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What's it all about, Alfie?
7:00am Saturday 15th September 2012 in NewsXtra
As his autobiography, Alfie: My Story, is published, bad boy of opera Alfie Boe talks about his battles with the establishment to bring his music to a wider audience, how life on the road once threatened his marriage, and how his singing collaboration with Matt Lucas made him a YouTube hit.
By Hannah Stephenson
Alfie Boe is sipping champagne in the upmarket bar of the five-star hotel where we meet, dressed in his trademark black open neck shirt, waistcoat and trousers.
He has good reason to crack open the bubbly, having had an amazing year, singing at the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Concert and performing the Team GB anthem for the Olympics with Girls Aloud singer Kimberley Walsh.
But it hasn't been all plain sailing for the Lancashire lad, who was discovered when a customer overheard him singing in the Blackpool car factory where he worked, and told him about a London opera audition.
He got the job with D'Oyly Carte and went on to train at the Royal College of Music, the National Opera Studio and the Royal Opera House. Boe was selected to play the lead in a Baz Luhrmann-directed Broadway production of La Boheme, for which he won a Tony award and, most famously, went on to star in the 25th anniversary concert of Les Miserables.
Yet in his quest for artistic freedom, he has had many spats with directors, producers and members of the opera establishment, some of which are detailed in his autobiography, Alfie: My Story.
Meeting him today, I half expect Boe to be on the defensive, a peacock whose feathers can be easily ruffled, but there's not a hint of this from the Fleetwood-born singer, who just seems like a normal bloke. Well, one who now drinks Laurent Perrier.
His tendency to speak his mind is, he concedes, "risky".
"You have to believe in yourself, in your ability and your ideas and go for it," he says.
"I've never wanted to be a follower. When it comes to work, I've always wanted to be a pioneer, not to just go with the flow and fall in with everyone else's rules."
He admits his stubborn attitude may have closed some doors for him along the way.
"But I would rather have had doors closed on me by people that didn't believe my vision, because they're not worth my time."
The 38-year-old tenor had been singing professionally for more than a decade before his performance as Jean Valjean in the 25th anniversary show of Les Miserables at the O2 Arena in 2010, and his rendition of Bring Him Home, made him a star.
His co-star, Matt Lucas, who was playing Thenardier, has remained a good friend and they created a YouTube hit with their spontaneous rendition of Nessun Dorma in the Little Britain star's kitchen.
"Matt is like a brother to me. I love him to pieces. He eats far too much chocolate. He's a guy who doesn't stop. We became very close when I stayed with him when we were working together."
The following year, Boe courted controversy when he appeared on Desert Island Discs with Kirsty Young and spoke about some of his more negative opera experiences, saying that when he goes to the opera he feels very uncomfortable.
"When I'm up there doing it, that's my world, that's what I really enjoy. But sitting there watching it, I'm bored stiff," he said.
Today, he has no regrets about making the comment, which set off a barrage of criticism, most noticeably from British theatre and opera director Sir Jonathan Miller, who said: "If Alfie Boe thinks opera is boring then it's very odd that he's in it at all."
Boe's comment may have been biting the hand that feeds, but, as he points out, it didn't feed him very well for a long time.
Little more than two years ago, his career was at such a low ebb he was considering giving up singing to become a personal trainer for the Salt Lake City Police Department.
Work had dried up, promises of albums and gigs had fallen through and he was sick of having no money and few job prospects, or constantly chasing that elusive record deal.
Throughout it all his wife, American actress Sarah Jones, had been extremely supportive, but after they moved to Salt Lake, Utah, where her family lives, she didn't want to return to England when Boe was offered work in London.
"She couldn't have been more supportive of me, but she was so tired of waiting for the big thing that would turn our lives around.
"It was a heartbreaking time. I was very insecure. I was away from my kid, I was away from my wife, I was constantly leaving my family, I had to come back to London to work in an opera and it was a really depressing time. I thought everything was going to come to an end, including my marriage.
"I wanted to get work in America so I could be with my family so becoming a personal trainer was an option. But I wouldn't have been happy."
That was five months before he performed in the 25th anniversary concert of Les Miserables. It was a risky gig as he hadn't done musical theatre before and it had the potential to destroy his opera career. Instead, it made him a star.
That all seems a long time ago.
The Boes now have two children - Grace, aged four and nine-month-old Alfie. They still cross the pond a lot but have sold the house in Salt Lake and are currently renting in Gloucester. Boe will be doing a tour of the US in October, and has a new album out in November, which he describes as "quite rocky", and a UK tour next spring.
He returns to Fleetwood occasionally, where he can be himself, he says.
"I don't think I've become a different person when I'm off stage. When I'm at home I'm changing nappies and cooking tea and doing normal stuff. I'm a dad who's just making a living for his family."
And he likes being branded 'the bad boy of opera'.
"The opera establishment needs a few more bad boys and girls. Sometimes they need a big kick up the behind, but then there are some in the opera establishment who do have a broader vision of music and the arts.
"I don't call myself an opera singer any more. I'm just a singer. I sing lots of different types of music, but with the voice I've been given. I don't like being told 'You are a classical singer'. That's probably been my downfall at times."
Born the son of a factory worker and the youngest of nine children, the young Alfie would listen to Buddy Holly, Elvis and The Beach Boys, took up the drums and played in various bands as a teenager.
"I saw myself doing rock music more than I did opera. For me, opera was a foot in the door. That sounds terrible but it was the only way of getting into the business at the time. I still feel like that. I love the operas I've been in but something that has taken the lead is the acting more than the actual music."
Critics have insinuated that the audience he attracts isn't into opera, just chasing celebrity. He argues that as long as they're being introduced to music, so what?
He believes he still has a lot of work to do to achieve his goal of bringing classical music to the masses, although he reflects that is no longer his ultimate goal.
"My aim is to just show people that there are no boundaries, no divisions.
"And don't be scared of following your dream."
:: Alfie: My Story by Alfie Boe is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £18.99. Available now