Il Divo brings Broadway to Miami

After a decade of performing operatic versions of a diverse selection of modern standards, Il Divo decided to shake things up a bit. The dapper classical crossover singing group — consisting of French pop singer Sebastien Izambard, Spanish baritone Carlos Marin, Swiss tenor Urs Buhler and American tenor David Miller — chose to make their sixth studio album all about Broadway.

The result was last year’s A Musical Affair, featuring classics such as Some Enchanted Evening (from South Pacific), Tonight (West Side Story), Memory (Cats) and Can You Feel The Love Tonight (The Lion King).

On Thursday, the group — formed in 2003 by American Idol mastermind Simon Cowell — teams up with singer Lea Salonga, best known for her Tony Award-winning role in Miss Saigon, to bring these songs to life at the Fillmore Miami Beach.

David Miller talked to about the show, working with Barbra Streisand, his love for dubstep (no, really), and what he really thinks of Simon Cowell.

What inspired you to do an album of Broadway favorites?

It was kind of an evolution. We had gotten to the end of five albums, and what we realized about Il Divo is that one of the real key things about us is the variety — you’ve got four guys, four different voice types, multiple languages and songs from every different era you could possibly imagine. And even with all this variety, over and over and over again, there seemed to be kind of a sameness to it all. So we thought that maybe we needed to create a focus, and create an album that has, like, a point to it.

For me, this is one of our best albums, because there is something about music theater, and the drama that’s already inherent in the songs, that really suits what we do.

Was the idea all along to invite Lea to sing with you?
No, that was actually a very late idea in the game. It was a difficult thing to try to figure out what to do, because half the album has been crafted in a way that are duets, and each of the duet partners on the album has a radically different voice type from the next. So we can’t take five people out on the road — that’s going to be a financial nightmare. But when we approached Lea about it, we said, “Can you do this? Can you do that one as well?” And she was like, “Yeah! I can do it all.” And she showed up at the first rehearsal and just nailed everything. She has such a versatile voice, and we just went, “Yep, that’s it, bingo, perfect fit, great — welcome!” [Laughs].

What can we expect from the show other than the Broadway tunes?
Almost the entire album is in the show, and we’ve taken all of the songs across our other albums that are from musicals, like Somewhere from West Side Story and Don’t Cry For Me Argentina from Evita. Musical theater is very in vogue right now, with a lot of shows being created off of movies and off of collections of music. So we’re singing The Winner Takes It All from one of our albums, and we treated it as the Abba track, but then it became part of Mamma Mia, so that counts. And then we’ve taken the Righteous Brothers’ Unchained Melody — well, they just did Ghost, so that counts. So we’ve got all of these songs as a body of work that have either been in musicals or on London’s West End, and we’ve tried to create a music theater-esque universe, because we can’t really use any direct imagery from the musicals without infringing on copyrights and things like that. So we’ve tried to evoke the essence of the songs and the dramatic story points that are happening in the shows themselves.

How did you join Il Divo way back when — did you actually audition for Simon Cowell?

Yep. Well, I didn’t audition for him specifically. Before Il Divo, I was an opera singer for 10 years, and I was in Paris working at the Opera Bastille, and I heard about this audition where they wanted to use opera singers, but not singing opera. It was very intriguing to me, because that’s not something you hear all the time. So I showed up, and it turns out that it was actually Sebastien’s audition that I had unwittingly crashed [laughs].

I didn’t even know that [Cowell] was involved, until after the four of us had been put together. … They said, “All right, you guys are the guys, so we want you to meet Simon.” And I was like, “OK, who’s Simon? [laughs]”

Did you find Simon Cowell intimidating?

I found him intriguing — I wouldn’t say intimidating. Having been all around the world as an opera singer and having sung with some of the great voices and big personalities, I don’t really get intimidated by people. I find it exciting, and am really curious to know what people are really like, especially when you’ve come to know the persona that Simon projects when he’s on TV. Which is great for ratings and gets people to talk about him — he’s very controversial, and he does it on purpose — and it’s very interesting to meet the man behind the myth.

So he’s not as abrasive in person as he is on his shows?
I would say that he’s opinionated, and I would say that he’s direct, and it’s kind of not very English to be so direct and just say what you think. So you’ve kind of got that juxtaposition, because you hear the English accent and you expect a proper gentlemanly approach, and then he’s like, “Boom — here’s what I think.” And it’s so jarring to have that American approach with that English accent, that this is kind of what causes him to seem like a villain.

Was Il Divo’s image, with the nice Armani suits and all, part of Simon’s vision?

Not at the beginning, actually. It took quite a few styling sessions to figure out what we were gonna do. We tried doing the casual thing, but eventually we ended on the tuxedos and suits because we felt that the selling point was that we were using our opera voices in untraditional ways, but they’re still opera voices. We wanted as well to create a classy feel — that’s part of why we put things into multiple languages. For the Spanish speaker, the English songs are gonna have an exotic feel; for the English speaker, the Spanish songs are gonna have an exotic feel. Or the Italian kind of points to a more operatic sense.

Are you guys good friends away from the business?
Ummm … yes, I would say yes. It’s difficult to say, because it is an arranged marriage. We don’t go on vacation together, because we spend so much time together. All of that time together is very bonding — the number of experiences we’ve had together has created a friendship bond. Like the first time we went to Japan, the first time we were on The Oprah Winfrey Show, the first time we went on tour. In a way we’re more like family than friends.

How was it performing with Barbra Streisand?
That was an amazing experience as well. She’s another one of those people where you meet the person behind the legend. And she has this reputation for being somewhat of a bitch. But we never saw it — we never saw it once. As an artist, she’s tremendously open and vulnerable to the music. She never sings it the same way twice — there’s no kind of, “Well, here’s how I do the song.” She’s the most in-the-moment person onstage and off-stage that I think I’ve ever met.

And it was a wonderful learning experience for me. As an opera singer, it’s all about the regime: You practice the language, you practice the notes, but you also practice the “isms.” The way you sing Mozart is different from the way you sing Verdi because of the stylistic isms that you have to perfect over and over and over again. So when you go out and sing a song, it’s almost by rote. And she’s like freestylin’ it, and just kind of
letting it fly, and whatever her emotions dictate in that moment is how the song’s gonna turn out. And that was so eye-opening for me, and I think it actually changed me as a singer. Since that, I’ve really loosened up, and I’ve just been able to ask myself, “What am I feeling right now?”

What music do you love listening to that might surprise people?
Right now I’m really into dubstep. I kind of got into being a hobbyist DJ around 2001, and got some turntables and a really crappy mixer And I had this tiny little studio in the East Village, and I had a futon because there wasn’t enough room for a bed and a place to sit. And I really got into techno, but at that time it was more like deep house. But over the years, especially with this lifestyle of being in Il Divo, it’s a much more energetic requirement, so I kind of let the music I listen to reflect where I’m at, to keep me at that pace. So right now I’m about at 140 bpm, and I’m hanging out with dubstep.

I like Skrillex — there’s something so unique about his sound. His involves so much high-end metallic — it’s almost like it belongs in a Transformers movie or something. There’s something about the way he combines his samples — without getting too technical, he’s my favorite at the moment.