Alfie Boe on big breaks, nerves and working with everyone from Eddie Vedder to Dame Vera Lynn

As they have for many singers and performers, the past 14 months have been a strange, discombobulating experience for Alfie Boe.

Alfie Boe is looking forward to singing at the Picnic Proms at Harewood House in September. (Picture: Shirlaine Forrest).

“It’s been a long road to getting back to performing in front of an audience. I think the last time I did was in March last year when I played in Newcastle and then we went into lockdown the following day,” he says.

In the intervening months he’s been performing online via YouTube, enjoyed a number one album with his old pal Michael Ball (their third chart-topping record) and been busy writing new songs.

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But nothing can beat the frisson of excitement you get from singing in front of a crowd, he says. “When you put something out on YouTube you can’t see people’s reactions, but with a live audience you get to see people’s emotions and reactions and you work on that.”

Boe enterains the crowds in Manchester back in 2018. (Getty).

We’re chatting via Zoom (he’s in the US where Boe has been taking a break) and he’s itching to get back on stage. “I miss the crowd and being able to stand there and see people’s faces – we haven’t been able to do that for a year,” he says.

“It has been so long since we’ve performed in front of a crowd, so getting back in front of people will be a mixture of nerves and excitement.”

It will no doubt be emotional, too. “We have been starved of live entertainment for more than a year and so to be part of an audience will in itself be emotional for people and it will be for me, too.”

One of Boe’s first big performances will be here in Yorkshire when he, along with Aled Jones, Sir Willard White, The Three Tenors and Queen Symphonic, will headline three open-air concerts for the Picnic Proms at Harewood House in early September.

He plans to belt out some old favourites as well as a few numbers from the Ball and Boe repertoire. “I’ve performed in Yorkshire many times and I love going back, we always have a good time. There are quite a few characters who come to my shows that I recognise and we always have fun.”

Boe began performing professionally in 1999, though his journey to musical fame hasn’t been a conventional one.

He grew up in Fleetwood, in Lancashire, a short journey from Blackpool, where he tried out his voice in singing competitions. “I come from a big family and the music I listened to was very diverse, from opera to country and rock ’n’ roll to blues and folk.”

He dreamed of becoming a singer as a teenager but his reality was working as a panel beater in a car factory. “I wasn’t any good at it. I was terrible,” he says.

Boe’s vocal talents were obvious to all those who heard him sing and he eventually took the plunge. “I loved music and it was the chance to become a singer that made me pack it in as an apprentice.”

Encouraged by friends and family, he joined an opera company before studying at the Royal College of Music. “I wanted to be a rock singer because it was the music I listened to growing up. But someone told me that if you want to take the human voice as far as it can go, then train to be an opera singer. And that was good advice because it set me up with the technique to sing.”

Having this string to his bow (pardon the pun) later allowed him to live out his rock star fantasy. “When Pete Townshend of The Who asked me to sing the role of Jimmy in Classic Quadrophenia, I was able to do it because I had the classical training.

“Standing on stage with Pete Townshend, Billy Idol and Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam, it doesn’t get any better than that. I tried to fill the boots of a rock star and hold my own but when you’re standing next to Billy and Eddie you look like a complete nerd.”

It’s one moment in a career full of high notes. Boe says he’s been “fortunate” to have had a succession of opportunities. In truth, it belies a lot of hard work.

His first big break came when he was talent spotted by Baz Luhrmann to play the lead in his glittering production of La Bohème in 2002, which took him to the bright lights of Broadway. “That was a big deal because from that I got a record deal and made my first album.”

His recording career took off and another pivotal moment came when he was chosen to play Jean Valjean in the 25th anniversary of Les Misérables, leading the cast for a year.

Even so, to begin with he doubted whether he could pull it off. “I remember listening to it and thinking, ‘no, I can’t sing this, because everyone is so good who has sung it before’.

But I remember Colm Wilkinson, the original Valjean, coming up to me and saying ‘you have to make this show your own, don’t do what anyone else has done. Do your own thing with it.’ And that was a great piece of advice. I put my own stamp on it and it seemed to resonate with the public.”

Despite his obvious talent and his wealth of experience, it’s strange to hear him admit that he still has to contend with nerves.

“As a performer, I sometimes doubt what I can do, but I always throw myself into it because I want to do the music justice and please the crowd. I do get nervous and think ‘am I good enough?’ and ‘when is my career going to end?’ But that comes from being an insecure performer. I’m still working at it. I don’t sit on my laurels thinking I’ve made it.”

He does, though, have an enviable body of work behind him and has performed alongside the likes of Lesley Garrett, Katherine Jenkins and Michael Ball, with whom he’s on tour again later this year. “The reason why it works primarily is because our voices blend so well together and we both have different strengths, plus we also have a lot of mutual respect.

“Sometimes you hear of partnerships in the industry where they come across as one thing on stage but then backstage they hate each other. But that’s not the case with us. You can’t hate Michael Ball, he’s just a lovely guy.”

Another singer he feels privileged to have worked with is Dame Vera Lynn “I get given a lot of memorabilia from recordings and concerts that I’ve done. I might get a tour poster or a gold disc from an album and I don’t put any of them up on the wall. The last thing I want to do when I wake up and I’m having my coffee is look at a picture of myself.

“The only disc that I have on my wall is of the album I did with Dame Vera Lynn. It was such an honour that I got to sing that particular song, We’ll Meet Again, as a duet with her and I’ll never forget her. So that’s the only disc on my wall and I’m really proud of that.”

Picnic Proms summer concert series, Harewood House, September 3 to 5. Ticket prices start at £35.