When Andrea Bocelli’s Easter performance at Duomo di Milan was first conceived, it was being thought of primarily as a local event — or localized to Italy, at least. The live-stream’s instigator, the mayor of Milan, came up with the idea with the intention of uplifting his home country, the one hardest hit in some of the critical weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.
It became a global tune-in event, of course, for a lot of people who viewed it as a substitute for church and a lot more who might never have darkened the door of one. Nearly 3 million people around the world logged on to YouTube to view the half-hour sacred music concert as it was happening. By Monday night the archived performance had 32 million views. Clearly, it transcended religion, nationality, age demographic and even music preference on its way to becoming perhaps the signature cultural event of the pandemic.
“The mayor of Milan wanted to ask Andrea to do sort of a big prayer for all the Italian communities hit by the Covid,” says Francesco Pasquero, Maverick Management’s man in Milan, who co-manages Bocelli. “Andrea accepted the invitation, and then we started building the project, and it became bigger and bigger. We find now that it’s hit 30 million views in less than 24 hours, which is incredible considering the kind of artist he is and the kind of audience that he has, the kind of repertoire that he performed — because it’s pure classical music — and the difficulty that we had in putting this together.”
For a gig whose primary audiences might have been considered churchgoers or classical-goers, especially, demographic as well as spiritual transcendence seemed to be in play. Consider that Beyonce’s Coachella performance, a previous YouTube record-holder two years ago, had about a sixth of the viewers who tuned in live to Bocelli.
“Andrea has been really impressed by the amount of comments that we got all over the world, but most important from the people (who are) not Catholic,” says Pasquero. “So this event got way beyond just the religious. And the one that really hit me was, ‘This performance was the one that we will remember in 20 years (from) during these days.’ So it feels like a sort of living history.”
“Personally I’m not that religious,” says the singer’s American co-manager, Maverick partner Scott Rodger. “But somehow it managed to connect with people on an emotional level, especially ‘Amazing Grace’ [the lone English-language number], regardless of your religious background or whatever faith you practice. And we definitely hit people who are not necessarily that into classical music as their first go-to. Hitting multiple generations across platforms is something you hope for when you aim big, but this way, way, way surpassed everything we hoped we could achieve.”
It’s made all the more remarkable considering that the ask from the mayor came in on March 20, and that, less than a month later, the six-camera shoot that went out to tens of millions of viewers was accomplished by an on-site skeleton crew of 15 people, the artist’s team included. The square outside the empty cathedral was cleared, and only Bocelli and his lone organ accompanist went unmasked.
“For an event of this nature, that’s as bare-bones as it can be,” says Rodger. Pasquero, who was on-site, said that typically the number of crew on hand for such a shoot would have been at least tripled. The minimizing meant that even Bocelli’s son wasn’t present for the shoot, although he was attended, as always, by his wife, Veronica.
For anyone wondering just how live the shoot was: The majority of the performance from inside the cathedral did go out in real time, shortly after 7 p.m. in Italy and 1 p.m. on America’s east coast. The only segment that was recorded before the live-stream began was the climactic rendition of “Amazing Grace” on the steps outside the cathedral — as anyone who wondered how Bocelli could have sprinted from the altar to the front door of one of the five largest churches in the world might have guessed. “Amazing Grace” took two takes to capture, because of an audio glitch the first time; everything else was in the moment.
Having the blind singer walk alone from the front door of the cathedral to a microphone positioned some distance away for that finale may have surprised some viewers, but it wasn’t a stunt. “Andrea is that kind of person that is pretty used to moving by himself,” says Pasquero. “He perfectly knows how to use all his other senses, and he’s very independent in that sense. We of course had to tell him the space that we were moving into, and where the mic was positioned. But with a few special suggestions, we managed to do it very simply.”
The set list for the 25-minute performance was Bocelli’s choice, and he had a good start with the selection process, having sold 5 million copies worldwide of a 1999 album titled “Sacred Arias.”
Although YouTube isn’t used to seeing these kinds of numbers for a live-stream, Maverick had confidence the platform could withstand the demand. “I did a live broadcast about 18 months ago with Paul McCartney at Grand Central Station,” says Rodger, “so I had full confidence in YouTube and their ability to take multi-millions of simultaneous viewers around the world without the platform crashing. … I think they hoped it would be big, but they had no idea that it was going to be as big as it was.”
The intention for the tone of the show was that it would provide hope and solidarity… but also feel as lonesome as a show taking place without an audience in one of the biggest possible venues in the world would necessarily have to.
“In this unprecedented time, obviously there was no option to decide whether to have an audience or not,” says Rodger, “and I think it absolutely resonated to the public worldwide, especially with the footage that was edited in from (the streets of) London, Paris, New York and other cities around the world that were completely desolate and empty. And the church itself echoed that sentiment. Here’s Andrea himself in isolation, along with an organist, in an empty church, just like the churches around the world that are all equally empty.” Adds Pasquero, “Yesterday Milan was basically just a symbol to represent the rest of the world, and that’s why we really insisted to add all the other images from all the other cities in the world, because it was a big international prayer.”
Bocelli’s label, Universal, is looking to release audio of the performance to streaming services, with an emphasis on “Amazing Grace,” which may be released independently as a music video augmented by behind-the-scenes footage of the shoot.
The event was produced by Sugar Music, Universal Music Group and Decca Records, with a contribution from YouTube. Bocelli’s participation was pro bono.
Filippo Sugar, president of Sugar Music, said in a statement, “In the midst of all the grief and suffering that my city, my region, my country was experiencing at the beginning of March, I began thinking about this idea of ‘Music for Hope’ because I instinctively felt that the spirit of renewal and rebirth that is celebrated on Easter Day would be more necessary and meaningful than ever this year. … The idea touched everybody: Andrea himself, the mayor of Milan, the archpriest of the Duomo cathedral, Decca, UMG and Maverick management in a snowball effect. … We overcame all hurdles of time zones and distance because everyone helped each other in a powerful joint effort to make it possible.”
Among the participants credited by Sugar for pulling off the event were Decca London’s Rebecca Allen and Laura Monks, Dickon Stainer from Universal’s global classical division, Celine Joshua and Andrew Kronfeld in Universal Music’s L.A. office, Bocelli’s wife, Veronica, and Pasquero and the Maverick team, “but most importantly, YouTube for making it possible to show and share this celebration of life (and) this prayer for hope across all borders.”