Interview: Alfie Boe, opera singer

Alfie Boe isn't your average opera singer, but he's quite happy to break the mould, and is pictured below meeting Prince Charles. Photos: Getty
Alfie Boe isn't your average opera singer, but he's quite happy to break the mould, and is pictured below meeting Prince Charles. Photos: Getty
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His opinions have earned him a sniffy reaction from the opera establishment, but Alfie Boe is happy to please fans ... and himself. Interview by Claire Black

Sitting in a private members club in London, I’m working up to telling Alfie Boe that almost every interview I’ve ever read with him has struck me as horribly patronising. Some were so bad I could almost hear a soundtrack of plaintive violins. Or at the very least the Hovis ad theme tune. Sitting opposite me, looking much more like a man ready to belt out a power ballad than an aria, his jeans tucked into slouchy black leather boots, leather bands and beads strung round his wrist and wearing a black leather jacket, Boe smiles a wry smile. I mean, I tell him, it’s not that I can’t see why people fall into that trap – his story does have a certain rags-to-riches ring to it if that’s how you choose to understand social class – but surely it’s monumentally irritating?

“I do find that people think this just happened last week,” he says softly. “I’ve been working hard for years. Just to get a record deal I worked hard for 15 years. It’s not easy, to strive for 15 years, singing to every label in the country, every label in America. You just have to persist. Every single day you have to take even just a small step towards what you want. And if you do get a break, an opportunity, you have to just go for it because you never know what might come of it. That’s what I do.”

He’s telling the truth. That’s exactly what he’s done.

Boe, the youngest of nine children, grew up in Fleetwood, a seaside town near Blackpool. Interested in football and rock music (he still lists Led Zeppelin as one of his favourite bands) at the age of 17, Boe was working in a local car factory spending his days singing along to the radio as he worked. One day a customer heard him and suggested that he try out for the D’Oyly Carte opera company, which happened to be holding auditions the next week. Boe decided to give it a go and he was successful.

If it had ended there, or rather, if he’d then made an appearance on something like Britain’s Got Talent or started popping up to sing the national anthem at various sporting events, then the Hovis ad schtick might be less cloying. Boe would be another Paul Potts or Russell Watson, a man from a working class background with a good, but untrained, voice who gets labelled with the description “the nation’s favourite” (for a while anyway) because he’s not like that snooty opera lot but he does sing those nice songs.

But that’s not Alfie Boe’s story. The actor first joined an amateur operatic company because his sister told him he’d get a girlfriend there. And, as it happens, he did. But something else happened too.

“I got hooked on singing,” he says. “I really liked it. I started to seriously feel the music. It was the first time I’d ever really had that feeling.”

He won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music before completing his training at the National Opera Studio. He then got a place on the Royal Opera House Young Artists Programme, but six months into the two-year course, Boe blotted his copybook for the first time in the eyes of the opera establishment. He landed the role of Rodolfo in Baz Luhrmann’s Broadway production of Puccini’s La Boheme. Some people sniffed that the singers in the production were using microphones so they weren’t proper singers. Others sniffed because it was on Broadway, not in a traditional opera house. Presumably others sniffed because some people just like to be like that. Objectively speaking, though, Boe was fully trained and he’d landed himself the part of leading man in a major Broadway production at the age of just 25. And whatever the naysayers said, Luhrmann’s take on Puccini’s opera was sung in Italian and the score was complete. Boe also explains that the microphones were used because some of the orchestral music was played electronically through a PA system (Luhrmann couldn’t afford to keep an 80-piece orchestra in the pit for nine months) and anyway, his usually fell off and slid down the back of his shirt.

“It was silly. Really silly. They’ve used microphones in opera houses. The Royal Opera has but they’ll never admit it, English National Opera have too, but they’ll never admit it either because they’re too proud and too stupid.”

Boe is softly spoken and unfailingly modest; he says “thank you” at the merest whiff of a compliment, but he is also fantastically straight-talking. His verdict on the original version of Jonathan Miller’s La Boheme for ENO is “drab, dreary and depressing”. The conductor gets even shorter shrift – “he had two dynamics – loud and louder”. If you ask him about different genres of music he’ll tell you straightforwardly that for him there’s only good music and bad. That’s it.

This propensity to voice his opinions led to controversy when Boe appeared on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs this year. During the interview, Boe said he didn’t enjoy watching operas because he often found them boring. He also confessed that he slept through a couple when he was a student. The collective gasps of the opera establishment were almost audible across the land. The subsequent reaction to Boe was unsurprisingly frosty.

“The opera houses are not mad on being criticised and they’re not mad on change,” he says. “They think they’re doing enough to change, but they won’t get off their arses and take the music to people. They won’t do that. They think everyone should come to them and it’s just not the case, you’ve got to work harder than that. Putting stuff on YouTube isn’t enough.

“I’ve had a lot of people criticise me. Why did you say that? Why did you do that? I say, because it’s true and it’s my opinion. The opera houses have plenty of opinions that they put forward so why shouldn’t I? I don’t find sitting in an opera very exciting. I find it pretty boring. I don’t find it boring performing it, being on stage and singing my heart out. But watching it, I could take it or leave it.”

See what I mean about the willingness to speak plainly? But Boe’s not just sounding off, all mouth and no trousers. He’s been around the opera world for nearly 20 years and he’s done lots of different kinds of performing. He’s got nothing but praise for Scottish Opera’s touring activities and was part of Scottish Opera Go-Round some years ago, performing Don Pasquale around the Highlands and Islands.

“One night we were playing a theatre in Perth, the next night we were playing a scout hut with a dog in the audience and kids sitting along the front eating crisps. It was great. They were having a really good night. It was better than going to see an opera in any big fancy decked-out opera house.”

