The church bells begin to ring and I look up, admiring the picture-perfect, honey-hued chapel perched on a hill in the middle of Valdera, an area 30 minutes outside Pisa. The sun is hot, and other than the bells and the steady buzz of cicadas, it’s quiet. In front of me, the sunflower-spotted hills of Tuscany dip and dive like notes on the endless musical scores found in the recording studio I’m about to enter.
And it’s not just any recording studio, it’s where Italy’s most popular living tenor produces music.
Before boarding Oceania Cruises’ Regal Riviera Voyage, I didn’t know much about musical maestro Andrea Bocelli. But when I learned that I could join an onshore excursion that would allow me to spend the day touring Bocelli’s studio — and record my own song while I was there, let’s just say this karaoke-loving traveler was sold. I mean, when in (or kind-of near) Rome, right?
Before arriving, I had imagined a glitzy operation — a shiny, modern space fit for the Beyoncé of Italy. Instead, I find myself standing on the front lawn of a modest coral-stucco home that’s surrounded by the rolling hills of Tuscany. And before I know it, I’m greeted with a gentle smile by the studio’s owner, Pierpaolo Guerrini.
“Trentanove anni,” is the first thing Guerrini says, flashing his fingers for emphasis. He wants me to know that he’s been friends with Bocelli for 39 years. I’ll later learn that during those 39 years, Guerrini has served as the sound engineer on several of Bocelli’s albums and helped write multiple songs on the singer’s 2018 album, “Si.”
In the studio’s entryway, there’s charming clutter — family photos, prayer cards, and several newspaper clippings taped to the wall. It’s only when Guerrini points to a nondescript door on the right that I spot the sleek main “control room,” where a massive mixing board with hundreds of buttons and dials enable Guerrini to masterfully add depth and clarity to Bocelli’s recordings.
Once settled in the control room, we turn our attention to the flat-screen TV above the mixing board where Guerrini plays a documentary featuring footage from Bocelli’s most iconic performances, including his 2017 show at the Colosseum and scenes from Teatro del Silenzio (or Theatre of Silence), an open-air amphitheater in Lajatico, the singer’s hometown.
After the film, it’s time to give my own recording a go. But first, Guerrini gestures me outside where I discover that his wife has set out a bowl of barbecue Lays and several Pepsis for us to enjoy. I may have just met them, but as we crowd around the bowl of chips, it feels more like being at an old friend’s house than part of a cruise ship excursion.
Back inside, I’m led to a small, light-filled room where a standing microphone is set on a red Persian rug. A piano sits in the right corner. Guerrini hands me the lyrics to Bocelli’s “Can’t Stop Falling in Love” and gives me a thumbs up before accompanying me on the piano. Unfortunately, as my voice cracks mid-song, I realize that Bocelli’s musical magic is not contagious.
I laugh, listening to my recording in the car ride to Teatro del Silenzio and a wine tasting at the family’s vineyard. I drink away my sorrows with Alcide, which Bocelli’s niece — who is also the sommelier — generously pours before delivering a plate of glistening antipasto. There, our guide casually points out that the woman enjoying gnocchi at the back table is, in fact, Bocelli’s mother.
Later on, in the museum, I discover a quote by the singer: “Every memory tied to Tuscany is kept guarded deep in my heart. I will carry it with me wherever I go, because I, myself, am the product of this land, the sum of my past, my experiences and my childhood dreams.”
When I get back to the ship, I can’t stop thinking about the quaint recording studio, the sound of church bells, the beauty of the Tuscan hills, Guerrini’s gentle smile, the thoughtful bowl of Lays, and Bocelli’s mother enjoying her gnocchi. Yes, the local community might be lucky to have Bocelli and his fame, but Bocelli is lucky to have this loving community too. Weeks later, the memory of this intimate visit still pulls on the chords of my heartstrings.