Il Divo heartthrobs eliciting sighs from the ladies

If it wasn’t for Chris Isaak’s mom, the dudes in Il Divo might still be looking for a title track to their latest record.

Initially, Isaak wasn’t hip to having the neo-classical pop vocal group cover his signature tune, “Wicked Game,” for their fifth and most recent studio album.

Enter Isaak’s Italian mother, who prodded her son to give his assent to the reworking – albeit with a catch.

“She told him, ‘Let the Il Divo boys sing that song, under the condition that they do it in Italian,’ ” recalls Il Divo’s Urs Buhler.

Isaak wasn’t alone in not digging the concept at first.

Music executive/reality TV star Simon Cowell, who assembled Il Divo in 2004, wasn’t too keen on the idea either.

“He didn’t get it,” Buhler recalls. “He said, ‘No, this is rubbish. What are you going to do here?’ ”

But then the group got a demo of the song with an orchestral arrangement underneath it.

“That was stunning,” says Buhler. “It was just catchy from the first bars that we listened to.”

Doubt, equivocation and eventual resolve has been a motif of Il Divo’s career.

Buhler himself wasn’t even sure the project had any kind of future when he was selected for the group.

“When I had done the auditions for Il Divo, I literally said to Simon Cowell, ‘I’ll go into the studio and record those tracks for you if you pay me, that’s fine, but I don’t think it’s going to get us anywhere,’ ” he says. “And then the first record came out and went straight to the top of the U.K. charts, five times platinum. Our first two, three years, we were all very surprised and very happy, but we were all very skeptical and almost scared, ‘This has come so quickly, this could be over just as quickly.’ ”

But if anything, the opposite has happened, as Il Divo has seen their popularity continually grow.

They’ve sold more than 26 million albums and become a strong global touring draw.

A multinational group consisting of French pop singer Sebastien Izambard, Spanish baritone Carlos Martin, American tenor David Miller and the Swiss Buhler, Il Divo, which means “divine male” in Italian, are the leading heartthrobs for PBS’ older female viewership.

Their repertoire consists of dramatic, operatic takes on pop hits such as Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart” and the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” and more traditional pieces, all ripe with bombast, romanticism and the sighs of thousands of moms the world over.

It’s some unabashedly effusive stuff, gooey as melted taffy, that verges on the maudlin, but it’s also expertly crafted and polished to a sheen with outsize production values.

Classical music purists might find it all a bit corny, but not their grandmas.

Seriously, not since the advent of chocolate has anything been greeted as rapturously by the ladies as this bunch.

For his part, Buhler fits into this role comfortably, looking like he stepped into the recording studio straight from the pages of GQ.

He’s also a highly accomplished musician, singing and playing violin since the age of 5.

As a teenager, he fronted a hard rock band and still counts metal among his primary musical influences.

“I’m a big, big fan of the big guitar heroes of the ’80s and ’90s,” Buhler says. “I’m still very much into that music.

“There’s a lot of congruences between classical music, especially opera and the big symphonies, and heavy metal,” he continues. “I was just listening on the plane yesterday to Schubert ‘Symphony No. 2,’ the second movement, and it’s just the strings shredding away. You could play it on an electric guitar and it would sound like a virtuoso metal track. You wouldn’t have to change a note. It’s brilliant.”

All the Il Divos have different musical backgrounds, and you can hear it in the disparate nature of their catalog.

Buhler acknowledges how hit-or-miss the whole process is of trying to figure out what fits in the context of Il Divo and what doesn’t.

To wit: The band spent 18 months trying to find the right material for “Wicked Game.”

“There are songs, old classics or bigger music theater stuff, where you think, ‘Oh that’s obvious. You just go and record that, lay a few harmonies down and that will work brilliantly,’ and it somehow doesn’t,” Buhler says. “I can’t even tell you what it depends on sometimes, whether the melody is too flat or the harmonies are too complicated.

“I remember, for example, on the very first record we wanted to do Sting’s ‘Fields of Gold,’ such an amazing song,” he says. “It flows along and it’s beautiful, but we didn’t manage to take it anywhere and we just abandoned it after a certain point.”

Of course, the biggest knock on Il Divo is the prefab nature of the group.

Buhler is well aware of this.

But, to hear him tell it, the only strings being pulled when it comes to Il Divo these days are on the harpsichord.

“It’s us by now,” he says. “We’ve come very, very far from those first meetings and auditions when it was all was kind of a manufactured thing. Now, Il Divo is really an established music quartet. And that’s the four of us.”

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at
jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.

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