Wednesday, 27 March 2013

For goodness sake, shut up Alfie!

About a year ago I was contacted by a newspaper to ask my opinion on an Alfie Boe interview in which the tenor had bemoaned the snobbery of the opera world and told how it had driven him from the industry. I suspect I was asked because the journalist knew that I am an example of someone who couldn't be further from Boe's caricature. My response was a sigh and a childishly fruity alliteration. I had to do a double take when I read an interview this week in The Telegraph, which said pretty much the same thing again. This time a "class system" had emerged in the world of opera (but Prince Charles is a mate) and Alfie was on tour, not selling a record; rock and roll and some nice neapolitan songs await the knicker-chucking hordes, apparently.

As you might expect, Twitter and Facebook lit up with the anger and indignation of opera professionals exasperated at the dual jeopardy of Boe's boring mantra and the media's lazy accommodation of it. What irks them is easy to fathom; Boe was given a fantastic opportunity to develop a career, he had talent, but now he is fully signed up to the stereotype that maintains the almost ludicrous assertion that opera is a world of Oxbridge snobs who only care about a singer's social provenance. And worse, he does it to sell records or tickets.

To be fair to Boe, there is every likelihood that he is asked these questions unbid and merely answers with a nudge and a wink to his PR, knowing it will get attention. I don't suppose he really gives a fig about the opera business and merely continues to be soaked by whatever self justification he bathed himself in when he got the hell outta opera-dodge.

I don't know Alfie personally but I know plenty who do and not everybody has good things to say about him. But given these people and their backgrounds, I also know that Alfie is aware of how very few people in the business emerge from privileged backgrounds. However, and my moderation continues to favour Alfie, his ire seems to be directed at those in management or the general establishment of the art form. So is he right?

No. Of course he isn't right. In fact, he couldn't be more wrong. If he said the business is liberally dotted with tossers, he would be right. If he said there are some people who acquire careers without the attendant talent (hugely more prevalent in the realm of directing and conducting, I would venture) he would be right. If he said that opera singers, even the most lavishly talented, can be narcissistic pains in the arse, he would be right because he himself has such tendencies. If he made a hundred observations of one sort or another he would probably hit the mark in half of them. But the one thing he is utterly wrong about is a "class system" among singers (beyond 'rubbish', 'good' 'excellent' that is). And whilst audiences for opera can sometimes fit the caricature, even these people concern themselves only with the sound that emits from a singer's mouth; a sound that even in the most shaky Italian masks a northern brogue. They couldn't care less where Alfie grew up and how many oil filters he changed.

One of the most delightful aspects of my job is the relationship it gives me with individuals who would, in all honesty, choose to cross the street from me in other circumstances. That annoys some people but I find it triumphantly satisfying and it shows that the shared passion for the art form transcends social hierarchy in a way that we like to broadcast through our development work. Of course society has a social order and class system but in opera, where talent and the glory of music is paramount, nobody gives a shit. This is even true of houses and festivals where wealth and status are most lavishly displayed in the auditorium.

As far as I can tell, Alfie probably found the discipline and effort required for the operatic repertoire too irksome. He can't be arsed with it, which is not to say he doesn't work hard at what he does now, but he probably feels more at home with the screaming, unbridled adoration of young women and housewives (who wouldn't?!) He needs to shut up because he is protesting too much.

Alfie clearly has no affection for opera and perhaps he had doubts about his potential for the kind of success he craved. He is in a unique position to encourage audiences to explore it because he had a decent shot at it when ENO and the ROH were giving him opportunities. But if he doesn't feel compelled to speak on its behalf, to offer insights that may help the wider public to try it, then he should just say nothing. And he should certainly not abuse and denigrate those who, like him, have ordinary backgrounds. It is crass, rude, and intensely self-regarding. And worse, it shows him up to be the thing that he claims people dislike so much. Ironic, huh?


Anna Gregory said...

