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Opera Star Alfie Boe on Crossing Over to Play Jean Valjean in London's Les Miserables

Opera Star Alfie Boe on Crossing Over to Play Jean Valjean in London's Les Miserables
Alfie Boe in 'Les Miserables'
'My aim in my career is to try and prove to people that there are no divisions between music.'

Alfie Boe earned a place in musical theater history when the opera star played Jean Valjean last fall at London’s O2 arena in two gala performances commemorating the 25th anniversary of Les Miserables. Now he’s taken on the same role six times a week in the now-and-forever West End run of Les Miz at the Queen’s Theatre. New York and Los Angeles audiences caught Boe when he was one of three rotating Rodolfos in the Baz Luhrmann-directed La Boheme, sharing a special Tony Award with the rest of the cast in 2003. Now 38 and married, with a three-year-old daughter, the charming star chatted with prior to an evening show about his time on Broadway, juggling musical theater and opera and being part of the phenomenon that is Les Miz.

You led the cast of Les Miserables at the special O2 performances [preserved on DVD]. What made you want to return for a regular run on the West End?
It’s just a case of me loving the show and loving performing it. I did two weeks [at the Queen's] prior to the concert, so when I was offered the chance to come back and play the role again, my record company [Decca] was thrilled and thought it would do us the world of good for record sales and all sorts of things. [Boe starts what is being billed as a “Bring Him Home” nationwide UK tour on December 6.]

You weren’t worried that a regular run might be anti-climactic?
I wanted to do it legitimately, to be able to say that I had played Jean Valjean for six months in the West End. It’s a difficult sing, but it’s also stamina-building, and doing a run like this really teaches you how to manage your voice.

It must feel different performing with a microphone, which is never used in opera.
It feels like a luxury in that the microphone gives you the opportunity of developing other flavors of the voice—other sounds—that you wouldn’t experience if you were singing acoustically; it’s amazing how much the voice can take.

Tony winner Paulo Szot [opening shortly in London in South Pacific] has also has gone from opera to the stage musical and back. Do you enjoy crossing between disciplines?
My aim in my career is to try and prove to people that there are no divisions between music. I’ve said many times that there are two types of music, good and bad, and that there is no division between rock and pop and blues and jazz and classical and musical theater. I think we should be entitled to challenge ourselves with our musical artistry, just so long as we approach these genres in a respectful way.

But the training is very different: Rock singers come at it vocally from an entire different place from opera singers, for instance.
That is very, very true, and I guess what I’m saying is that if you are trained and have developed a good technique and have stamina and a love for music, then I don’t think there’s any singing challenge that is past your means; you can go down any path you want. I don’t know what’s going to happen down the line for me in 10 or 15 years’ time. I just hope I’m still pleasing an audience.

I gather your connection to Les Miz goes back quite a way.
Yes. As a teenager, I joined an amateur operatic society in my hometown of Fleetwood in Lancashire [in the north of England] and the first thing I sang was “Do You Hear the People Sing?” We were taught it for the show, and then I ended up getting a “Highlights” cassette from Les Miz because back then were no CDs of the show. I didn’t really sing any of the music from the show from when I was 20 until about 28 or 29, but whenever I did, it was music that I wanted to soak up. So when Cameron [Mackintosh] put the question to me about whether it was something I’d like to do, I was thrilled to be asked.

How does it feel to do more performances of Valjean in two weeks than an opera singer would do of any individual role in a season?
The repetition is very strange. But the thing about this show is that every single night feels like doing it for the first time. I know that sounds cliché, but it really is. What’s funny is that I went to my physio and he said he had been treating an opera singer who was complaining that the company he had been working for had him singing eight shows of a certain role across two months. I thought, “Oh my goodness, if only he knew…”

…what life in the musical theater is like?
Exactly! [Laughs.]

The fixed routine means you get to spend more time at home with your wife and daughter, which must be nice.
It’s lovely to have that stability in my family life, especially since in the opera world you can spend a year away from your family traveling from country to country. Once the children are in school, that can be a tricky thing. That said, stability isn’t the main reason for doing this job, but I’m fortunate that it was part of the deal. Once the job is finished, I do hit the road again with my tour; that’s just inevitable in this career.

What about the Les Miz film, which is finally beginning to rev up?
I had a wonderful meeting myself with [Oscar-winning director] Tom Hooper, and I have to tell you, he’s going to do a brilliant job. We worked on a bit of music at a studio in town just as an opportunity for me to meet him. Jean Valjean looks as if it is going to be done by Hugh Jackman, who will do a great job, and there’s nothing else in the movie that I could play. Enjolras and Marius are the only other male roles, and I think I’m a little old to play those characters now!

What about more Broadway? I notice that when you were part of the La Boheme ensemble, you were billed as Alfred—not Alfie—Boe.
I know, but Alfred’s quite a formal name, and it was my decision to go with Alfie, which seemed pretty cool to put on an album cover. It’s more accessible, I think. I was disappointed Boheme didn’t run longer, but my time on Broadway was very special. I love New York—I love America—and I want to be back as soon as I can. [Boe’s wife, Sarah, is from Anchorage, Alaska, and grew up in Salt Lake City.] When Boheme finished, I stuck around New York for a while but then came back to England to do Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at English National Opera and began a relationship with them for a number of years.

I saw you there four years ago in an ill-fated Kismet, with Michael Ball and Faith Prince.
Oh, that was awful—terrible—and we’ve all put it out of our minds. It was unfortunate, but it probably wasn’t the right platform or the right house.

Any more opera on tap?
I’m taking a bit of a farewell from ENO at the moment and am concentrating on Les Miz and my records and my own shows. Luckily, those are going very well, and when I finish with Les Miz in town, I’m looking forward to getting out to the public and singing.

How many times had you actually seen Les Miserables before you ended up in it?
You want the truth? Twice! [Laughs.] The first time was in the audience, and the second was backstage shadowing Valjean [Jonathan Williams] so I’d get the movements first-hand. I feel a bit guilty for not saying that I’ve seen it 27 or 37 times!

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