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Personal Essays

In the Arms of Il Divo

Taking your mom to see male opera singers belt out contemporary pop may not sound all that appealing. But did we mention that they’re totally hot? An evening watching the boy band for baby boomers.

I fancy myself something of a pop-culture sponge. Though I am quite specific about those elements of our modern zeitgeist I choose to embrace, I manage to stay fully abreast of the zeitgeist itself. And so while I may not care a whit for Lost, James Frey, Death Cab for Cutie, Anderson Cooper, Brangelina, American Idol, Heidi Klum, Pete Doherty, gay shepherds, or the latest pair of Chinese pandas about to pump out a new panda cub, I keep up on the latest news about them. I’m fascinated by what’s important to us, as a culture.

Imagine, then, my shock upon realizing there was a phenomenon that had taken the world by storm without my even knowing it, a musical group that has sold millions of records, that fills arenas with legions of frighteningly devoted female fans. And that it was my mother who brought them to my attention.

I speak, of course, of Il Divo.

Il Divo is an international group of opera-pop sensations assembled by American Idol impresario Simon Cowell. Roughly translated, their name means “The Man Divas.” Cowell’s idea was to comb the globe for the finest operatic voices to be found, provided those voices belonged to men young enough and handsome enough to make any right-thinking woman melt at the sight of them. After an intense search, he selected three tenors (an American, a Frenchman, and a Swiss) and a baritone from Spain, each of whom is undeniably beautiful and possesses a voice of matching beauty. Recognizing opera’s relatively small market in the U.S., Cowell decided that the group would sing romantic pop songs instead—but in Italian and Spanish and with orchestral arrangements.

The formula in place, in 2004 Il Divo released a self-titled album that quickly sold more than five million copies worldwide. Despite the group’s constant touring schedule since its formation, Il Divo recorded a Christmas album in 2005 and then released a third album, the cleverly titled Ancora, in January 2006.

My mother recently let it be known that my love for her could only be expressed in the form of two tickets to Il Divo’s concert at San Francisco’s Davies Hall. My love thus challenged, I had no choice but to make it so, even though the show had already sold out. I purchased the tickets from a ticket broker, at a 400% markup, and flew my mother to San Francisco for the big event.


* * *

Two hours before Il Divo was scheduled to take the stage, my mother looked at the light rain falling gently outside my living room window. “This storm is bound to tie up traffic,” she observed, “I think we should leave now.”

“Mom, we’re only a half-hour from the concert hall,” I told her.

“You never know,” she said.


* * *

As it turned out, my mother really just wanted to hit the merch table before the show started. And she wasn’t the only one. Il Divo fans love their Il Divo merchandise. They crave it. They clamor for it. They want the luggage tags, the make-up bags, the key chains, the pins, the hats, the posters, the CDs. There were only two girls working the table, trying to satisfy multiple lines, each one 50 deep with insistent, impatient women.

I feared for my mother’s safety, as her health these past few years has rendered her somewhat frail and limited her mobility to slow, tentative steps. But here, she was like a woman reborn. I struggled to keep up as she dove into the mob, switching lines again and again until she found the one she thought was moving the fastest.

As we waited our turn, the woman behind me repeatedly groused that the girls working the merch table were moving too slow. When she saw me shove a wad of bills into the hands of the woman in front of me, she assumed we were packing in multiple orders to cheat the line, and demanded to know, “Are you working with her?”

I turned to Mom. “They’re going to take their clothes off!” I hollered. “Oh my God!” she hollered back. “Um, I guess so,” I said, “she’s my mom.”

I bought my mother a T-shirt, a poster, a program, and a DVD. “Mom, do you know how many times over the past 42 years I have seen you wear a T-shirt?” I asked, then answered myself: “Exactly zero. And what are you going to do with that poster?”

My mother, who is 66 years old, plans to hang her Il Divo poster on her bedroom door.

After buying our merch, we popped out the back of the mob and made our way into the hall. I was pleased to find that we had excellent seats, close to the stage, so my mother would be able to revel in her idols’ dreamy handsomeness in the manner she deserved.


* * *

After sitting through a largely forgettable opening act, my mother grew nervous.

“That smoke is worrying me,” she said.

“Those are fog machines,” I told her, “It’s about to get all romantic up in here.”

She pointed to the men in the rafters, taking their places at the spotlight controls. “What are they doing up there?” she asked, “I thought they did all the lights with computers these days.”

“Yes,” I replied, “they generally do. But could a computer aim a spotlight with passion?”

And then the lights went down. And the screams began. Women, I discovered, will scream for their Il Divo.

There they were, the four official members of Il Divo, each one clad in Armani—David (the American), Sebastian (the Frenchman), Urs (the Swiss), and Carlos (the Spaniard)—and the unofficial “fifth member” of Il Divo, Carlos’s spit curl, whom I call Fernando. My mother informed me that Carlos never appears anywhere without Fernando laying just sexily, sultrily so on his forehead (a subsequent Google image search confirmed this). Fernando is Carlos’s acknowledged life partner and the well-spring of his personality.

As the group began their first song, the women screamed and swooned. The hall filled with the glow of a thousand camera phones, including mine. When they hit the chorus, their voices were a soaring, ecstasy-inducing force of nature. The only point of comparison I have is when I went to the Daytona 500 on acid, the feeling I got when 42 stock cars zoomed by at 200 miles per hour, all in a bunch. It hits you in your gut. It makes your spine tingle. If you love Il Divo, it makes you scream.