An excellent assessment of the situation Mr Volpe. Boorish behaviour is surely out of fashion these days. I am an opera professional from a very comfortable background who has struggled to maintain a career against the wishes of my family who wanted a less impoverished and difficult road for my future. No middle class parent in their right mind would choose music as a career for their little darling and peversely the professionals I know who are best supported by their friends and families are those who are perceived as coming from less affluent or intellectual backgrounds. Understanding the raw emotions that opera personifies and considering that as employment and to be a good life choice may come easier from a less formal upbringing. I know my family find witnessing their own in public displays of emotion excruciating while being happy to attend Lear at the National Theatre. My sainted singing coach related a story about her mother when faced with her excellent Violetta asked when she might sing another 'nice' Messiah.

Mr Boe could not be more wrong. He probably knows that. I hope he might consider the responsibility he has towards the rest of us, working in 'his' industry at a time of financial crises. We (and I include you in that, Mr Boe) really don't need bad press and spurious accusations of elitism right now.

Anonymous said...

You are absolutely right.

I went to college with Alf - and can I just point out that he wasn't shy in accepting scholarships from there, and his ROH weekly wage, free coaching, singing lessons etc from the 'snobs' at the 'wooden platform' when he joined their young artists programme.

I don't care what he says about it all, but I think if he is going to continually insult those 'snobs' etc who funded his education to get the where he is, perhaps he should pay the money back?

Just sayin'.

Kirstin Sharpin said...

39 ndLatWell said, both to you, Mike and to Anna, above, whose observations are acutely accurate.

Mr Boe's depiction of the opera community is either willfully ill-informed (I'm trying to be charitable - I suppose one could forget the details of one's colleagues after a few years away...)or deliberately panders to a misleading stereotype, presumably for the sake of publicity.

To address charges frequently levelled at his critics, no opera singer I know resents, or is envious of, those who leave this profession for other endeavours - any departure reduces the competition, to start with! What is resented, deeply, is when the art form we are passionate about, and for which the vast majority have sacrificed a great deal, is repeatedly denigrated and held up to ridicule or scorn, not by the ignorant, who can be educated, but by someone who knows well, and has benefitted from, one of the most inclusive, least class-ridden industries I know of.

If nothing else, a little grace - and maybe even gratitude - towards the art form and the community that supported the beginnings of Mr Boe's career, and gave him the basis from which he has launched his more recent endeavours, would not seem too much to expect.

Anne Mason said...

Saw him on sky arts recently in Boheme.I found his singing to be pushed,lacking in support,nobody should shake like that when they sing.,Maybe all this grumbling about Opera to divert attention away from his vocal shortcomings.

Rowena Brown said...

"Twitter and Facebook lit up" did they - WOW, there's a shocker....if a day goes by without it I think we'd all think we'd died & gone to heaven - & thank goodness for it! Oh, they were " opera professionals " were my, they're not exactly overstretched if they've got time to get worked up about anything on social media.
You say you "don't know Alfie personally" but "know plenty who do and not everybody has good things to say about him". Hearsay evidence....if you did know the man himself you would soon find he does NOT have tendencies to be a "narcissistic pain in the arse". Whilst you're talking about and using caricatures; I quote:
"knicker-chucking hordes"
"screaming, unbridled adoration of young women and housewives"
Contrary to what you say Mr Boe clearly does have great affection for opera; why else would he get so passionate about it when he doesn't need it at the moment to fill very large concert halls and arenas? He cares about it deeply; how it is done & how young singers are treated. Read what he actually says before you react to what you thought he said. None of it is said "to sell records or tickets" either - he doesn't need it. Who's been believing everything they read or hear now, one wonders?

Michael Volpe said...

I don't think you have read my piece properly.
Go back, try again.

last2leave said...

Thought your post well considered and very reasonable.
I will premise the rest of my comment with the rider that I have absolutely no idea what the world of opera is like and do not know Mr Boe personally.
I am however a fan of his voice, it was through him I tested the waters of music from a more classical genre and enjoyed it. So I have discovered opera through him.
I think his original comments on Desert Island disc will unfortunately forever follow him. Controversy sells. He explained some of his opinions in his autobiography, with regard to experiences he'd had and skipping operas and such. This to me sounded a lot like what I did in my student days with the odd lecture etc. rather than deliberately snubbing the medium.

