The 14-year-old soprano singer credited by Mark Wahlberg as having "the voice of an angel" after nailing his performance at the Festival of Families with Pope Francis was given just a five-minute head's-up before he walked out on stage, according to his choir director.
Bobby Hill, a soprano from Philadelphia, performed “Pie Jesu" by Andrew Lloyd Webber a cappella, which is unusual.
The stirring work is usually accompanied on piano, according to Keystone State Boychoir director Steven M. Fisher.
"It's a very difficult piece to sing," he said.
The Keystone State Boychoir and Pennsylvania Girlchoir were booked for the festival Saturday to sing with Juanes for the final performance of the night on Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
During rehearsals, the aspiring opera singer got a chance to sing "Pie Jesu" for famed Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, another performer at the star-studded event.
"He was in good form and feeling very confident," Fisher said of Hill.
About a couple hours before the choir was set to go on, producers told Fisher they needed to fill a transition. Fisher waited to tell the young singer he'd tapped him for the unscheduled solo because he didn't want to make Hill nervous or get his hopes up if the opportunity fell through.
But Hill didn't miss a beat when he found out about his responsibility.
"I said to Bobby, 'we need you to go out and do this.' He said 'great,'" Fisher recalled.
Hill's response to finding out he had to do the song a cappella: "Cool."
"That's how kids are. They just don't panic," Fisher said.
After the performance, Hill was seen on camera walking up to Pope Francis and giving him a present. That moment was also unscripted.
Hill gave Francis a rock from Antartica, Fisher said. The Keystone State Boychoir in 2009 became the first choir to sing on the continent.
Hill brought the rock on stage for good luck and had been told that if the pope approached him he could give it to him.
"As kids often do, he walked right up to him," Fisher said.
Still, Fisher found it significant that while the Festival of Families — part of the Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families gathering — featured people from six families representing the continents, the seventh continent hadn't been represented.
"Our choir family was the seventh family," he said.
Hill can be seen onstage again at the American premiere of "Aza'io" with the International Opera Theater in Philadelphia next month.