How should one categorise Alfie Boe? The word 'tenor' doesn't quite seem to cover it, because, even though he's only 37 years old, his career has already included appearing in a hit Broadway show (for which he won a Tony Award as Best Actor), recording a string of phenomenally popular albums, and starring in major productions at English National Opera and the Royal Opera House.
Even more acclaim came his way earlier this month when he played the lead role of Jean Valjean in Cameron Mackintosh's 25th anniversary gala performances of Les Miserables at the O2 in London. Screened in cinemas worldwide, the show was also recorded for a future DVD release, bringing Boe's name to an even bigger audience.
But, as he tells me as we meet soon after the concert, he's equally excited about being back at the Royal Opera House, where he was a Young Artist for six months, for a revival of Gounod's Romeo and Juliet in the secondary role of Tybalt. The mere suggestion that it might be an anti-climax to sing such a relatively small part after being the centre of attention at the O2 is instantly dismissed.
'That's ignorant, man, you mustn't ever say that,' he replies, passionately. 'This is the Royal Opera House, and playing a small role is just as important as playing a big one. The story still needs to get told, and you have a job to do for the principal roles. What I found doing Les Mis was that the whole company, whether a member of the ensemble or a lead role, is a team. It's a team effort. There's no principals. Everybody is important in the production. That goes for a lot of the people I work with. They all respect each other, we all have a job to do, and we're a team. There's no hierarchy. Working here is a great honour – working with fine singers like Piotr [Beczala, the Romeo] and Nino [Machaidze, who plays Juliet]. It's great to support them and be here.'
The character of Tybalt is not perhaps quite what you'd expect a jovial, down-to-earth personality like Alfie Boe to be playing. 'I get to kill people, so watch yourself!' he jokes. 'He's a fiery guy – very earthy. He has strong family values, which I can relate to very much. Apart from the killing, I can relate to a lot of the things he does. He has a strong sense of honour. Vocally, it seems OK. I've sung bigger and longer roles, so this is great. Gounod wrote a fantastic score for everyone to sing, no matter how big or small. I have a lot of respect for it.'
And what are his impressions of the Covent Garden production of Romeo? 'It's very classic, very beautiful. It's pretty, and the costumes are great. The direction Stephen Barlow has given us has been impeccable. It's been really nice to work with him again. He's a good guy. And Daniel Oren has been wonderful to work with – I've been learning a hell of a lot from him.'
Since we're back on his old stamping ground, our conversation inevitably returns to Boe's time as a Young Artist. 'I was here for six months. I know a lot of Young Artists that have been on the programme since I left, and I think that their experiences were a lot different to mine. To be honest, I had got to a position in my career where I'd had enough education and I wanted to get out and start doing it. I had come from Glyndebourne and ENO before I came here, so I had plenty of work under my belt. Looking back on it, it was a great six months and I really enjoyed in the experiences. I enjoyed appearing in Tristan and Isolde, and the masterclasses with some wonderful people. To watch world-class performers on the stage is not something you can just buy. I got to watch Pavarotti in Tosca. It was amazing to see the man, and meet him in his dressing room. I'll never forget those times. But really, the programme wasn't for me, and I decided to leave and head off and start work. I got the opportunity to work with Baz Luhrmann on La boheme on Broadway, and I jumped at the chance.'
So he didn't even hesitate for a minute to leave the Young Artists and go to make his Broadway debut? 'There were a lot of questions in my mind, and a lot to think about. To leave a programme at the Royal Opera House is not something you do lightly. I had to weigh up the pros and cons. I think this programme is good for some people, just as college is good for some people and bad for others. You have to decide what's right for you.'
And how was the Broadway experience? 'I don't want to separate these worlds. You mustn't separate opera and music theatre. Having done Les Mis as well, my experience is that you can't cheat it. You have to do the work and put as much into that as you would here. It's just a different art form, a different theatre, a different stage. The Broadway world was not anything lower than La Scala or the Met. These stages that you get to work on and the colleagues that you get to work with are very important. There are two types of music: good and bad. There's both kinds in both opera and musical theatre.
