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Opera singer Boe bites the (tiny) hand that feeds him

The star of La Bohème picks rock classics over classic arias, to the dismay of others in the musical world

English tenor Alfie Boe has caused horror amongst aficionados after admitting that he never goes to the opera and watching it leaves him "bored stiff".

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, which is broadcast today, the singer says: "I never go to the opera. I can admit this now. Seeing as I'm on a desert island I can actually say that I never go to the opera. I go there and I feel very uncomfy. I just feel like it's not my world."

The singer, who has appeared with English National Opera, also describes how he used to take a pillow so he could sleep through performances he was told to watch as part of his training at the Royal Opera House.

In a further explanation of why he performs but never watches the genre, he says: "When I'm up there doing it that's my world, that's what I really enjoy, but sitting in the audience and watching it I'm bored stiff; I have to say I really am. I can sit at home and listen to it on record and really appreciate the classic singers, but when I go there it's just not my world."

Award-winning opera director Sir Jonathan Miller said he was surprised that the singer had been so critical. "It's very peculiar. If Alfie Boe thinks opera is boring then it's very odd that he's in it at all. I've only worked with him once and he sings rather well but I know he comes from something other than opera. He was a car mechanic, I believe."

Boe, 37, was the lead in Baz Luhrmann's Broadway production of La Bohème and has had scores of hit classical records. Yet he does not choose a single operatic aria for the Radio 4 programme. He opts instead for rock and pop classics, such as Led Zeppelin's "Rain Song" and Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb".

Describing the naps he used to take in performances, Boe tells Desert Island Discs' presenter Kirsty Young: "I was supposed to be watching Parsifal, a five-hour opera at the Royal Opera House. It was part of the programme I was on there to sit through these operas and I used to sleep through most of them. I used to find an empty box, bring a pillow in from home and fall asleep. It's so bad –I can't believe I've just admitted that."

Claire Wild, a mezzo-soprano who has recently starred in Opera North's production of Carmen, said: "Opera is one of the greatest of all art forms. To reject opera is like rejecting the whole of historical literature in favour of Hello! magazine."

A spokesman for the Royal Opera House was indignant about the assessment. He said: "Our productions entertain thousands of people every year, in the auditorium, in cinemas and on DVDs."

Adam Spreadbury-Maher, director of OperaUpClose, questioned Boe's assessment of the art: "It's not fair to call opera boring, and if you are, you're probably looking in the wrong places. Something extremely exciting is happening at the moment; opera is getting sexy and cool."

Tenor Anthony Flaum, who is currently singing in the chorus at Glyndebourne, said: "The themes that run through opera written 100 years ago are still relevant to today's society: themes like love, war, hatred and tragedy."

Michael Volpe, general manager at Opera Holland Park, said he thought Boe's criticism was tactical. "It seems to me that Alfie, who has made a career from opera, is worried that he might risk his crossover sales by being associated with it. Sounds like complete and utter drivel to me, but I wish him well at the next Classical Brits. These people who caricature opera really are tedious. We should rename him Alfie Boellocks."

In his Desert Island Discs interview, which is broadcast at 11.15 today, Boe also describes his upbringing in Fleetwood, Lancashire, as the youngest of nine children. He speaks particularly about his father, who encouraged him into music by buying him a drum kit.

The singer will be performing in a new production of Les Misérables alongside Matt Lucas that begins later this month. Boe will play Jean Valjean and Lucas will play Thénardier from Thursday 23 June at the Queen's Theatre, London.