Wednesday 26 June 2019

Conversations with the Queen

Queen Elizabeth's favourite tenor Alfie Boe tells Barry Egan about growing up in a small council house in Lancashire, the death of his father, how he met his wife and mixing with royalty

Tenor Alfie Boe pictured at the Clayton Hotel in Ballsbridge, Dublin. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Tenor Alfie Boe pictured at the Clayton Hotel in Ballsbridge, Dublin. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Alfie met his wife Sarah while in pre-production for 'La Boheme' in LA
Alfie performs at last year's National Memorial Day Concert in the US

Alfie Boe once ate Kate Middleton's dinner. He sat next to her at the wedding of his friend Princess Anne's son Peter Phillips to Autumn Kelly in 2008 at Windsor Castle. Alfie had earlier sung for everybody, the besotted Queen Elizabeth among them. Kate, who had yet to become the Duchess of Cambridge "got a large piece of lamb and she asked me would I mind swapping her lamb with mine as hers was too big. If someone offers me a bigger piece of lamb", smiles Alfie now, "I won't say no. So I helped her out".

Connection made at Windsor Castle, Alfie was soon gabbing to Prince Philip who introduced him to his illustrious wife thus: "Darling, have you met Alfie, the singer?"

"Wonderful singing!" her royal highness told him.

"Thank you ma'am," Alfie answered. "Could you hear me OK?"

Alfie met his wife Sarah while in pre-production for 'La Boheme' in LA
Alfie met his wife Sarah while in pre-production for 'La Boheme' in LA

"Yes, of course I could hear you," Queen Elizabeth ever-so-slightly snapped. "The acoustics are very good in here!"

"I didn't know what to say, because when you meet the queen, she is a lovely lady, and you are in awe of her. I felt a bit embarrassed about that [question]. We get on very well. She has a got a great sense of humour. She is just a lovely person to talk to."

I ask Alfie what he talks to the Queen about.

"Her dogs. Sport. Music."

Did he ask HRH did she watch The Crown?

"I didn't ask that! I didn't ask what she thought of that!" Alfie laughs of the wearer of the crown for whom he has sung at her personal request more than times he can recall: on June 4, 2012, during the Diamond Jubilee concert, Alfie sang West Side Story's Somewhere on the balcony of Buckingham Palace for Queen Elizabeth and the rest of The Firm.

Alfie performs at last year's National Memorial Day Concert in the US
Alfie performs at last year's National Memorial Day Concert in the US

Indeed Alfie and the Queen's son Prince Charles have become friends. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph in 2013, Alfie said that this kinship with the future king of England was because Prince Charles, like Alfie, was "real. He's very truthful, and he's honest. And I gel with people like that. I don't like bullshit. He'll speak his mind and he'll say what he thinks. And he's not afraid to disagree. If you're engaged in a conversation with him and you say something that he doesn't agree with, he won't humour you, he'll say, 'Well, I actually see that differently, Alfie'. I respect that. That's a great lesson for us all".

It was far from chums with royalty that Alfred Giovanni Roncalli Boe was reared, the youngest of nine children from a working-class Catholic background - he was named after the Italian name of Pope John XXIII - in the north of England. He grew up in an anything but palatial three-bedroom council house in Fleetwood, Lancashire.

"Five sisters and three brothers, a big old Irish Catholic family," he laughs. Alfie talks lovingly of his mother, Pat, whose own mother Annie Mulligan was born in County Meath. "They are about as Irish as you can get. She was a beautiful singer; and on my dad's side, too - his mother's side are Irish as well."

Alfie says that while his childhood was not a privileged one, he nor his brothers and sisters were ever stuck for anything growing up.

"We would go to the Lake District on holidays," he says, adding that fancy holidays were not on the cards when there were so many of them in the family.

"But it was fun. I climbed my first mountain at the age of five years of age. It was a hill called Cat Bells. We never really went abroad until my brother John was in the Royal Air Force and we would go and visit him in Germany and spend a couple of weeks on an air force base which I found quite cool because you could see the planes. I had a lovely childhood."

One of Alfie's earliest childhood memories is sitting in his pram with his mum pushing him back from Fleetwood Market. Alfie's pram was piled up with the groceries for Alfie and his eight siblings' Sunday dinner.

Alfie can remember there being a cabbage directly behind him which meant he had to sit up and watch for the entire journey home. His beloved mother gave him some Lancashire cheese to eat until they reached the front door.

Men like Alfie - with strong regional accents - were not supposed to rise to the top in the staunchly snobbish world of opera and become the British royal family's favourite opera singer. "I often wondered if my face fitted, being from where I'm from," he once said.

"The Royal Opera House Covent Garden, such hallowed ground," he wrote in 2012's Alfie: My Story. "It's a bloody wooden platform. No better than the Marine Hall in Fleetwood."

