The banter of the opera: Michael Ball and Alfie Boe on hanging out with Kate Middleton, singing whilst on drugs…and why they both hate opera!
You know them as golden-voiced crooners who’ve melted a million hearts. Now meet the name-dropping, opera-hating, cheekiest double act in the West End!
'I once ate Kate Middleton’s dinner,’ opera singer Alfie Boe muses idly. ‘I sat next to her at the wedding of my friend Peter Phillips [the Queen’s eldest grandchild] in 2008. We had a wonderful chat – she’s an incredible woman – but she got a particularly large piece of lamb and needed some help finishing it. I was the man for the job.’
‘Leg or shoulder? Best end?’ jokes Michael Ball, musical theatre giant, giggling helplessly beside him. And not to be outdone in this Royal name-drop showdown, he then recalls a special performance of Les Misérables at Windsor Castle.
Michael Ball and Alfie Boe pose for Event as they talk openly about their journey to success and their new album, Together
‘It was the only time I played Jean Valjean, because I’m rubbish at it,’ says Ball, modestly. ‘We put it on for 100 years of the Entente Cordiale and every member of the Royal Family was in attendance, plus every French dignitary, from Jacques Chirac down. The Queen sat five yards away from me. There’s always something special about knowing Her Majesty is in the audience.’
Did they make eye contact? ‘Oh yeah, I was like, “All right, love? Love the frock,”’ he says, winking salaciously. ‘No! Absolutely not. I’d have been frightened to death.’
‘She’s such a lovely lady,’ adds Boe. ‘And very funny – really dry sense of humour.’
‘The one I really get on with is Princess Anne,’ Ball continues smoothly. ‘Talk about calls a spade a shovel! And she’s so clued-up. She’s a patron of a number of charities. I’ve been involved in a couple and she’s not just a name. She knows the research programmes that are going on. She really does her homework.
Alfie Boe with his wife, Sarah, in 2012
‘It’s easy to knock them for their privilege and so on, but I do think it’s a tough gig.’
Although Ball has an OBE (‘He’s BOE, I’m OBE’) and Boe hasn’t, the younger man cheekily claims to be holding out for a knighthood.
‘A proper honour,’ scoffs Boe, dissolving into laughter as Ball assumes an expression of panto-dame horror.
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to The Banter Of The Opera, in which Michael Ball, 54, light entertainment leviathan, king of the West End musical and hit singer (Love Changes Everything reached No 2 in 1989), joins forces with motor mechanic turned opera crossover great Alfie Boe, 42, the resonant tenor behind the Broadway production of La Bohème and the Lancashire lad who made the role of Valjean in Les Mis his own.
The two English singers are in New York to record an album of duets, Together. It’s their first joint studio project and they’re glowing with mischief in an office in Manhattan.
The city, both agree, has ‘the right vibe’ for this enterprise, and for the past ten days they have been drinking in the steamy atmosphere and getting into a coffee-fuelled NYC state of mind. That many of the legendary songwriters featured on Together – Gershwin, Bernstein, and Rodgers and Hammerstein – come from the town simply adds to the album’s Big Apple atmosphere.
Later, the duo will head up onto the roof of this elegantly decaying building in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen to be filmed. There will be ribald jokes and horseplay aplenty but first, in a hysterical and irreverent conversation, they will take in schmoozing Steven Spielberg, performing on drugs, thrashing Leonardo DiCaprio at pool, giving up booze, overcoming panic attacks, why opera is dull and who would win in an arm-wrestle.
Ball as Raoul in The Phantom Of The Opera, 1987
The two entertainers first met while performing in a disastrous ENO production of Kismet in 2007. ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph,’ declares Ball, the more verbose vocalist. ‘It was genuinely the worst production either of us has ever been in; probably the worst production that’s ever been put on.’
‘It’s a bonding experience when you go through something like that together,’ shudders Boe, in a surprising joint assault on one of their industry’s most prestigious institutions.
‘We laughed our way through it,’ says Ball. ‘We had to. Something went wrong every night. Just disastrous. It couldn’t have been worse timing. We were at war at that time and the thing was set in Baghdad.’
