Il Divo: Putting the pop in opera

As Il Divo prepare for their Cork gig, Sébastien Izambard tells Jo Kerrigan his rags to riches tale.

Il Divo: Putting the pop in opera

IT’S the event Cork has been talking about for months. On June 21, Musgrave Park will become the centre of midsummer celebrations as the City of Cork Symphony Orchestra will be joined by Il Divo for a fully seated five-hour extravaganza.

“It’s the kind of major show that appeals right across the board,” says Brian Murphy, leader of the CSO, who secured the operatic pop act for the city.

“It’s a tremendous coup for all of us.”

Il Divo, comprising Spanish baritone Carlos Marin, US tenor David Miller, Swiss tenor Urs Buhler and French pop singer Sébastien Izambard, enjoy worldwide acclaim not just for their unique performances, but also for their irresistible personalities. Perhaps most fascinating is the story of pop star-turned-classical singer, Sébastien Izambard.

Boyishly handsome, and quintessentially Gallic, 41-year-old Izambard is the only completely self-taught singer in Il Divo. “I’m from the pop side,” he explains. “I work with my instincts. The others are all classically trained and they have these great techniques from the past, but I try to bring something from the moment to Il Divo, something of here and now. It shouldn’t work, really, but actually it makes it richer, I can’t explain why. Things fit together and it becomes magical, four become one.”

Sébastien admits to having had a pretty tough childhood in Paris, growing up poor in a single parent family. He taught himself guitar and piano and soon began writing his own songs. “Composing, that is my passion. I write for the pleasure of writing, to step back and look at the world and draw a picture of it, the way you think it is.” Soon achieving recognition, his 2000 solo album, Libre, spawned a number one hit, ‘Si Tu Savais’.

An accomplished music composer, pianist and guitar player, he also wrote and produced for other French artists, and was special guest of French legend Johnny Halliday on tour in 2001. “It was a different life, writing my own songs, travelling in a truck, doing the gig, living on the road. Il Divo is like Disneyland in comparison.”

And yet Izambard was very doubtful about becoming part of the quartet, the creative idea of music manager Simon Cowell and in part based on the worldwide success of the Three Tenors.

“When Simon approached me I didn’t really want to join the band. I had had a little success and was enjoying doing it on my own. I always thought music was to bring a message to the world somehow. I wasn’t interested in nice cars, nice suits.” (Il Divo’s signature Armani suits are part of their legend by now.)

What changed his mind? “The creative challenge. It was recognising the fact that going on as I was, I could sing the rest of my life in France, Canada, Belgium, the French-speaking countries, if I was lucky. Joining Il Divo was a chance for me to reach the world.”

“I was terrified the first time I stepped into the studio. You are fighting your whole life to be an artist and then suddenly you have to wear a suit and sing someone else’s song. I heard those voices and I thought I was in a circus, I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on.”

He was relieved to discover that his new colleagues were also struggling. As egos got put aside, and the four singers began to bond, Izambard became convinced he had made the right decision.

“The quality time, singing, getting to know each other, that is the best. For everybody, it has been a big journey but a rewarding one.”

Izambard describes himself, first and foremost, though, as a family man. “I love being at home with my wife, and kids. I would never be able to do what I do without them, they have been the greatest support of my life.”

He met his wife Renee Murphy, a former Sony BMG publicist, while touring Australia in 2005. When their twins Luca and Rosa arrived in 2008, Renee was hospitalised for an extended period, causing Il Divo to cancel a Japanese tour.

“The guys fully understood that family comes first,” says Izambard . In 2011 came their third child, a son named Jude.

Would he like his children to follow in his footsteps? “No. I would love them to be always close to me.”

He can’t quite keep the pride out of his voice as he talks of his children.

“My daughter makes songs all the time and is so good at drawing and painting so she’s definitely artistic. Her twin brother has an amazing memory for music and he wants to be a vet.”

After our interview, he reveals, he will be taking his son to lunch. “He rather inclines towards pizza at the moment, so we will have a little one-to-one time together over a pizza. I really enjoy that.”

Doesn’t he ever feel the urge to break out and go wild? Shed the Armani, wear leather jackets, thrash a guitar?

“Oh but I do that! I managed to get this wonderful month and a half at home and I grew a beard, went to market, enjoyed the kids. It was great.”

Outside of Il Divo, Izambard continues to write songs, most recently working with Australian pop star Darrren Hayes of Savage Garden, Phantom of the Opera star Ramin Karimloo, and pop hit-maker Guy Chambers.

“I love to make pop music still,” admits Izambard. “With the guys I sometimes sing opera arias in the dressing room, when we are having fun. But I’m a rocker and I’m never going to lose that ever, it’s in my blood.”

* Il Divo, Musgrave Park, Cork, June 21. Tickets from or Pro-Musica, Cork.

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