If you haven’t heard the name Alfie Boe before, you haven’t been paying attention to the performing arts lately. Already an established opera star, he stormed the musical theatre world last year playing Jean Valjean in Les Misérables at the 02 and is climbing the charts with his new album Bring Him Home. And if that wasn’t enough, he’s now a YouTube hit with Alfie Boe Warbles A Bit, a performance recorded while he was staying with his friend and Les Mis co-star Matt Lucas. Jane Watkins met him at the end of rehearsals for The Mikado at ENO
How do you feel doing The Mikado at ENO?
It’s where I started. I was a member of the D’Oyly Carte back in the day when I first left the garage. It’s good repertoire – it was good training as a young singer to sing this music. You really have to spit out the words and make sure you can be understood.
And it’s a fun production
It’s a good classic one. I’m a huge fan of Jonathan’s. In the La bohème I did for him two years ago, Rodolfo was a bit frozen and distant from Mimi which isn’t what you want in Bohème. But the second time I did it, he’d reassessed it and it was a different type of show and it was a warmer character that I played.
A different experience to the La bohème you did with Baz Luhrman in America
I absolutely loved it. Broadway was incredible. A lot of people say it was a controversial production, but it was in Italian, no music was cut (it was the full score), there were no rude or explicit scenes. It was beautiful, it was romantic, it was stylish… But it was an opera in a mainstream world.
Baz started his career at Sydney Opera House and his Bohème was first produced there. Then he did Midsummer Night’s Dream for Scottish Opera. He was grounded in operatic productions
Baz is a great guy. I’d love to work with him again. Bohème was such an expensive show-the cast and orchestra were huge and it was a big old set. We had 30 or 40 people in the chorus and three different casts because doing it eights times a week would kill you. I did five in a row and it nearly put me on my back. I had a wonderful time and I’ve learned a lot from him. I’ve tried to keep the work ethic that Baz had-I’ve never seen anyone work so hard. His creativity is just wondrous.
Last year, you sang Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. What was that like?
I was nervous going into an establishment that had been running for more than 25 years in a production like that and wondering how I’d be received by its cast and the people in that world. I was shocked to be welcomed with open arms. Everyone was so encouraging-they loved my voice, they supported everything I was doing, they supported my interpretation of the character. But I can guarantee if it was the other way round, a music theatre person coming into an operatic world, it’s a very different thing-you ask Michael Ball [who was attacked by critics for his performance in Kismet at ENO in 2007].
And you’ll be returning to the role this summer?
I’m very excited to be going back in. It’s a wonderful world, a wonderful show. I love playing that character. I can really relate to Jean Valjean-I feel some sort of a connection with him, but not the criminal side, obviously! He’s a great strong character and I just love playing him-the passion inside the guy, the frustration and the drive for justice and right inside him is just immense. It’s what leads the whole show for me.
It’s such a heartfelt piece. Musically, it’s one of the most classical scores I’ve ever sung. They can’t dumb down musical theatre and some of the writing out there is just incredible. There are new musicals being written that, in 50 years’ time, are going to be classed as the operas of our day. That’s what La bohème was about, for crying out loud-the first review was that it was the worst piece of music theatre ever written.
You’ll be working again with your friend Matt Lucas
Matt’s a great singer and when he puts his mind to something, he really does do it at 100%. He had the guts to stand up on the 02 stage and do a role he’s wanted all his life, not really having had any vocal training. When we recorded The Impossible Dream [for my album], I was encouraging him to punch it out and ham it up and it wasn’t what he wanted – he wanted it to be definite, a really consummate performance with a calmer feel to it and serious edge. And he did it really well.
He’s a great guy and a very generous friend. And we’ll be Les Misérables together – it’ll be fun. I think it’s something like the end of June to the end of November – it’s not finalised yet. It’ll be a nice little run.
How did you enjoy the shows at the O2?
I really know Jean Valjean inside out. When I did the show at the O2, I really was Jean Valjean-I really felt like I’d been taken over and I was in a world of my own, in a bubble. A few times, I could see myself-it was a really strange feeling-and I could watch what I was doing. For about an hour after the show, because it had been such an intense day-we’d done 2 shows-I was still locked away and I couldn’t focus on what was going on. It was just a magical feeling.
