a warm and courteous manner and a casually stylish way of dressing. Today it is a soft navy cashmere jacket with a grey scarf draped carelessly around his neck. His eyes, with their long fluttering lashes, are usually closed and he drops his fashionably unshaven chin to his chest as he concentrates on whoever is speaking to him. Occasionally he drums his fingers on his knees in what could either be nervousness or impatience.
He insists that he lives a simple life when he is not touring. He and Berti live in a restored 19th-century house that was once a hotel in the fashionable coastal resort of Forte dei Marmi, 20 miles north of Pisa. It is close to the home Bocelli shared with his former wife Enrica and their two sons, Amos, 14, and Matteo, 11. Their neighbours include Giorgio Armani and Miuccia Prada. Bocelli's mother and brother both live in the old family home at Lajatico, where he was born.
"When I am at home I live like every Italian man. I close my doors and leave the business world outside," he says. "I stay with my family because family is the most important thing, especially with my boys at this age. They need me, but it is also very enjoyable for all of us," he says. Bocelli smiles as he talks about his boys. He says that his youngest son already has a fine voice. "Matteo would like to sing but it is too soon. He has a very strong voice - stronger than mine - but I think it is too soon to be thinking of it as a profession. He is also very shy, but I have heard him singing in his bedroom when he is on his own. They are both studying the piano and I like to help them with their music."
The family home is filled with music and musical instruments. Bocelli plays the piano, classical guitar, trumpet, flute, saxophone, trombone, harp, and drums, and the boys are already steeped in the traditions of the opera. "When Matteo heard that I was going to be doing Faust in Palermo he went to Veronica and asked, 'Is my father really such an important person?'" he says, throwing his head back and laughing.
Bocelli can't remember a particular moment when he realised he wanted to make singing his career. Speaking in English, he picks his words slowly and carefully, occasionally turning his head towards Berti for a translation from the Italian. His conversational voice is as smooth and velvety as his singing voice - unlike that of his friend and mentor, the late Luciano Pavarotti, whose speaking voice was surprisingly high and thin.
"For me it was a vocation from when I was a child. I would say that it was my destiny because everywhere I went people would ask me to sing - at the birthday parties of my friends or at their houses, at school, in church, everywhere. Because of that I thought I was meant to sing." It was clear from birth that there were problems with Bocelli's sight. He was diagnosed as having glaucoma, frustrating for an athletic boy who loved to ride horses, motorbikes and play football. In fact, it was playing football, at the age of 14 that caused him to lose his sight completely. After a blow to the head from a specially weighted ball, designed for use by partially sighted people, he suffered a brain haemorrhage that left him blind.
This is a subject that he hates to dwell on. Questions about his disability are answered in a very general way. He simply refuses to allow it to become an obstacle. "It is not the absence of defects which determines the success of a great singer but the presence of great talents," he says. In fact, he squirms uncomfortably in the chair when asked to talk too much about himself. "Each of us is no more than the sum of our own experiences and of our own knowledge. I spend my time and my energy trying to understand others and dedicate a little of this towards a study of myself," he says.
Yet he admits that he appreciates the material comforts that his fame has brought. Although he hasn't felt the need to buy his own, he often travels by private jet and he once owned a yacht. He tends to rationalise in a thoughtful way when asked about what he does with his wealth. "I sincerely believe that all our imperfections, all our failings, defects and inadequacies are cured with the palliative of material things. It is the thorny problem of being, or having. Having is deceptive because it leads us to believe that we are what in reality we are not. So our need for material things is basically a weakness which each of us has to accept, because we can count on one hand the examples of people who have such strength as to be satisfied with who they are and be, at the same time, of help also to others. Common mortals like me have to be satisfied to be what they are and accept with good grace the fact that in times of tiredness, discomfort, difficulties in general, the fact of having certain material things does provide a restorative comfort."
Bocelli's life could have taken an entirely different course. Despite his obvious talent, his father Alessandro, an assistant bank manager, urged him to go to university and study law. He duly went off to the University of Pisa and gained a law degree. He is actually "Dr Andrea Bocelli LLD", but remains modest about his achievements as a defence lawyer. "My father and mother knew that music is a challenge. Nobody can be sure that you can have success. For this reason my father said, 'You have to study and get a qualification and then you can do what you like'. So I studied for my law degree and did some very small unimportant work as a defender. I remember defending one man who had been accused of digging a hole in the ground illegally. I got him off, as I remember.
"I am glad to have studied law in Pisa. Those were carefree years and important years of growth at the same time. Nothing that one learns is ever useless, nor should it be lost. In reality it is our true wealth. Nonetheless, my passion for music and for singing especially, is for me a true vocation, an undeniable internal need, so I have no regrets and I have never thought of having a different life to the one that providence has brought to me."
As a younger man Bocelli was so determined to make it as a singer that he would perform in piano bars to pay for tuition. A major breakthrough came in 1992 when the Italian rock star Zucchero asked him to make a demo tape of the duet Miserere to send to Luciano Pavarotti. When Pavarotti listened to it he urged Zucchero to use Bocelli instead of him. Although Pavarotti was eventually persuaded to make the hit record, it was Bocelli who went on tour with Zucchero.
Bocelli has gone on to become the biggest-selling tenor of all time, outstripping even Pavarotti. Women adore him - especially the passionate way he sings about love. "I have always been enthralled by the female universe," he says. "It goes without saying that the idea of being appreciated by a female audience is flattering and gives me strength. I like to sing about love because it is the driving force of the world. Without love there is no life and, I would hazard to say, there is no music either, because also music is love, whether one gives it or whether one receives it as a gift, it is always and only an act of love."
Away from music his other passion is horses. He has always ridden and is still a fearless horseman. "It is hard to explain a passion, because passions spring from the heart and the heart has its own reasons that reason doesn't comprehend," he says. "I have always been fascinated by horses, by their strength, their agility, their beauty, all at the service of man. "To ride is a challenge, an act of courage which is the greater the younger and more highly strung the animal. To get back in the saddle after you have been thrown, after your horse has reared up or shied away suddenly, releases a high level of adrenalin. As a boy I couldn't resist the temptation of riding a difficult horse, of conquering his resistance. It was really thrilling.
"Later horses helped me to learn to love nature, the peace of the countryside, the voice of the woods and the rivers. As my career got under way I had to abandon my horseriding, but the passion never left me, to the point that even recently I could not resist buying another horse. Once again I chose another young black stallion, only three years old; now we have to get to know each other, but our friendship has got off to a good start. I feel that I have made a new friend who will be a good companion for many years."
Andrea Bocelli will be performing at Emirates Palace on Friday as part of the sixth Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival. For more details see www.admafestival.com. firstname.lastname@example.org