When Alfie Boe first came to London to study at the Royal College of Music, he spent a couple of nights sleeping on a park bench because he had nowhere to stay. The singer – then an apprentice mechanic from Blackpool who entertained his workmates by singing arias on the factory floor – had been overheard by a customer who worked in the music industry. Boe made the journey to the capital before taking up a place at one of the country's most prestigious institutions.
Yesterday that commitment to classical music was shown to have paid off when Boe, now a hugely successful recording artist who still appears on the operatic stage, became the only musician to have scooped two nominations for the 2008 Classical Brit Awards. In the category of male artist of the year, the British-born tenor Boe, 33, is pitted against the Mexican lyric tenor Rolando Villazon and the 2002 winner of the same award, Sir Colin Davis. For the second year running, Boe is also nominated for album of the year, an award decided by Classic FM listeners.
It is all a far cry from Boe's first job at the TVR sports car factory near his family home in Fleetwood, where the sound of his powerful voice once appealed to a chance passer-by who suggested he should apply to join the D'Oyly Carte touring company. Heeding the advice, he beat more than 1,000 hopefuls to win a place and ended up touring with them, feeding a childhood passion for classical music that had been nurtured by Sunday evenings spent round the dining table with his father listening to his favourite singers, including the tenor Richard Tauber.
The youngest of nine children, Boe spent most of his early adolescence more interested in playing football than performing but, in later years, realised the importance of his early exposure to classical music from his parents and his sister, who, when he reached the age of 14, encouraged him to join an amateur operatic society.
The first time he went, he turned around and went home as soon as he reached the front door. When he went back for a second week, his love affair with opera began.
Recalling the nights he slept rough as a 20-year-old student hoping for a place at the Royal College of Music, Boe said: "I found myself short of accommodation for a couple of nights. It was the middle of summer and we'd had parties. I can also say I'd had a couple of pints as well."
On a more serious note, he added: "I didn't want to back out of London or becoming a singer. I wanted to pursue my goal and achieve what I wanted to achieve and if that meant sleeping on a park bench every night that was fine with me. I didn't want to fail or go back to my family."
After the RCM, Boe trained at the National Opera Studio and on the Royal Opera House young artists' programme. He believes his first real big break came about when he was chosen to sing the part of Rodolfo in Puccini's La Boheme in David McVicar's production at Glyndebourne.
He reprised the role on Broadway in Baz Luhrmann's controversial production, which led to him winning a Tony award. After performing in the US in the role, he went on to play Alfredo in La Traviata, Tamino in The Magic Flute, Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Ferrando in Cosi Fan Tutti. In early 2006, Boe signed to Classic FM Presents – an offshoot of the radio station – to record his debut album, winning him a strong fan base among listeners. The following year, he moved to EMI, recording a second album, Onwards, which went straight to No1 in the UK classical chart.
Last year, he followed that up with La Passione, an album of traditional, mainly Italian folk songs, including "O Sole Mio", "Funiculi Finicula", "Santa Lucia" and "Caruso".
Unlike many artists once they begin a successful recording career, Boe continues to perform on stage, with forthcoming appearances as Camille de Rosillon in The Merry Widow at the ENO and as the Young Servant in Elektra at the Royal Opera House – the first time he has returned since being on the young artist programme.
Boe insists that he would never do "cross-over music" combining classical and pop songs. His ambition is to bring classical music to new audiences.
"Classical music and opera can appear quite elitist," Boe says. "I think the fear comes from the public rather than the opera companies. It's fear of something new.
"But you don't have to understand everything about opera to appreciate the art form. That's something that's very important for me to put across to the younger generation," he added.Reuse content