As a young music student, Boe had attempted to contact Ball, who is a dozen years his senior, with a view to getting guidance and possible mentorship. Which comes as a shock to Ball.
‘When I was at the Royal College of Music in London, I was staying in Barnes,’ Boe says. ‘I knew Michael lived in Barnes and I knew where he lived, so I put a postcard through his door saying, “I’m a student, I really like your music and enjoy your performing. I’d love to get together to hear any advice you could give to me. Here’s my number.” Heard nothing back. Nothing.’
‘Did you really do that?’ splutters Ball. ‘Are you winding me up? I know I’m well known as the total b****** of showbusiness. It’s a mantle I’ve had to carry, but I’m sure I would have replied. Or would I? Would you?’
‘Of course I would,’ says Boe. ‘It’s basic human decency. You help your fellow man.’
‘I don’t remember getting a postcard, but I do know that my house burned down around that time. Coincidence? I don’t think so. The snubbed student got his revenge.’
Ball and Boe roar with laughter which, as they’re used to projecting their voices to the back of an auditorium, is a formidable sound.
Ball with partner Cathy MacGowan in 1990
In more sober mode, they discuss the pitfalls of their business, the acute highs and lows, and particularly their relationship with alcohol.
‘I’m still on very good terms with alcohol,’ Ball begins. ‘I love a drink. But I’ve never, ever in my life been on a stage and done a performance with an alcoholic drink inside me. Never have, never would. I’ve seen people who do and invariably they’re never as good as they think they are. You have to be on your game with a live audience because anything can change. But my way of relaxing afterwards is to have a couple of glasses of wine.’
Has he ever been worried about his drinking? ‘Only in the sense that one knows it’s a typical middle-aged, middle-class thing to drink too much,’ he reflects. ‘So I do Stoptober – a month off. But I like a drink after a show and a glass of wine with my dinner.’
Boe’s story isn’t so simple. ‘I’ve been dry for over two years now,’ he admits, faltering slightly over his words. ‘It’s been hard. There have been moments when I’ve wrestled with drink in the past and I’ve been slammed to the canvas too many times.
‘I’ve had a couple of slip-ups and I need to stay off it. I’ve trained myself to have sparkling water with lime juice and the minute I drink that, the urge goes away.’
‘But you should see how much crack he smokes,’ Ball quips, allowing his professional partner off the confessional hook.
He is joking, of course, although Boe did perform onstage in Amsterdam under the influence of powerful marijuana.
‘Did you?’ hisses Ball.
‘I did,’ Boe hoots. ‘I was in Amsterdam when I was 19 years old doing a classical concert with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and I had the afternoon off, so I thought I’d take a look around.
‘I went into a coffee shop, played pool, drank coffee, ate cookies. I didn’t know that they were dope cookies. I realised, I think, just as I was walking onstage. It was so bizarre. The paranoia afterwards was awful. I thought I’d ruined my career and everybody hated me. But everyone said, “You seemed so relaxed and you sounded really good.”’
For most of his professional life, Ball has suffered from anxiety, which has manifested itself in panic attacks and agoraphobia. Today, he says, he has learnt to deal with the problem.
‘Sometimes I can control it,’ he says, cautiously. ‘If I get ill or overstressed or unhappy – everyone gets a bit dark – I know I have to be careful. I get that thing when you’re onstage and suddenly you’re watching yourself and you don’t know what the next line is, and I don’t want everyone looking at me. When they’re bad, it’s the worst feeling in the world. You think you’re going to die.
‘The really stupid thing I did was not talk to anyone about them. I was in denial. I became agoraphobic; wouldn’t leave my flat for months. It was [theatre impressario] Cameron Mackintosh who came to my rescue. He called and said, “We’re recasting Phantom darling and you need to get back on the horse. You’ll be playing Raoul, so it’s not the pressure of playing the Phantom, and it’s going to be a hit and you’re going to have a lot of fun.”’