For their second song, they broke out Eric Carmen’s heart-wrenching ode of loneliness, “All By Myself.” In Spanish. I must tell you this: When you sing “All By Myself,” even if in Spanish, even while wearing Armani, you are still singing “All By Myself.” It is a song whose general awfulness simply can’t be overcome. But, oh, how they tried, and how we loved them for it.

And this was when I realized: Il Divo is a straight-up boy band. Simon Cowell’s great genius was in realizing that there is an audience of baby-boomer women out there itching for some boy-meat to swoon over; you just have to dress the meat in classy clothes and have it sing in a foreign language. Everything about the group and the show is pre-fab. The way they dress, the way they rakishly lounge about the stage, their between-song patter. Even Fernando, sexy spit-curl that he is, is a gimmick. (If I hadn’t seen them live, I would have sworn he was green-screened onto Carlos’s forehead.)

Every move they made was choreographed. They would climb the faux-marble steps at the center of the stage, their backs to the audience, each slowly turning to face us when it was his turn to sing. They would array themselves in a line on the riser steps, their heads forming a totem pole. They would form the four points of a diamond, and we were blinded, gape-jawed, in its light. Sometimes they would stand apart from each other, positioned in solitude around the stage, in shadow, their heads down, perhaps remembering that special love they foolishly let slip away.

But always, they were sexy.

Except when they spoke. Carlos walked over to Sebastian, placed his hand on Sebastian’s shoulder like they were old comrades who have seen much together. “Tell me, Sebastian,” said Carlos, “do you remember that night outside the restaurant in Milan?”

“Ahhh, Carlos, how could I forget?” replied Sebastian. “We sang a duet on the sidewalk, and the women flocked to us out of the dark night.”

“Yes!” exclaimed Carlos, “and they followed us back to our hotel rooms, and banged on our doors.”

“I remember,” said Sebastian, and he chuckled, “They made such a noise, eventually we had to let them out!”


At the end of another song, Urs gazed out at us and said, “That is one of my favorite numbers to perform. It’s got that genuine Italian feeling to it.”

Just like the Olive Garden, I thought.

After several songs of powerful emotional intensity, it was time for a change of pace. “Now we want to take things a little…slower,” David, our all-American boy-next-door told us, flashing a Homecoming King smile.

“Slower?” asked an incredulous Carlos. Confused, Fernando twittered.

“No, no,” said David, “What I mean to say is…a little more intimate.”

I turned to Mom. “They’re going to take their clothes off!” I hollered.

“Oh my God!” she hollered back.

Sadly, they didn’t, but about halfway through the show they did leave the stage for a costume change, while their band and The Il Divo Orchestra vamped through an instrumental version of “Live and Let Die.” The costume change was inspired, as it allowed us to see a different side of each singer’s personality, as expressed through Armani.

Gone was David’s shiny black suit, and in its place a suit of flat black. Carlos’ black suit was replaced with a daring suit of charcoal gray; Fernando sported an extra twist. Urs exchanged his black silk suit for a black velvet suit. And Sebastian actually melted our minds when he reappeared in a suit the color of light cream.

They told each other a series of “Your Mama” jokes, and then dedicated their song “Mama” to their mothers. When it was done, Urs asked, “Did you like that one?”

We screamed.

“You know, people don’t realize this, but that song is not a cover. That song is an original Il Divo song!” He beamed with pride, like a child who made it through an entire day without mitten clips. I had the distinct feeling that though our boys might be beautiful, and might sing like God’s personal angels, they might also be a little…dumb.


* * *

For their final number, they chose “Somewhere” from West Side Story. They strode to the front of the stage and sat down, their feet dangling over the edge.

“Hold my hand and we’re halfway there,” they sang, “Hold my hand and I’ll take you there.” And the women came, to hold their hands, to be taken there. Called forth by the gods, they came. At first in dribbles and drabs, and then in a flood, a torrent sweeping toward the stage, to be as one with them, somehow, some day, somewhere. To hug David, to kiss Carlos, to grasp Urs’s hand, to bask in Fernando’s beatific light. They offered up their children. They came with flowers, with notes, and with gifts.

Or rather, with gift bags.

Il Divo fans don’t just throw their panties on the stage. They wrap them in tissue, place them in bags, and pass them reverently up to their singing loves. And if they don’t want to feel a cold draft between their legs when they leave the show, they can always pick up an Il Divo thong ($20) at the merch table.

Their song finished, we rose as one to honor them as they left the stage, our applause thundering, our devotion absolute. My mother said, “I’m so happy, I could cry!” Hearing this, with absolute sincerity, I teared up. Her joy became my joy, and we both demanded more, selfishly more, still more from these boys who had already given so much. I rapped my umbrella against the floor. I whistled.

And back they came, each cradling a rose in one hand and a microphone in the other. These pre-fab confections, created from clay by Simon Cowell and focus-group-tested to perfection, with nothing real about them but the sweet power of their voices, sang us home with “My Way.”

The irony would have killed me, had I not already swooned to death.

Giles Cassels was born and raised in a small town in rural Florida. Today, he is a deliberately and aggressively unemployed slug-a-bed living in San Mateo, California, with his faithful canine companion and occasional steed, Max Dogfat. More by Giles Cassels