Alfie Boe is a very nice guy. We did A Midsummer Night’s Dream together at ENO about seven years ago when he was Lysander and I did my usual Flute. He even asked me if I could give him some advice about a section which sits in an awkward part of the passaggio, the area where the voice “turns” into the higher register. I can’t remember what I told him but he sorted it out. He acted well too, quite happily playing the buffoon.
A couple of years later we met in the green room at Television Centre. We were both on BBC Breakfast News, he to promote his first solo album and I because there had been a lot of media interest in a project I’d done, photographing everything I ate for a year and displaying the photos as a collage. It was a slow news day in the Silly Season. I was introduced as an Artist and he as a Tenor. It was quite strange because, at the time, of the two of us I guess I was the one with more of a track record in the Tenor department, though in a very different area of singing. That’s television for you. Not that I cared very much. I was just so confused and flattered at being described as an Artist. Alfie had two minders with him from the record company’s PR department. I was on my tod.
A couple of years after that I went and saw Alfie backstage, very briefly, after the Dress Rehearsal of La Boheme at ENO when they did the new Miller production. I thought he did a great job. So, his voice didn’t have quite the oomph that the Coliseum needs for Puccini – it’s an awkward bugger that way as I know all too well – but it was a lovely performance and his singing was always true, never pushed.
I heard that Alfie’s record label, I think it was EMI, dropped him after a couple of discs because he refused to sing crap. I’m not sure what exactly but I think it was the genre that can be best described as taking a banal pop song, translating it into Italian, bunging in an orchestra and choir and, bingo, transforming it into “classical” music. It is total and utter bilge and I wish the Mylenes, Katherines, Russells, Hayleys etc etc of this world and their Hello! magazine approach to culture would be flung from a very high cliff, but I don’t suppose that’s going to happen. I digress. Anyway… I admired Alfie for saying “no, I’m a trained opera singer and I don’t want to do that stuff.” He moved to another label and knuckled down to building his opera career, singing large roles at ENO and small roles at Covent Garden. The last role at the Garden I saw him down for was The Messenger in Elektra, who has about three lines, albeit difficult ones.
The thing about Alfie, I always thought, was that he had the talent and the will to do all that Classic FM stuff which I so hate but he also managed the rare feat of sticking at his opera career at the same time. Good for him, I thought.
In the last year or so (in which I believe he switched again to a big record label), I’ve noticed that Alfie’s publicity machine has been out in full force, and he’s hardly been out of the media. This, I’m sure, has everything to do with him going into Les Miserables at the end of this month. I don’t know the show – I’m not a huge fan of musicals – so I have no opinion on whether this is a good or a bad idea. That’s up to him. I have no problem with opera singers doing musicals. My wife Lucy does both and very well too. Opera companies in Britain can be a bit snooty about it. They tend to assume that once you’ve done a musical, that’s it, you’ve turned your back on opera, and it can be very hard to persuade them otherwise. I have no idea if this is something that bothers Alfie. We will see what the next years bring.
Today, Alfie appeared on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs. I haven’t heard the programme but apparently he said that he finds going to opera pretty boring and only enjoys it when he’s in it. Good for him for being honest but he surely can’t be surprised if this is making a lot of opera people upset. It’s the sort of thing Jonathan Miller says all the time, but from a slightly different perspective. And let’s give Alfie a break. He has a young family. Why should he go and see operas in the evening? It sounds to me like he and his publicists have decided that they want to project an image of the ordinary bloke, a bit anti establishment, with whom other “ordinary” people can identify.
I don’t go out to the opera that much either, for many reasons. In the last six months I think I’ve seen four productions I’ve not been in. But I have a huge respect for my fellow professionals and for the punters who do love and support opera. I hope Alfie said something like that. If he didn’t then he certainly shot himself in the foot as far as the opera world is concerned.
The more I think about it, the more I find that my biggest problem with today’s Alfie “scandal” is that he was on Desert Island Discs at all. He’s sung a few operas, made a handful of records and is about to debut in his first musical. He doesn’t have a career in Europe and is little-known in the States. In what way is he a prominent candidate for this flagship radio programme? The only reason is that he is currently very much in the public eye due to all the publicity surrounding his upcoming appearance in Les Mis. But is that the remit of the programme? Has DID become just another publicity vehicle for people with stuff to plug? If so, then fine, have Alfie on. But if it’s to celebrate the life and work of a renowned singer or public figure (which is what I thought the programme was about), for my money, he’s a few more years of hard graft to do to collect those laurels. I can prepare a list of much more qualified interviewees. And no, not for a moment would I put my own name on that list. Do me a favour!
I don’t blame Alfie for doing the programme. Are you kidding? He should say no? I blame the publicists and the producers. Do you know that the great humorist and columnist Miles Kington never appeared on DID? That rather demonstrates how off-kilter this is. Why not get Katherine Jenkins on? Or Justin Bieber? Or Jordan?
It will be interesting to see how this pans out. Quietly slagging off the very genre that started your career in the first place doesn’t seem like a good plan if Alfie is serious about continuing as an opera singer. And when I say opera singer I mean someone who sings whole operas, not just little chunks of the stuff. You know, like some of those twats I mentioned earlier.
I think Alfie, like so many before him, finds himself at something of a crossroads; but if he thinks that by taking the yellow brick road which promises arena concerts, frequent appearances on daytime telly and massive wealth, he can later roll up at Covent Garden or any major opera house and expect them to take him seriously and offer him some decent roles, I think he’s being led up the garden path. But what do I know?

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