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?