Pat and Alfie share a joke as he sings and plays for her. Laughter and song were the norm in the Boe family household
Alfie Boe, 36, the youngest of nine, who went from garage engineer to tenor at the English National Opera, and his mother, Pat, 77
Pat: There are worse things than having a lot of babies. Not having them, for a start. As each of my nine came they were welcomed and I thought they were magical. With every one we became a happier family. Alf is the youngest and he was very, very precious — they all are, but I knew he’d be my last because I was on the menopause when I had him. I just desperately wanted another boy, and I prayed for him. When I got pregnant I knew this was the lad I’d wanted and I knew I was going to call him Alf, after his dad, because I loved him that much.
When I was in the hospital, the doctor said: “You shouldn’t be having all these babies.” And I said: “On your bike!” When I was much younger they told me I shouldn’t have any children at all, because I’d had TB — but we trusted in the good Lord and we couldn’t have done better.
We went from a two-bedroom council house when I had Joseph, John and Anne, to a three-bedroom, where I had Terese, Pauline, Michael and Francis. Then we moved to a four-bed before Maria and Alfred came along. I’m still in that house now. The children are gone, but the love is still there. I feel it when I open the door.
I wasn’t over-strict — we spent more time laughing and singing than anything else — but I was organised and there were rules. If their dad came home from work and someone was sat in his chair, they’d jump up. Dad was master of the house and everyone respected that. He was very good to me. I had a washing machine — one of the very best, a Hotpoint top loader — and
I never had to economise on bread and milk. At teatime there was room for everybody — and extras — because as well as all mine we always had their friends. Oh, there were arguments. I can’t remember what they were about, but I didn’t ignore them. After a meal, the baby would be put down and we sorted out whatever problems there were round that table.
When your life is filled with noise and activity and excitement, as mine was, you never imagine the day will come when you’ll be alone. You think it’s going to last a lifetime. But it doesn’t. Even with nine of them, it’s fleeting and it’s gone.
He’s a lovely boy, is Alf. Whether it’s because he’s had so much love showered on him or whether it’s because he was born like that, I don’t know. But he knew he was loved and he’s always had so much to give back because of it.
I knew Alf had something special. I knew long before anyone else, but I didn’t know what would happen. Sometimes it takes time and you have to sit back and advise and love and care, and this is what I did. And this is what his dad did. Alfie hadn’t just talent, he had the willingness to work and keep at it, and that’s what singled him out. Because opera’s different to your run-of-the-mill music. It takes a heavy toll. You have to train, you have to keep fit.
He suffers terrible nerves before a performance, but it’s because he demands the best from himself that he never gives half measures. He puts every ounce of energy he has into everything he does.
He was forever singing and dancing on the back patio when he was a little boy, and I’d get the cine camera out and film him. At three years old he’d carry his sister’s tennis racket around. I’d say: “Sing Mull of Kintyre for me, Alf, while I’m cooking the dinner.” And he’d say, very solemnly: “I’m tuning my guitar.” He had us in stitches.
And he’s the same now — singing and laughing and joking. He loves company and he loves people. He likes things to go smoothly, he likes everyone to be happy, and he’ll go out of his way to make them happy. He’s like his dad in that way.
But life is a lot more complicated for him than it was for me. He’s working here and his wife and his baby are in the States, and it’s hard for him to be away from them. I see the strain in his face. But what can you do? It’s what he’s chosen and they’ll have to make it work.
We do a lot of chatting on the computer — the whole family keeps in contact that way. If it comes into my head to ring one of them, I will, and sometimes it’s just the right moment — one of us needs something from the other — and it’s beneficial to both of us.
I let all my children go a long time ago, and that’s the hardest part, especially with the boys, because they tend not to come back unless their wives bring them. But Alfie’s wife is beautiful. He’s chosen well. If you love your children, they’ll love you in return. Mine love me, I know they do, and because of that I’ve been able to send them on their way happily.
Alfie: Every Sunday when I was growing up, we’d all sit round the dinner table listening to my dad’s favourite tenor, Richard Tauber. But I couldn’t wait to leave the table.
It wasn’t until years later, when I started to study music, that all these memories came flooding back and I really connected with it. Both my grandmothers could sing and all my brothers and sisters have good voices. I used to sing along to my brother’s Maria Callas records when I was little, and then when my voice broke I’d impersonate Pavarotti in the front room when no one was in the house.
