In the back of my head from childhood, was the notion that singing was born of Italy. As a kid in Dublin, I grew up listening to my father’s record collection: La Traviata, Tosca, the Barber of Seville. Outside the house, rock and roll was my addiction, but it was ‘operatic’ rock and roll that I was drawn to. Roy Orbison’s voice. David Bowie’s voice.
Opera, like rock and roll, is about vowel sounds more than it is about constanants. To hit high notes, As and Bs, or even top Cs you need those wide open words like Amore, like Love. In a lyrical sense, ‘Pride, In the Name of Love’, one of U2’s songs began as Opera.
I guess you could say I was in love with Italy even before I knew there was an Italy. I knew it as soon as we arrived. Our version of soul music did not have to be explained the way it did in Northern Europe. It was immediately understood. U2 never bought into the Northern European version of cool — which was just another word for cold. We were Italians who didn’t know how to dress. Ours was a Latin temperament, furious at injustice, loving being alive. Loving The Life, food, drink, friendship, family. We too had an unusual relationship with the concept of religion. Annoyed often by its conservatism, and buoyed often by its fundamentals, of faith, hope, and love. We marveled at Italian genius, from da Vinci to Marconi, from Fellini films to futurism, from Ferrari and Fiat to Armani and Diesel.
I teach my children to take mental snapshots that they can play back later. Me too. These are my snapshots of Italy: the shows… my voice being drowned out. by the crowd’s bel canto … escorted by armoured car through a riot outside one of our shows in the early eighties and noticing how no one was hurt , how it was more of a dance. Up early in the morning to discover the ghosts and relics of Turin and see the shop fronts being dressed in Milan…The treat of a Bellini in the Villa San Michele on my 40th birthday in Florence… In Rome, soaking up the light in the dark room compositions of Caravaggio… Understanding why the poet Keats would choose to die there – and trying not to understand why he chose as his epitaph: “Here lies a man whose words were written on water”. Visiting also Shelley and observing his epitaph: “Seize the day.”
And that’s it right there, that’s the Italian energy: seize the day. ….now cut to 1999, in Castel Gandolfo with Bob Geldof, Quincy Jones and the world reknowned economist Jeff Sachs. The Pope puts my glasses on as we talk about debt cancellation… 2001, in the tense tear-gassed streets of the Genoa G8, marching with the great Jovanotti for debt cancellation and greater resources for the poorest countries.
Fast forward to now and 34 million more children are going to school in Africa because people got out on the streets around the world. Three million people in Africa are on life-saving medication since the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria was created that year in Genoa. This is all good news.
But the good news makes the bad news worse. Overall, the fanfare and parade promises made by the G8 to the poorest of the poor have not been kept. What does it mean to break a promise to the most vulnerable?
At a fundamental level, it calls into question the moral underpinnings of the Judeo Christian? Enlightenment? value system of the West. On a practical level, it threatens to erode existing good will towards us based on past support we have shown. On a political level, it undermines the credibility of gatherings such as the G8, about to take place in L’Aquila.
The hosts, Italy, have fallen behind more than any of the other G8 countries, promising to increase aid to Africa, but the brutal fact is that this aid has been slashed. So we find ourselves here loving Italy as much as ever, but agitating once again. This agitation on the subject of extreme poverty comes mainly from mothers, school teachers, students, churchgoers. When it comes from spoiled rotten rich rock stars it gets more attention, but it’s much harder to take — particularly when those rock stars are Irish. We know that’s an absurdity. But so is a child dying of a tiny mosquito bite in the 21st century.
I remember Il Professori, Prime Minister Prodi, up all night at a G8 meeting, having to listen to Bob Geldof and myself berate him on Italian aid. His grace and patience and determination I can never forget.
And now, in recession and tough times, Mr Berlusconi has to listen to the same exhortation and exclamations as his G8 comes around. Who would want to be a politician in these times? Now more than ever we need leaders who have an ability to leap forward in time to a world differently envisioned, then spring back and make the changes required to realize it. What will we see of that this week, here in this dynamic country whose generosity of spirit infects everyone who visits?
Values are as important if not more important, than value in the markets. If we can stop hardship and deprivation by relatively cheap and easy interventions such as malaria nets, AIDS drugs, or a handful of seeds and fertilizer, then we have no other choice. Because we can we must.
Love thy neighbour is not advice — it’s a command. There seems to be a contradiction. The biggest heart in Europe, Italy, with its head on the wrong way for now… suffering amnesia. But I can’t think about that for now.
As I prepare for the privilege of performing in San Siro later this week, opera once again fills my head. Memories of Pavarotti…his microphone at the end of his bed in Modena. His putting off singing Miss Sarejevo with me until he ate, slept and, from the look on his face, made out with Nicoletta! His volcano of a voice, spitting fire, erupting. A volcano that blew a hole in the sky, and in my heart — in the heart of anyone who ever heard him sing. Serious interpretive talent…next to charmer, performer, lover, husband, father, friend, child and man. Paradox always. Like his country.