The bearded genius who appeared in English National Opera productions of The Mikado in 2011 to say nothing of playing warbling crim Jean Valjean in Les Miserables in the West End in 2011 and performing at Glyndebourne, was almost inciting class war when he announced on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs: "I never go to the opera. I can admit this now, I go there and I feel very uncomfy. I just feel like it's not my world," Alfie said, adding that how he used to take a pillow so he could sleep through performances he was told to watch as part of his training at the Royal Opera House. In response, opera director Sir Jonathan Miller was cutting: "I've only worked with him once and he sings rather well but I know he comes from something other than opera. He was a car mechanic, I believe."

The bete noire of the citadel of the snoot that is the British opera establishment started his working life on the production line at the TVR sports car factory in Blackpool, earning £100 a week.

The story - possibly growing a little apocryphal with time - is that one day Alfie was polishing a car and singing at the top of his voice to a tape he had of West Side Story when a passing customer said to him: "You should audition for D'Oyly Carte Opera Company." (Wrote The Observer, touchingly almost: "Chamois leather in hand, his remarkable voice drew the attention of a customer who worked in the recording industry.")

His interest piqued, Alfie bought himself a copy of The Stage and read they were holding open auditions for chorus members, for its next UK tour, the next day in London.

He took the day off work and decided to try his luck. Wearing a lumberjack shirt and jeans at the audition, Alfie felt "I don't fit in here, this is completely wrong".

He spent the next year singing Gilbert & Sullivan on tour before the former mechanic won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London. In his second year Alfie's digs in a flat in Gloucester Road with three other students were not exactly Hello! magazine material ("every single night I would come home and it would be only a matter of time before they would start rolling joints and drinking beer", he told me in an interview in 2013, "and there would be dealers knocking on the door at all hours demanding their money"). One night Alfie actually slept on a bench in Hyde Park rather than return to Gloucester Road.

His life changed dramatically when he landed the role of Rodolfo in Baz Luhrmann's production of La Boheme, for which he won a Tony award in 2002.

Legend has it that the director of the movie Moulin Rouge had heard of this amazing singer called Alfie and came to London with a view to perhaps putting him in La Boheme on Broadway. Alfie was watching Wagner's Parsifal, which has long intervals (hence the controversial naps), so Alfie nipped off in one of the intervals, sang for Baz Luhrmann, then raced back in time for the next act.

A star was born. Intriguingly, so was a marriage.

Alfie met his wife Sarah while in pre-production for La Boheme in San Francisco.

"We met in a rehearsal room while I was working with the orchestra. We just hit it off straight away and got on like a house on fire and have been together ever since," recalls Alfie of Sarah whom he married in 2004.

"I told her I was involved in the show. But I wasn't singing at the time when I met her. So she didn't know what I was doing. She thought I was like stage crew. It wasn't until we walked past the theatre and she saw a poster with my face on it that she realised what I did. Then she came to see the show and she loved it.

"We just hung out every day and have pretty much tried to hang out every day since." The couple have two children together, Grace and Alfred, and live happily in the Cotswolds. "Sarah was an actress; but she has devoted her life to being a mother now and looking after the kids."

Born on September 29, 1973, Alfie was the youngest child in the Boe family. He recalls his late father, his hero, as being possibly the biggest influence on his life. He was always playing the records of Austrian tenor Richard Tauber as well as the likes of Enrico Caruso, John McCormack and the aforesaid Puccini's La Boheme.

"I got hooked on the tenors and then eventually I developed the voice I have now," says Alfie, adding that he had a teacher in Fleetwood called Lottie Dawson who gave him lessons every week "and she was great"; "and then I moved to Laurence News in Preston and he was a good support too". (When Alfie was 23, he won first prize in the John McCormack Golden Voice competition.)

He is now a superstar known all over the world.

He was in Dublin last week to chat about his shows at Dublin's Bord Gais Energy Theatre on April 28 and Waterfront Hall, Belfast on April 29, in which he will be singing songs from his new album As Time Goes By.

How does he look back on the leap he made from working in a factory to singing on famous stages and for famous people all over the world?

"It is pretty crazy, I've got to say, the leap that I've done over the years. I had great friends in the factory and I had a fantastic time. But anybody can do it - it's nothing special but if you have the passion for a dream and it is something you want to achieve, if you put your mind to it, you can do it."

Did his dad think Alfie needed his head tested when he packed in his nine-to-five job to go singing?

"No. He was all for it. My dad worked in a chemical factory. He didn't have the greatest of lives in that factory. He sort of got gassed a couple of times. It eventually affected his health and he got a brain tumour and we lost him 22 years ago now. He was 63 - which is no age in this day and age, really. But I think my father was excited that I had an opportunity to do something different and to make something with my life rather than just a factory job. Not to put factory life down; it was just a different opportunity to see the world and travel around and do something that I really enjoyed doing, which was singing," Alfie says, adding that "My mum is still around. She is 87. She is doing well. She is a feisty little Irish lady".

Not unlike his friend of a certain age - the Queen.

Alfie Boe performs Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin on April 28 and Waterfront Hall, Belfast on April 29. Tickets are available now at Ticketmaster.ie.

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