Andrea Bocelli's new-found fame -- The blind opera star is the calm center of a chaotic U.S. media blitz

”You gonna eat that?”

A lady from New Jersey has her eye on my Devil Dog. It’s Monday morning and the audience is pouring into Manhattan’s NBC Studios for a live broadcast of The Rosie O’Donnell Show. True to talk-show decorum, they’re dressed like they’re going to a Little League game: baseball caps and track suits, T-shirts and sweats. A lot of them, anxious for an autograph, are hauling around big, plush Rosie O’Donnell dolls. As they inch down the aisles, each person finds on her seat a free half-pint of milk and a bag of Devil Dogs, gooey spares of which are greeted like the discovery of buried treasure.

No, this is not the first place you would expect to hear an opera singer. But after Rosie’s opening monologue, after Rosie’s chummy chitchat with Jon Bon Jovi, after a woman has wowed Rosie with her recipe for homemade chili-cheese fries, a blind man steps in front of the cameras to sing. In Italian. His name is Andrea Bocelli, which, according to the warm-up guy who keeps throwing Koosh balls into the crowd, ”sounds like something you’d eat in an Italian restaurant.”

If so, it’s a dish that the female portion of this audience probably wouldn’t refuse. ”He’s very inspirational, he’s very charming,” sighs one flushed aficionada from New York’s Rockland County. As Bocelli launches into ”Romanza” — not an aria, exactly, but one of his Latin-lovin’ power ballads — the giddy, sugar-stoked congregation turns as rapt and silent as the Sunday-afternoon crowd at Carnegie Hall.

Minutes later, the Tuscan tenor sits in the back of a stretch limousine, coasting the four blocks from Rockefeller Center to his hotel, unfazed by the notion of sharing airtime with Jon Bon Jovi and chili-cheese fries. ”Because tay-lay-veesion can change the people,” he explains in broken English, waving off his translator. ”Because tay-lay-veesion put in every house speak with the people, so thees is beeg responsibility.” Actually, Bocelli and the members of his ubiquitous posse — manager Michele Torpedine, pianist and music director Carlo Bernini, interpreter Joanna Dezio — are just trying to figure out how many people watch The Rosie O’Donnell Show. Nobody knows for sure, but they finally settle on an answer: ”mee-llions.”

After the Devil Dogs comes Dante. Bocelli is standing in the middle of his hotel suite, reciting in a booming roar the first few stanzas of Dante’s Inferno: ”Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita/mi ritrovai per una selva oscura…”

At 39, Bocelli finds himself in the middle of his own inferno at the moment — a hellish thicket of interviews and photo shoots, studio sessions and rehearsals, and press luncheons — but it would be tough to find a pop star more stoically detached from the process. When he gets a break, he sneaks into a corner of his bedroom to read French and Russian literature on a Braille computer. (”In two discs there is War and Peace,” he says.) He admits to being baffled by the way Americans put so much thought into mapping out their careers. ”I just sort of allow my life to unfold,” he muses through the interpreter. ”I haven’t planned it out this way. It’s just happened to me. To tell you the truth, I laugh a little bit when people make huge plans for me, because I think the plans never work.”