Opera singers, Il Divo, turn grief into joy

Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

The classical crossover group performs at Rose Music Center on Thursday.

December 2021 was supposed to be a time of celebration for Il Divo. Instead, the classical crossover group’s first tour in two years ended abruptly with the tragic death of baritone vocalist Carlos Marín. The surviving members are soldiering forward with a Greatest Hits Tour, which makes a stop at Rose Music Center in Huber Heights on Thursday, Sept. 1.

The show features guest vocalist Steven Labrie and a special tribute to Marín, who passed away from COVID-19 complications at the age of 53. There is also a segment at the end of the set devoted to Il Divo’s latest album, “For Once In My Life: A Celebration of Motown” (2021).

“We were doing a Christmas tour around the UK and we were full of enthusiasm,” tenor vocalist David Miller said. “We did our rehearsals and it was just like hopping back in the saddle. We were ready to go. All aces were flying and then five shows in, Carlos started complaining he couldn’t breath very well. We had actually finished a show and we had a 4-hour drive to Manchester.

“By the time we actually got to Manchester, he was like, ‘I think I need to go to the hospital,’ and he never came out,” Miller continued. “It was crazy. Our world just imploded. We thought it was over.”

Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

The crossroads

Miller and fellow tenors Urs Bühler and Sébastien Izambard knew they didn’t have the vocal range to redistribute the songs amongst them. Il Divo’s future was uncertain.

“The key is the songs had all been picked for Carlos to be that heavy hitter,” Miller said. “He’d kind of bring the final choruses home with me screaming over top and the other boys filling in underneath. Nobody really has that depth of color Carlos had. We’re not baritones so we couldn’t do that. We thought it was the end.”

When the group’s management put forward the idea of getting a guest artist, Miller was initially reluctant.

“I was actually the first person to throw up my hands,” he said. “I said, ‘No way, no one can compare to Carlos. That’s sacrilege, we can’t do that.’ They came back and said, ‘I know how you feel. I get it but we’re not trying to replace Carlos. We’re not doing that. We’re bringing someone in to help honor Carlos. Do we know someone that can sing the notes?’

“We needed someone to help us get through this and to help create a memorial tour for Carlos, which is honestly what we ended up doing,” Miller continued. “We put our heads together to figure out who we knew that could even do this. You need an opera singer, someone with that power of voice, and you need an opera singer who is willing to sing something other than the operatic rep. There aren’t many of us.”

Picking up the pieces

Miller had worked with Labrie on a number of projects over the years. While he didn’t have experience singing contemporary songs, he was a baritone opera singer with the desire to explore music outside of the traditional opera repertoire.

“I knew Steven’s voice was certainly of the power and the caliber we were looking for,” Miller said. “I called him and asked if he’d be interested in doing this stuff. He said, ‘You have no idea how interested I actually am. I love opera but I love singing other stuff so much, you have no idea.’ So, we asked him to audition.

“We sent him some of the tracks,” Miller continued. “We asked him to send an a capella voice note of him singing these final choruses. So, he did and we listened to those. On our separate chat, the three of us were just like, ‘That’s really good. This could actually work.’ So, we started reconfiguring our entire mindset.”

Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Crunch time

The singers began rehearsing heavily, getting Labrie comfortable singing into a microphone for the first time. By early February, Il Divo was back on the road, fulfilling obligations with a guest vocalist and a revised set.

“We pulled in a different batch of songs,” Miller said. “They all had a special meaning for Carlos, whether it was the first song we recorded with Carlos or the last song we recorded with him on the Motown album. We have songs that were his favorites and other songs that remind of him and how he interacted with the audiences.

“We wrote anecdotes about what Carlos meant to us,” Miller continued. “It was an excruciating process because we had to go through so much vulnerability in order to even be able to talk about these things in front of people.”

Because of a very tight deadline, Miller said they really hadn’t fully processed their loss until they had time to breathe. That was during the first show of the tour.

“Turning it around as fast as possible was emotionally difficult,” Miller said. “It was like, ‘Shove it down. We’re going to get to that finish line. We’re going to do this. We’re going to get to opening night.’ We worked feverishly on it. Finally, we get to opening night and we’re standing backstage. When the ‘Overture’ started playing, the three of us just lost it.

“We completely, completely lost our minds,” he continued. “The curtain goes up and we’re just standing there sobbing. We somehow got through that show, with one or more of us dropping out on this song or that song. They’re all hugely emotional songs to begin with and to have it stacking on top of this loss was hard.”

A whirlwind of emotions

While these concerts continue to be very emotional experiences, they are also cathartic for the members of Il Divo and the group’s fans.

“We always thought our music was about romantic heartbreak but romantic doesn’t necessarily mean you and your partner, your lover or whatever,” Miller said. “There are romantic love feelings we all have for each other and when there is loss, everybody feels it. This has been emotional but we knew for all the fans who were devastated by this loss, this is a tragedy for them too.

Credit: Berenice Bautista

Credit: Berenice Bautista

“But this was even bigger than Carlos,” Miller continued. “Two years had gone by where everybody lost somebody. Literally, everybody either lost somebody directly or knows somebody very close to them who lost somebody directly. In this case, every single person in the room has lost somebody. We’ve all lost Carlos so it’s a different kind of show.”

While there is sadness and reverence in the concerts, Miller stresses there is also plenty of happiness.

“The whole first part of the show is wonderful but it’s such a melancholy thing,” he said. “Then, by the time we hit the Motown section about three quarters in, it’s like the whole room turns a corner together. Everybody is just so ready for that moment, that fun music and rhythm, and we can finally breathe again. We can finally laugh again.

“We can finally move again so people get up out of their seats,” Miller added. “They start dancing and having a wonderful time. The whole point of the show is we want to transform the grief into joy again.”

Contact this contributing writer at 937-287-6139 or e-mail at donthrasher100@gmail.com.

HOW TO GO

Who: Il Divo with special guest vocalist Steven LaBrie

Where: Rose Music Center, 6800 Executive Blvd., Huber Heights

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 1. Doors open at 6 p.m.

Cost: $23.50-$90

More info: 513-232-6220 or www.rosemusiccenter.com

Artist info: https://ildivo.com

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