After nine years and more than 26 million albums sold, Il Divo knows its formula: Sing strongly, finish big, hear them cheer.
Add in a capacity crowd on Mother’s Day evening, and there was little doubt that the male operatic/pop quartet would conquer the Orpheum Theatre on its first visit to Omaha. Backed by an onstage orchestra of some two dozen performers, Il Divo collected standing ovations with 21 powerful arias and ballads in five languages, flirting with the women in the audience all the way.
It seems strange to ask this after saying all that, but here goes: Is that all there is?
If the only goal in forming a musical group is to rake in money, the answer most likely is “So what?” And that well might be the answer given by British music impresario Simon Cowell, who formed Il Divo in 2004 to tap the massive international success of The Three Tenors.
It’s not a question of virtuosity. One cannot listen to David Miller, Sťbastien Izambard, Carlos Marin and Urs BŁhler sing at full power for two hours (less a 20-minute intermission) and not be impressed by their vocal training. Both individually and together, they sang with clear diction, a finely honed sense of drama and impeccable breath control (a mandatory skill for such an unrelentingly intense repertoire).
It’s obvious that Il Divo’s fan base can’t get enough of it. Judging from overheard audience comments, some of Sunday night’s crowd drove great distances to attend. Others apparently have followed the group to several cities and taken advantage of its preshow “meet and greet” sessions. Some in the front row had no inhibitions about holding up programs during the encore, begging successfully for quartet members to sign them.
But it’s also important, or ought to be, for performers to ensure that their music is accessible to the uninitiated ear. It’s laudable that Il Divo has the ability to sing great masterworks arias alongside the biggest-selling pop ballads and earn enthusiastic receptions for both. But when only a handful of songs are in the audience’s own language, how do you maximize their experience?
One can do English-language hit songs in other tongues, as Il Divo did quite effectively with “My Heart Will Go On,” “Unchained Melody,” “All By Myself” and others. One also can use multiple languages in a song, which the quartet did with “I Will Always Love You.”
But Il Divo was inconsistent in introducing foreign-language songs that casual listeners didn’t know well. Neither did it project English captions above the stage, which has been done with some recent operas at the Orpheum.
In truth, musicians don’t have to do any of those things if their program offers enough aural variety for the audience to enjoy the sounds and dynamics. That’s where the Cowell formula falls short. When almost every song proceeds from loud to louder to loudest, it doesn’t matter after a while what language the song is in. All the songs end up sounding the same.
So here’s an idea: Keep 12 to 15 songs from Sunday’s set — it matters little which ones — and mix in pop and operatic standards that are intense but quiet. “Bring Him Home” from “Les Misťrables” is an example, but there truly are many to choose from. The men of Il Divo clearly would be up to the challenge. And they wouldn’t run their good vibe completely into the ground.