‘My other saviour was Cath,’ he confides to Boe. ‘She completely understood what was happening to me and stopped me from going off the rails, or going mad.’
Ball and Boe at Proms in the Park in London last month
Ball has been with partner Cathy McGowan, the iconic presenter of Sixties pop show Ready Steady Go!, since 1989. She is 15 years older than Ball and the couple enjoy a quiet, intensely private life without children.
‘We don’t go to the opening of an envelope type things because Cath was once as famous as baked beans, so very little impresses her. But a lot of what I do makes her very proud, so she keeps her feet on the ground and gives me great advice. She actually keeps me sane.
‘What Cath and I have understood right from the start of being together is that when the front door closes, that’s it. I love being at home. That time together is precious.’
Boe and his American wife Sarah live in Salt Lake City, Utah with their two children, Grace, six, and Alfred Robert, four. They married in 2004. ‘Without my wife I couldn’t do what I do,’ he says disarmingly. ‘I’d probably be in an Irish bar in Kilburn.’
Today, he could probably afford to buy a bar in Kilburn – the duo are estimated to be worth £4 million (Boe) and £11 million (Ball).What neither of them do, however, is spend their money at the opera as paying customers.
‘It’s dull,’ Ball grimaces, apologetically. ‘You sit there, waiting for a hit to come along, and you wait a long bloody time. Listen, I appreciate the skill of what people are doing with their voices but I don’t emotionally connect.’
‘I got into so much trouble for saying what I thought of going to the opera,’ says Boe, referring to his appearance on Desert Island Discs in 2011. He had admitted he never went, saying, ‘I feel very uncomfy, like it’s not my world.
‘The highbrow audience decided I was the Bad Boy Of Opera. But what I said was true: it is boring. I just wanted to be truthful. When you’re performing an opera it’s a completely different thing. You’re playing the role. It’s great. But going to see an opera, I’d rather…’
He struggles to think of anything more trying than a long, incomprehensible opera, then inspiration strikes: ‘I’d rather go to a Michael Ball concert.’
Feigning hurt from his brother-in-harmony’s waspish words, Ball launches into some ‘epic name-dropping’ to raise his spirits.
‘I had Steven Spielberg on my radio show,’ he boasts cheerily. (Ball took over the prestigious Radio 2 late-morning Sunday slot after the death of Sir Terry Wogan.) ‘Steven – although I call him Steve now – did this interview and I talked to him about directing Joan Crawford when he was 21 [in the 1969 TV movie Night Gallery]. At the end he said, “OK, Michael, that was one of the best interviews I have ever given. I’d like a copy of that sent to my office tomorrow.”
‘I beat Leonardo DiCaprio at pool,’ Boe counters. ‘At the Hudson Hotel here in New York, he asked me if I fancied a game. I love pool so I agreed but to my surprise he was terrible. I wish I’d put some money on it now.’
As the competitive showbiz testosterone levels start to rise, I ask who might win in an arm-wrestle between these vocal virtuosos.
‘Captain America here would win,’ beams Ball, grabbing a bulging Boe bicep. ‘He doesn’t stop working out and eating healthily, and everything that I don’t do.’
‘I pulled a ligament arm-wrestling once,’ Boe remembers. ‘I insisted on taking on a Romanian WWF wrestler who, I’m not kidding, was pushing eight-foot tall. I was drinking at the time, obviously, but something in my arm just snapped. I couldn’t lift up a glass or anything afterwards.’
Ball makes on offhand remark about the accident probably ruining Boe’s love life that night, and they’re off again – this bantastic badinage knows no bounds. They are 24-hour repartee people.
‘Do you know, this is the first time we’ve spoken directly to each other since we’ve been in New York,’ says Ball. ‘Until this evening, it’s all been done through intermediaries because the truth is, we simply don’t get on.’
‘When we go on tour,’ Boe scowls. ‘It’s not just going to be separate tour buses and separate hotels, it will be separate theatres.’
Ball all but bursts with mirth, Boe grins winningly. These two jocular gents are certainly singing from the same hymn sheet.
Michael and Alfie’s album ‘Together’ is out on November 4
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