For most of the women descending on Kansas City this weekend, their unlikely obsession with a British singer began on March 6, 2011.
That night PBS broadcast “The Les Miserables 25th Anniversary Concert,” an extravagant performance staged the year before at the O2 Arena in London.
Singing the role of Jean Valjean, the fugitive seeking redemption, was a tenor named Alfie Boe. He was well-known in Britain, but with that one performance his American fan base exploded almost overnight. The rush was fueled, as most everything is these days, by social media, but also buoyed by the transformative, emotion-tugging power of music.
“I heard this voice, put everything down and started watching this young man playing Jean Valjean in a way I had never seen before,” said Claire Smith of Connecticut. “I was mesmerized. His voice was amazing. I was Googling him before the show was over.”
Boe stopped the show in that concert. His performance of one of the show’s most haunting songs, “Bring Him Home,” elicited a standing ovation that clocked in at more than 4 minutes.
“And then,” Smith said, “as he sang the finale — I have a pretty big TV — I saw that he was crying. And I just fell in love. I fell in love with the performance.”
Everything turned around at that point for Smith, a veteran journalist and news editor at ESPN. She’d never wanted to go to London. Never wanted to see Europe. But the next day she was online trying to figure out how to get tickets to see Boe perform in the long-running London production of “Les Miz.” Ultimately she saw the show three times and met him face-to-face.
“It was the timbre of his voice, the richness,” Smith said as she tried to explain her attraction to the handsome opera star. “There’s tenderness in the strength of his voice and strength in the tenderness.”
Alfie Boe is scheduled to perform the national anthem Saturday at the Royals-Yankees game. And at 7 p.m. Sunday, he’ll perform “An Evening With Alfie Boe,” a benefit for the Irish Cultural Center in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The Lyric Opera is presenting the concert.
Smith said about 40 fans from the Facebrook group Alfie’s Angels are expected in Kansas City for the weekend events. And she said more than 100 people apparently are traveling here from Britain.
Boe, a former auto mechanic who comes from a working-class family, is not your typical opera star. He’s a bit of a maverick. He ruffled feathers at one point when he said he thought watching opera was “boring.” And he has recorded duets with some unlikely partners, including British rockers Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, both long associated with Led Zeppelin. And his resume does not include performances at most of the world’s most important opera houses.
Ward Holmquist, the Lyric’s music director, said he had never heard of Boe until a couple of months ago, when the possibility of presenting him in concert came up.
“I didn’t even know his name, which is much to my shame,” Holmquist said. Holmquist declined comment on the “opera is boring” quote. But he said he’s looking forward to the performance and finds Boe’s unconventional career arc fascinating.
“It’s entirely possible that we’re looking at one of those artists who is making his way in two distinct genres,” Holmquist said.
Boe had enjoyed quite a career before the fateful “Les Miz” concert. He made his Broadway debut in director Baz Luhrmann’s unconventional take on “La Boheme” in 2002. He’s performed with the English National Opera. He’s made recordings and maintained a busy concert schedule.
But the fans he won in that television broadcast didn’t know much at all about his accomplishments. All they knew was that he was a riveting presence on their television screens.
Tracie Dickey, an optician near Birmingham, Ala., said she tuned in just as Boe was about to sing “Bring Him Home.” She’d never heard of him.
“That was the craziest name I had ever heard,” she said. “But the voice was unbelievable. When he started singing, my mouth was just hanging on the ground.”
Many of the fans Boe won that night formed online communities through Twitter and Facebook. They’ve become friends, shared triumphs and tragedies and have gotten together on vacations. Some will meet for the first time in Kansas City. None of that would have happened without Alfie Boe.
“Social media is a pretty funny thing,” said Karen Corcoran of Maryland. “But it really brought us together. I’ve only met two or three of the girls I’ve actually been chatting with for the last year. But we all know each other’s business. We know each other’s family stories. It’s almost like a neat little support group.”
“I’m a Twitter addict,” Dickey said. “I didn’t even know what Twitter was before I discovered Alfie Boe.”
But when asked to explain her enthusiasm, Dickey had to reach for the words.
“It’s hard to explain because it’s not so much him as an individual — don’t get me wrong, he’s adorable — but there’s something about his voice,” Dickey said. “It just goes straight to your soul. I can be having the worst day of my life, and if I listen to Alfie I feel better.”
The fans who have met Boe said there’s nothing perfunctory about the way he greets his admirers.
“When he meets people, you’re the one he’s talking to,” said Heather Barnett Edgren. “His eyes are on you. His thoughts are on you. And if you met him a couple of days later, he’d call you by name. That’s the kind of person he is.”
Edgren is traveling with her family from Wasilla, Alaska. And she’s bringing her Flat Alfie — a life-size effigy she and her husband created. They take him everywhere and photograph him as a way of documenting their travels.
“We’ve got signatures from people in the major national parks on the back of him,” she said. “It’s just become a real hoot.”
But for Edgren having Alfie Boe in her life is more than a lark. For her it’s deeply emotional and meaningful — as she found out when her little grandson Aidan was diagnosed with cancer. The Alfie fans she had met online offered support — emotional, spiritual and material. One of her online friends in the UK managed to get a request to Boe asking him to dedicate a song to Aidan, who passed away before his second birthday. In a concert in Birmingham, England, Boe did just that. The song was “Bring Him Home.”
“These people got me through that time,” she said. “They sent emails and letters to my daughter — people who don’t even know her. People from Amsterdam and people from around the world.”
For her part, Smith saw an opportunity to do something good this weekend for an institution she admires. She organized an online auction for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which raised about $4,000, and a silent auction will continue through the weekend. Included in the auction are a number of Boe-related memorabilia as well as tickets to upcoming concerts.
She organized a luncheon at the museum on Saturday and Alfie has been invited — although she’s been told he may be too busy to attend. Efforts to reach him for this story were also unsuccessful.
But for his fans, being in the same concert hall — or stadium — with Alfie will be good enough.
“I cannot stand opera,” said Dickey. “I hate opera. But I would listen to him singing anything from opera any day of the week. Because it’s not the music, it’s the voice.”