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Meet Il Divo: David, Carlos, Urs and Seb. Opera singers. Good-looking guys in their 30s, eminently marketable and hand-picked by talent-scout Simon Cowell. Can’t fail, can it? Surprisingly, no one is being complacent. "Simon is nervous – no really, he is," says David. "He truly believes in it. He says he’s never been so excited or so worried".
We’re looking out over the Thames on the day Il Divo’s album is launched. They’ve just been on GMTV and despite the nerves of Svengali Simon, the boys are tucking in to fry-ups – a good sign of normality, I always find. Having seen their slick performance and showbiz-white smiles, it’s a relief to find that they can laugh at themselves, too.
“They asked us to be in the band because we all owned black Armani suits!” jokes Sebastien Izambard, the French one, sensibly taking the words right out of my mouth. That’s a cheap jibe lost then!
Seriously though, they only met the day before they were due to start recording their self-titled debut album and now here they are: darlings of the media, all set for success.
How did it happen? Did they spot ads in The Stage magazine or attend open auditions? It seems that was the plan but it simply didn’t work. Simon Cowell held auditions in 17 countries for 18 months but didn’t find anyone, so his people contacted the opera agencies directly and hit the jackpot.
Carlos Marin, the Spanish one, speaks up: “I said "No" at first. But then I met Simon.” The music impresario knew exactly what he was looking for and opera insiders soon unearthed American David Miller and Swiss Urs Buhler.
All three were opera singers on the international circuit, Carlos an erstwhile child star who’d recorded his first CD at the age of eight in Germany as Carlito die Kleine Caruso. Sweet.
Seb vaguely knew Carlos and is the one member of the band who doesn’t have a pukka opera background.
“I was working on my second pop/rock album; I’ve been composing since I was tiny. I’d signed to EMI and had been in a musical, then I met these guys and cancelled everything. And no, I’ve no opera training but I’ve learnt a lot from the guys and my voice has changed – all our voices have changed. We are, after all, looking for a new sound.”
That sound took a little while to find. Flung into a studio, they didn’t have any technical problems – after all, these boys are all professionals, and in the classical world they were very used to turning up, having a quick rehearsal and then performing.
But there were language problems to overcome – Sebastian had to be coached by Carlos before he could sing in Spanish. And then there’s just that chemistry thing. Urs admits it took a couple of tracks before they really felt everything was coming together, “but by then we were very proud of it”.
The band’s mutual admiration seems genuine.
Says David: “We have great respect for each other professionally. Luckily, the language differences work in our favour. By the time we’ve translated our ideas three or four times, we definitely understand what we’re trying to achieve! And we have more fun than arguments.”
Seb picks up this theme. “It’s all about teamwork, and we’re like brothers now. No really, we are! We’re all over 30, we’re mature, we know what we’re doing.”
All four live in apartments in the same complex in Chelsea. “It makes sense logistically”, they say, and one senses their desperation not to appear like a manufactured band living together for the sake of reality TV. They’ve all left their homes behind; none of them has any ties over here.
As Seb puts it, “The English are being very friendly to us”. I bet they are, boys, I bet they are – and the laughter of the others at Seb’s comments would tend to back up my hunch!
There isn’t much time for sampling the local culture – they have a packed schedule to promote their album and, when we met, they were doing the rounds of local radio stations.
Rather more glamorously, they’ve also just switched on the Christmas lights in Oxford Street and performed at the opening of the new Wales Millennium Centre, especially requested by Bryn Terfel, who organised the event – quite an endorsement.
Perhaps best of all, depending on your view of these things, they’ve been asked to sing at the Miss World competition in China in December.
You may have seen Il Divo on TV already. Their first appearance was on Parkinson; they claim they didn’t know how big a coup it was to appear on the programme. But surely, I say, you have to realise that this was down to the Simon Cowell factor – this is a man who can pull more strings in British showbusiness than anyone else.
“Oh, but we didn’t know who Simon Cowell was! Only David did, who’d seen a couple of episodes of American Idol. Really! But we think that’s a good thing as it means we came into this project for the right reasons.”
Urs continues: “In fact when I found out about him I was rather worried. I like my classical background and would like to be able to go back to it. But I had a meeting with him, and realised that we would be teaching him about our music; he was going to be hands off. He gave us the opportunity but the musical direction comes from us. We do our own vocal arrangements, so it is really our project.”
The boys concede that they rate Simon’s advice.
“This is definitely a long-term project for us. As Simon says, the danger for crossover acts is that just as you’re hitting the mainstream, you change what you do and it all falls apart. So we’re going to stick with what we’re doing – covers, classics, some of our own stuff. We’ve set ourselves a high benchmark.”
So far the signs are good. Their agents in the US are impressed and they feel confident that any sniping from the core classical world will pass.
As David says, “We’re not doing ‘proper’ opera in a pop style, or vice versa, we are trying to do something completely new. We’re not pretending, so we’re not worried.”
Of course, the acid test is sales. Who is going to get Il Divo in their stocking at Christmas?
“I sent my 13-year-old niece the CD and she loves it,” says David. “She’s been playing it to all her friends, who think Seb is really dreamy, so maybe we have a much bigger audience out there than we’d imagined.”