I do think that there is a certain degree of spin going on here from the press and maybe PR. The majority of the info from the telegraph interview looked like a rehash from the autobiography published in august 2011. I wonder how long it actually was. Equally some of the ways the article was written referencing the royal family and the bit about the C above A etc. were not attributed comments to Mr Boe and I would guess the journalist wrote them in such a way as to cause the max amount of sensationalism as otherwise it does make him sound arrogant. This impression is at odds from the times I have met him as he does not come across as so.

However - if I were in the opera world at present I would feel justifiably pissed off with the impression that is given that someone is dissing the job and the industry I love so I totally agree with the fact that you have every right to try and redress the balance.

I, like most, enjoy lots of different styles of music - I now like opera, he has not put me off. I also enjoy his voice and the energy and power he's putting to use in his current repertoire.

I would say the journalist at the telegraph has done his job well!! He has got everyone stirred up and taken the opportunity to reinforce easy stereotypes. I would remind everyone to take what is written in the press with a large pinch of salt!! (I work in the NHS, so depending on what day it is, we're either angels or lazy incompetents trying to kill peoples' relatives and not telling them!)

May we all enjoy the way music can universally touch our souls, whatever the genre!

Christine Rice said...

Just picture a sing off on any 'wooden platform' be it in Fleetwood or London between Alfie Boe and Jonas Kaufmann. Need I say more?

Anonymous said...

Rowena- he doesn't need it to sell albums or tickets. He needs it to sell 'books' and he admitted it. Perhaps you should take your own advice and read before you write....

Ricolas said...

There is a great deal in what you say.

Having met Boe a few years back, I would say that he is a very nice bloke, and actually does care about opera and his singing. However, it is quite clear from the Telegraph article that there are a few things going on with Alfie. Reading between the lines, it is obvious he has an anger problem, and a bloody great big chip on his shoulder. Snobbishness about his northern accent? Really? Has he met Thomas Allen?

His career has not panned out as he wanted it to and is taking out his anger and frustration on targets that probably don't merit it.

On the Oxbridge point, it is fair to say that I was the only person in my year at one of the Royal conservatoires who had been to a comprehensive. This is a product of the state system not teaching much music anymore, rather than anything more sinister. If there were good singers coming out of the state schools, they would have been there and funding would have been found. I was also lucky to have been picked up by some opera company outreach programmes when I was a kid; which is why now when I am asked to do that sort of thing by opera companies, I jump at the chance.

A word to the wise. If my career has not turned out as well as I would have liked, there is one place to place the blame - with me. Not with a class system, not with snobbery, not with elitism. And perhaps it is because I can admit that, I don't end up punching walls.

Michael Volpe said...

An intersting and thoughtful post Ricolas. The music education in this country....well that's another great big thing altogether!

Rowena Brown said...

I don't think you have read my piece properly.
Go back, try again.
OOOh, sarky! Unfortunately I read your piece very carefully - several times - as you'll see from mine in which I quote you in several places.
The bottom line is that you're missing the point. Clearly you have a massive grievance. You complain about Alfie Boe venting in public; all I would ask is you get your facts straight if you're going to continue to do the same or, to rework a phrase,
"For goodness sake, shut up Michael!"

Michael Volpe said...

Does my 'grievance' appear greater than Alfie's?

The issue involves entire industry, not just someone being unkind about a singer you like. The matter is wider than that and I am not sure you have appreciated it fully.

And I haven't been terribky unkind to the man. Not by my standards anyway.

Jane de Florez said...

I am afraid I don't find Alfie Boe's voice that interesting. As Anne Mason says above, he sings without adequate support and with a rather tight jaw. His sound is rather wobbly and colourless.

I am just surprised that with the amount of training he has had, that no-one has pointed these basic technical elements out to him.

As I don't think he is a good enough singer to compete on the international opera stage, I think his move to "crossover" is probably the best thing he could do.