But there was never any sense within the family that singing was something you could do for a living. Not because my mum didn’t believe in me — she loved to hear me sing — it was just that nobody knew how you went from singing in the front room, just because you loved it, to making a career out of it. There was absolutely no encouragement at school either — careers day consisted of the army, the fishing board and the local priest coming round.
I ended up working as a trainee engineer at the TVR garage in Blackpool. A customer came in one day and heard me singing along to West Side Story on the radio and he said: “The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in London is auditioning for new members. You should try.”
I didn’t give it a lot of thought. I’d only been to London once in my life on a school trip and I couldn’t imagine why they’d see anyone like me anyway. But that night I was sitting having my tea and reading the theatrical newspaper The Stage, and an advert for the D’Oyly Carte company jumped out at me.
I took the day off work, went down to London and walked into this audition full of women in ball gowns and guys in dark suits. I was dressed in jeans and my big boots — I looked like a lumberjack — and there was only one song I could sing, one of my dad’s favourites by Lehar called You Are My Heart’s Delight. But I got through and they took me on for a national tour. My mum was over the moon when she heard. My dad was in tears. It was a moment I’ll never forget because I felt I’d achieved it for them.
If you ask Mum, “How did you afford to keep nine kids?” I guarantee that she’ll say: “God provided.” But the reality is we lived a very, very simple life. She asked for nothing and she and my father went without themselves so we could have what we needed. Over Christmas our house always used to smell of paint because my dad used to make toys for us. He’d lock himself in the shed and build doll’s houses and trucks and bikes, and my mum would paint them. Farah trousers and Lacoste deck shoes were all the rage at school and
I didn’t have any of those. But my mum bought me an Adidas tracksuit, which was hideous, because she knew I wanted one so badly. She’d changed a lot by the time I came along. The house was a tightly run ship and she had more time to spend with me. But we were all given the same values — respect for older people, and treating each other well. And that’s something I’ve tried to stick to.
With every child people used to ask her: “When are you going to stop?” We’re strong Irish Catholics, but it had nothing to do with religion; she and my dad just wanted a huge family. What I remember most was laughter. Everyone was on a high.
In the holidays you’d come down in the morning and sit out in the garden and eat ice lollies my mum had made. I remember food being cooked all the time and dogs running around. It was a really happy household.
Mum’s changed a lot since my father died. Her world has been rocked. She likes simplicity now. She likes to be in the background. She was married to my dad for 47 years, and without him her confidence has gone. He was a simple guy: he worked at the ICI plant in Thornton in Lancashire for 30 years, retired at 55 with health problems, probably due to the chemicals, and died at 63.
My dad never complained, never came home and said: “I’ve had a hell of a day.” He was such a joyous guy, always full of fun, I don’t remember him ever starting an argument. I think because of him it was the norm in our house to give rather than to take.
I’d do anything for my brothers and sisters and I love them all to pieces, but I can’t deny there are things that drive me crazy, and I know they’d say the same about me. But that’s family. You accept each other’s failings. I’ve stayed closest to my eldest sister, Annie. She’s a darling. You can tell her anything and she’ll be there to give you a hug or sort it out. She practically raised me and she’s still like a second mother to me. Maybe since making records and doing the odd TV show, some of them might think I’m not the same. They don’t say anything, but I can tell.
My wife, Sarah, is American and America is my home now, but not all of them came over for my wedding, which upset me a lot and it upset my mum. Most of them still live around the Lancashire area where we were brought up, and I think change scares them. In some ways Mum has grown a heck of a lot more than they have. She’s moved with the times. She’s been to New York to see me on Broadway, in Baz Luhrmann’s La Bohème, and she’s been to Salt Lake City to stay with Sarah and me. And I make the effort to go home to Fleetwood to see her as often as I can. There’s such a competition to be my mother’s top dog. But there’s no top dog in the family, she treats us all the same.
I love to work, that’s the thing, and I’m just so grateful to have been given the chance. I get that from my dad. I knew if I wanted to be an opera singer I had to take it the whole way, learn the languages and get my voice trained. That was a long haul and it did separate me from my family — physically, emotionally, in every way possible. But I don’t have airs and graces. The truth is, when I get up on stage, I sing my heart out and I give everything I’ve got, but when I come off, I’m just plain Alfie Boe from Fleetwood.
• Alfie Boe’s CD of Franz Lehar songs, Love Was a Dream, is out now. He sings in Katya Kabanova (March), and in The Pearl Fishers (June/July), with ENO at the London Coliseum
Source: The Sunday Times (7th Feb 2010)