It’s only a short distance – around half a mile - from Hyde Park to Buckingham Palace. But for Alfie Boe, the route from sleeping rough in the royal park to performing in front of millions on the Queen’s balcony was to prove a longer, more unexpected journey.
It’s an extraordinary story – how this former apprentice mechanic in a Blackpool TVR factory went on to become Britain’s biggest-selling tenor. But Boe is reluctant to describe it as a fairytale. ‘Life doesn’t feel like a fairytale when you’re living it,’ says the 41-year-old. ‘It’s just the way things happened.’
The youngest of nine children from a working-class Catholic family in Fleetwood, Boe’s first introduction to opera was O Sole Mio being played by the ice cream van in the street outside. ‘My father had an old Enrico Caruso album, and he played that same song, and I put the two together,’ he recalls. ‘Basically, I associated it with excitement and joy, because at the end of it I used to get an ice cream.’
At 14, Boe began performing in amateur operatic societies, but packed it in a couple of years later to concentrate on his apprenticeship. ‘And then, when I was working at the factory, I woke up one morning and it was almost like someone had switched a light on inside,’ he says. ‘I can’t describe it, but I got this powerful urge to sing again.’
The urge led him to audition for a production of West Side Story in Preston. ‘The director said, “Look we haven’t got time to hear you all, so I want you all to sing Maria, in unison. We’ve cast the lead role already, so this is just a formality”.
‘I wasn’t bothered – I was just happy to be part of a company again. But we all started singing Maria, and there are two ways of singing it, where you can just keep repeating Maria…’ – he breaks into song – ‘or you can sing and hold the high note. And that’s the only way I knew how to do it. So I sang that high note, and by the end I realised everyone else had stopped. It was just me singing on my own.’
Reader, he got the lead. A short while later, he was polishing a customer’s car while singing along to the radio, when the man handed him a business card. ‘He said, “You’ve got a good voice – you should try to do it as a career”. And I thought, yeah that’s great – how do you do that? I’m buffing your car in a factory in Blackpool – it’s easier said than done.’
But the name of the light opera company the man had advised he audition for – the D'Oyly Carte – stuck in his head and, later, two friends also recommended he should try out for them. When he saw the company’s advert in The Stage inviting people to audition for a forthcoming tour, it felt like someone was trying to tell him something. ‘I thought, that’s the third thing now. So I decided to just go for it.’
Two auditions later, he’d been offered a place in the chorus. ‘I turned up for work on the Monday morning, went straight up to my foreman and said, “There’s my notice, I’m leaving”.’
Boe toured with the D'Oyly Carte for a year, before winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. In his second year, he was living in a basement ‘hovel’, and woke up one morning to find three inches of sewage around his bed. ‘I thought, I’ve got to get out. And so I packed my rucksack, and I left.’
With nowhere to go, he bedded down in Hyde Park. ‘I did that for about four or five nights,’ he says. ‘The first night was horrible, but then I started to get used to it. I got into a kind of routine. It was weird.’
Fortunately, word reached one of his tutors, who arranged for him to stay in a hostel. ‘Once I’d settled down there, I started being entered into singing competitions,’ he recalls. ‘And I started winning, and it was bringing money in. I thought, this is really working now, I can make this happen. It felt like everything had turned around.’
Boe was set to complete his music training at the Royal Opera House, but was headhunted by Baz Luhrmann to play the lead in his Broadway revival of La bohème. This put the young singer on a crash course with the opera establishment that’s continued to this day: he’s previously described the classical fraternity as ‘snooty’, and famously admitted on Desert Island Discs that opera can be ‘boring’. (He was hardly likely to regret bailing on the RHO, anyway, as it was during rehearsals for La bohème that he met his wife Sarah, with whom he has two children, Grace and Alfred.)
By 2006, Boe’s star was in the ascendant, but it was his 2010 performance as Jean Valjean in the 25th anniversary concert of Les Misérables that was to prove a game-changer, with his reprise of Bring Him Home – Valjean’s big second act solo – at that year’s Royal Variety Performance sealing his status as classical music’s new breakout star.
Since then, Boe has combined solo tours with high-profile gala and West End performances, while a string of top 10 albums has seen him covering the musical spectrum from bel canto arias to pop, folk and operetta. His latest, Serenata is a celebration of Italian romantic music ranging from the heyday of Neapolitan song in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to such sun-kissed, nostalgic 50s classics as Arrivederci Roma and Mambo Italiano. ‘This music for me is so natural, and so simplistic,’ he says. ‘It’s beautiful, romantic music, and romance is such a simple thing to conjure up.’
It is also, of course, the music that first captured the ear of the young Alfred Giovanni Roncalli Boe (he’s named in honour of the Italian Pope John XXIII) in the chimes of a Lancashire ice-cream van. More than 30 years later, this love affair with music would see the newly-minted national treasure enjoying the rarefied view from that Buckingham Palace balcony at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert.
‘It wasn’t that far from where I used to sleep rough,’ he smiles. ‘It was amazing to stand on that balcony, to be performing to the nation on such a momentous day as the Diamond Jubilee. I was like, I can’t believe this, it’s unreal. A real iconic moment.’
Some might even call it a fairytale.
Published in Waitrose Weekend, November 20, 2014
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