The Valjean Quartet (recorded for charity) must have been a highlight
It was great to sing with Colm and I really respect those guys. We’re all very different and we’ve all brought something different to the role. To sing with Colm was incredible. You have to make those roles your own – you can’t impersonate someone else’s interpretation. You don’t get the true emotions across otherwise. Simon let me take over for two weeks prior to the concert and it was wonderful to play on the stage itself. There’s never been any rivalry – everybody’s just been unique in their own way and that goes for all the roles. Colm gave me a wonderful compliment by saying I’d made it my own and done something different that hasn’t been done before.
You seem to effortlessly move between opera, musical theatre and recording
I don’t think there should be a divide between these worlds. The thing that holds me together when I do different things, it’s just my voice. I don’t modify the way I sing: I use the same quality of voice, I use the same support, the same muscle control, the same dynamic control. The focus, the intonation is the same whether I’m singing a Donizetti piece or a Claude-Michel Schoenberg piece. I don’t think you should feel like you have to change the way you sing. Music is music to me-there are two types of music: good and bad and I just want to sing the good stuff. All I want to sing is music that’s suited to me and lends itself to my instrument and hopefully it’ll appeal to the majority, if possible.
I did a show at the opera house where I got a review from one critic who said the singing was fine, the acting was fine but the downfall of Alfie Boe’s career is going to be his fans. Because of the response I got when I walked out and took a bow. It’s such a shame – people should have the licence to appreciate music any way they want. They claim to want to bring in a new audience but they don’t. I just thought it’s a ridiculous thing to say.
After Les Mis you’ll be touring. Do you have any details of the set list yet?
We haven’t started to look at the tour just yet but inevitably my latest album will be in there. It’ll be a full concert with no intervals, just from about 8pm until about 9.30pm or 10pm-a two-hour set. There will be some surprises in there that people won’t expect, perhaps a bit of classical, some of the Neapolitan stuff. I’d like to bring on a traditional Neapolitan band. At some point, Matt may surprise us and do a guest duet.
And after that?
I really don’t try and look too far ahead and I don’t assess what roles I would like to do. I let them find me in a way like Jean Valjean found me. It would be nice to do another musical theatre piece, but I’m not sure next year is the time for it. I wanted to really concentrate on the records and touring and doing my own shows. It’s nice to dip in and out of it.
I’m opening the doors to a different world now and I want to enter it 100% and do the best that I can in the recording industry, the musical theatre industry, the touring industry. I want to play to a wider audience as well – you get categorised as an opera singer but I’d like now to be just called a singer.
What’s your favourite place in Britain?
Where my family are. I have so many memories of my childhood in the Lake District, my holidays were spent climbing the mountains. It’s very close to my heart
What’s your favourite building in Britain?
Let’s take the concerts out of the equation, and so for sheer memory value, I think spending a weekend with my mother and father at Blackpool Tower. Watching the circus as a child. The Opera House and the Winter Gardens, too. I used to work there as stage crew and saw some fantastic classic acts such as Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey and the Everly Brothers. Those buildings still hold the beauty from years ago
Who is your hero?
I’d have to say my father. He was a star. He died about 14 years ago and he was a genuine, generous, fun-loving guy and you could really rely on him to sort out all your problems. If you had any issue with anything, he’d always say “don’t worry son, leave it with me” and before you knew it, it was all sorted. I really respect what my parents did for me. My father would just bend over backwards to do anything to help me succeed in whatever I wanted to achieve
It’s not a novel. My favourite books are recipe books. I love to cook. I’d rather read from front to back a cookery book than a story about anything. I’m a big fan of Jamie Oliver, he’s really revolutionised the British way of cooking and the health factor of feeding your kids. I like Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall for his rustic natural cooking. Gordon Ramsey is incredible and his food is just real and solid
Classic rock: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, The Who, The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen. I play the drums and I used to be in a lot of Blues bands so solid classic rock and blues. It speaks of a generation and of a time
The Mikado is at ENO to March 11 (www.eno.org)
For tour dates and tickets, visit www.gigsandtours.com
For more on Alfie’s plans for 2011, visit www.alfieboe.com
* Alfie’s dates for Les Mis have now been confirmed as June 23 to Nov 26.