Alfie Boe Discusses ENO's Pearl FishersDate: 27 May 2010
Alfie Boe is a Tony Award-winning, chart-topping English tenor, currently starring in English National Opera’s new production of Bizet’s early masterpiece The Pearl Fishers.
I meet tenor Alfie Boe in his dressing room directly after a dress rehearsal of ENO’s new production of The Pearl Fishers. He’s still having his make-up removed as I arrive but once the cuts and bruises are whisked away we settle down for a comfortable conversation about the show.
He’s relaxed and chatty, despite still wearing his tattered costume, eastern sarong meets t-shirt with holes, the results of a violent denouement rather than a fashion statement. I begin by congratulating him on his recent performance in Katya Kabanova, in which his yearning and naturally easy Kudriash saw the tenor at something like his best.
“I really enjoyed doing it,” he tells me, “it was the first time I’ve worked with David (Alden) and he’s a wonderful director. If you trust in his vision and you open yourself to the ideas, you can achieve so much and really develop as an artist. When you go into the rehearsal process you don’t know what to expect and, although you have your own ideas, you can’t always rely on your own judgment. David’s very respectful to the music. I’d love to work with him again.”
“Not too traditional a production”
He’s full of praise too for the director of the Bizet, Penny Woolcock who impressed last year with her production of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic. “Penny’s fantastic. Her ideas are wonderful. It’s not too traditional a production, pink drapes and all that, but very real and gritty,” he says, “the sets are tremendous, set in a shanty town on stilts with garbage lying around. But it’s still got some mystique. I can’t wait to get onstage and get into costume, get the lights and effects and have the orchestra. That’s when a show really starts to gel for me.”
I ask him about the challenges of the high-lying lines of his part, particularly in “Je Crois Entendre Encore,” the tenor’s demanding solo aria. “It can be tricky,” he admits, “but once you’ve got it sung in, it sits really well. A lot people think it has to be sung so pianissimo, so delicate and fragile. That’s there, but there’s also a lot of passion in it.”
“It should be heard more often”
I ask if it presents problems getting the balance of power and delicacy in a house as big as the Coliseum. “Actually not,” he says, “people have the perception of the Coli being a huge barn but it lends itself to this stuff. There are great positions on stage which really help and benefit the sound. It’s a bit of a myth that you have to belt it out here. Of course, it helps to have a sympathetic conductor in the pit. In Katya we had Mark Wigglesworth and here we’ve got Rory MacDonald and they really create a big sound but are great on balance. Directors like Penny and David give tremendous support in this area too.”
It’s inevitable that we should compare the opera with Carmen, never far from the opera stage, while The Pearl Fishers, very much in its shadow, is seldom performed. I ask Alfie why he thinks that is. “Don’t ask me,” he says with a dash of Northern bluntness, “ask the people who run the opera companies. There’s wonderful music in this. The big act two duet I have with Leila is probably as close to Carmen as it gets. The music’s beautiful, so it should be heard more often,” he enthuses.
“One of the nicest leading ladies I’ve worked with”
I ask him about his co-stars. “That was Leila,” he says of an attractive young American who pokes her head into the room at that point, before withdrawing discreetly. “She’s great. We worked together in Jonathan Miller’s La bohème here last year (Hanan Alattar, the soprano in question, played Musetta). She’s lovely to be with on stage. One of the nicest leading ladies I’ve worked with.”
I get the feeling that he’s not going to say anything nasty about anyone but his enthusiasm seems genuine and he’s full of the likeable charm that comes across onstage. “Quinn Kelsey who plays Zurga is a wonderful fellow. He’s from Hawaii originally,” he adds, “it’s a small principal cast and we’re very tight-knit.”
Boe has sung the famous tenor/baritone duet from The Pearl Fishers in London in recent years, with an unlikely partner: stage star Michael Ball, in the ground-breaking Proms concert at the Albert Hall three years ago. It was maybe the strangest part of a slightly bizarre evening. “I loved that,” he says, “it was great doing it at that venue and with Michael, who’s a good friend.”
“Ego and petty squabbles”
Thankfully he brings up the subject of the disastrous ENO Kismet earlier that year, an experience he also shared with Ball, which saves me having to. “We went through hell together on that,” he confesses, “so it was nice to do the Prom soon after.” I ask him when they became aware that things were going awry with Kismet. “Day one,” he laughs, “we tried to make the best of it but there was nothing anyone could do. There was a lot of childishness and frustration and it got completely out of hand. It was all ego and petty squabbles. Best forgotten, though the show itself has loads of potential. I’d like to do it properly. It was a great shame. The best thing about it was getting the chance to work with (the late) Richard Hickox.”
I ask him what other roles he aspires to. “I’d love to do Nemorino (The Elixir of Love) and I don’t know why it hasn’t happened.” With a successful new production only recently staged by Jonathan Miller at the Coliseum, I suggest that it may happen yet. “Hopefully,” he says, “I’d also love to play Faust, Don Jose, maybe eventually Cavaradossi but you can never tell which direction your voice is going to take you.”
“I’d love to do some musicals as well”
Favourite past roles inevitably include Rodolfo (which he sang again last year for ENO and will return to in the autumn), Albert Herring (“a great role to play”) and Kudriash. He has a long list of tenors who have inspired him: Björling, Tauber, Gigli, Gedda and Carreras. “I listen to Carerras a lot and he’s very inspirational,” he tells me. “There’s so much passion in his voice. He’s a great artist. Then of course Pavarotti and Domingo.”
After The Pearl Fishers, he’ll be taking a break and going home before returning to the Royal Opera House in October to play Tybalt in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. Then it’ll be back to the Coliseum for La bohème and The Mikado. “I’d love to do some musicals as well,” he says, “West Side Story, Les Mis, Sondheim, stuff like that. And of course I’d like to do Kismet again, but in a very different production!”
Alfie Boe will open on 1 June in Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, which will play for 11 performances until 8 July. Full details at www.eno.org
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