'In Boheme, the show was triple cast. I did three nights a week in San Francisco for the previews, another three per week on Broadway, and then just two a week in L.A. I loved every single minute and it was the best decision I could make. I had so much encouragement from the ROH to do it. There was some concern about how it would affect my voice, but in the end it built up my stamina. People also wondered if it would be too much for me, because I was only in my twenties, which is young to be doing the role. But everyone agreed that there's a time when enough is enough, and you have to make the leap from training to working, and I felt that the time had come for me.'
We then turn to the prospect of the future, which includes returns to English National Opera for Boe. 'I've got three Bohemes at ENO in January, then The Mikado after that. I started my career as a member of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, and I love that music. I think it's underestimated. It's not something just to take lightly. Before I went to music college, I worked with the D'Oyly Carte for a time, and therefore it links back to that point in my career for me. I've always had that connection with them, and have kept in touch with the MDs and directors ever since. I've also sung bits and pieces from the repertoire in concerts and so on. The Mikado is a lot of fun, and it's the 25th anniversary of Jonathan Miller's production, so it's a great opportunity.'
Last year, Boe sang in a new production of The Merry Widow at ENO and subsequently recorded an album of Lehar's music for Linn Records, entitled Love Was a Dream. Boe clearly loves this music: 'Lehar was the music I grew up listening to. My Dad was a great fan of Richard Tauber. He introduced me to that repertoire when I was a kid. We would go to church on Sunday morning, come back, sit round the table eating dinner, then Dad would have one glass of Benedictine, sit down and put his record on. We were dying to leave the table and go and play, of course, but when I got older I started to listen to it myself. When Dad died, it brought back a lot of childhood memories for me to listen to this music again. In a way, I wanted to do a tribute album to him. That's why I did it – and it's beautiful music.'
I can't resist asking a little more about Boe's experiences on the Les Miserables anniversary concert, and he is extremely forthcoming and enthusiastic about it: 'They approached me well over a year ago about whether I would go in and sing to Claude-Michel Schönberg. I thought wow, when do you get the opportunity to sing to the composer of such a dynamic and historic piece as that? So I went in and sang the three main arias – the soliloquy, the prologue, and the prayer, 'Bring Him Home'. During the prayer, Claude-Michel stood up and started conducting me. It just felt so right, and the piece felt right to me. It was in my body already, even though I hadn't started working on it.
'Obviously it was a piece I had known from being a kid. I then went in a few weeks later to sing to Sir Cameron Mackintosh and Sir Trevor Nunn. I started working on the songs, and they were happy with what they heard and saw, and they went for it. I know there was some criticism about them casting an opera singer to sing a role like that, and people might have expected someone more like Michael Ball. In fact, Michael's a great friend, and it was him who put me forward for the job. I have a lot to thank him for. He told Cameron about me, and he came to see me in a performance. He backed me 100%, and I wish I could repay him. I also can't speak highly enough of Cameron and his colleagues. He's a beautiful fella, a really great guy. He loves his artists, he loves his shows and he loves his job. To work with someone who has that much protection over his pieces is inspiring.
'This was a great experience for me. I have no qualms in saying that it was the best thing I've done in my career, from beginning to end. Getting to know the cast in the West End for two weeks in September; getting to perform the role in the West End; and then the O2 – it was an experience I'll never forget.' How is he ever going to top that kind of experience? 'I don't want to. I'm sure that there will be concerts in the future that are equally exciting, but this one has a special place in my heart, as does everyone involved in it. I never look to try and top something; I just go for the next thing. I came here to rehearse the day after the concert. I was just as excited and enthusiastic to work here as I was at the O2. I just want to give the best product possible.'
As we close, I return to the question of Boe's multifaceted career, and whether he plans to go in a specific direction in the future. 'I'd like to continue doing this as long as I can. I don't think there's any harm in going for different kinds of things. I want to sing good music of all kinds, whether it's opera or musical theatre.' Any ambitions? 'I never look that far ahead. I just accept what comes across my path. There are many operatic roles I am suited to do, but nothing that comes to mind that I am desperate to do. Whatever comes, I will do it to the best of my ability. I don't sit around thinking, I really want to play Nemorino, I really want to play Lensky. I just want to sing good music. If the next thing I do is another second or third tenor role in a production here, I'm happy to do it.'
Romeo and Juliet opens at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 26 October 2010.
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