As far as Boe is concerned, the courses at the Royal Opera House and ENO aimed at young singers aren’t ambitious enough and they don’t connect with the audience in the way that they should.

“Give them their coaching, their lessons, let them meet with directors and conductors, but instead of doing recitals and masterclasses, get them to learn a production and put it on and get them out on to the streets. Get them into Trafalgar Square, get them out to the council estates in Birmingham or in Liverpool. Get them out to the people. Stick them in the back of a van with a bit of set and that’s it.”

You can see why Boe ruffles feathers amongst the establishment, but it’s difficult not to surmise that only in an art form still so riven by class would Boe’s opinions cause as much trouble as they have. As he says, they’re only his opinions, why shouldn’t he share them? Well, there’s one reason: he really believes that the fallout has had an impact on his career.

“I think I’ve probably shot myself in the foot for a while with the opera world as far as roles are concerned,” he says. “No big houses are going to employ me after what I said on radio. I might be wrong but I’m not seeing any sign of it. I’d love to work for them again but I have an opinion. I like respect. And I don’t like injustice.”

Boe has most definitely felt the brunt of the snobbishness of the opera establishment. When he took the role of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables at the personal request of Sir Cameron Mackintosh, a role for which he earned rave reviews and which he’s just finished after performing to sell-out crowds every night of his run, eyebrows were raised again about the way in which Boe can flit between worlds – opera to musical theatre to solo concerts in which his devoted fans shower him with adulation. But Boe is unrepentant. “Crossover” is not a term that he uses and he doesn’t flinch too much when I say it, but it’s clear he’s got his own ideas about that too.

“I actually see crossover a little differently, actually. I see it about being more a crossing over of the audiences than the repertoire. Music is one world, I don’t see any divisions. The only way I see crossover working is if classical music is brought to the rock audience, or rock to the classical. That’s how I see it.”

And that is what he achieved when he performed at the 25th anniversary concert for Les Miserables at London’s O2, which introduced Boe to an entirely new and enthusiastic audience, many of whom followed him to his next opera production. The reception there, though, wasn’t so straightforward.

“I was playing the second tenor role but when I walked out to take my curtain call people started cheering and there were cameras and all that. I came back behind the curtain and the guy who’d sung the main role went out and he didn’t get the same sort of reaction.”

To speak bluntly, it put noses out of joint. Still on stage, but with the curtain down, the casting director made his feelings plain by snubbing Boe, refusing to shake his hand. But what really riled Boe was the review that came out a few days later which stated that the downfall of Boe’s career would be his fans.

“I couldn’t give a damn what they say because a lot of critics who review opera are spoiled kids who don’t like sharing their sweets in the playground, but it’s an insult to my fans and I want to protect them. I really didn’t like it.”

Boe’s gratitude and loyalty towards his fans seems totally genuine. It’s not just that he enjoys the adulation, either; connecting with his audience has a real impact on the way he performs. He wants to reach people, to connect with them.

“I hate that idea that there’s a fourth wall on the stage. I don’t ever feel like that. Even when I’m performing in Les Mis there’s no fourth wall because I talk to the audience. I ask them questions – who am I? Can I condemn this man to slavery? I’m asking them for help, I’m communicating directly with them. Even in my own concerts I do that. I want to connect with them. If I could bring them on stage with me, I would.”

Boe’s father died 14 years ago so he didn’t get to see what his youngest son would go on to achieve, but Boe says that his mum, who still lives in Fleetwood and who is 79 this year, is “thrilled” by what he does. I remember a few lines I’ve read about Boe’s family and the strains of brass come back into my mind. What was family life like, I ask.

“It wasn’t the von Trapps,” he says, laughing. “We weren’t all standing around the piano holding each others’ hands. It was the usual – ‘turn your music down’, ‘you listened to that this morning, I want to listen to my music now’ and competitions to play your music the loudest.

“At one point, there was only one cassette player and one record player downstairs, so it was a fight as to who was getting to them.

“Music was a big deal, though, more than TV. We used to watch a good film but that was it. But music was important.”

He smiles and then looks a bit deflated. Boe’s wife, Sarah, and their little girl, Grace, are living in the US at the moment, where the couple have a home. “This business can get a little lonely. I’m missing my wife and my little girl, and my family in Fleetwood don’t get down here to London often and I don’t get up there very often either.”

He explains that he talks to Grace every day on Skype but it’s clear that the balance between career and family isn’t easy: “You have to really make your own family. The people you work with, your management, they become your close friends, the people you can turn to.”

Matt Lucas, who appeared in Les Mis and with whom he duets on his album, is one of Boe’s closest friends. If you’ve not seen the YouTube video of Boe singing Nessun Dorma in Lucas’s kitchen, you should. It not only shows how great Boe’s voice is but also how much fun the two of them have together.

“He’s a really good friend. He’s been very supportive and very encouraging with everything I’ve done. It’s people like that who come into your life who become like your brother rather than just a friend.”

As for the future, the opera world might not be welcoming him at the moment, but Boe has big plans.

“I see a whole world of opportunity when it comes to music. I’m finding my own style. I’m beginning to write my own music, working with a musical director. It’s interesting because those songs are quite power ballady, quite orchestral and epic but with a bit of acoustic rock band thrown in. I want to try my hand at some other genres of music too – soul, blues, a bit more rock. But also, I don’t want to neglect the classical side.”

Go Alfie.

Alfie Boe plays the Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow, on 29 January, 7pm. For tickets (£20-£35), visit www.ticketline.co.uk. His album, Alfie, is out on Decca.