YOU would expect an actress who left home at 16 to come to the UK and went on to build an incredible career in musical theatre to have a voice. But perhaps not one as honest and declarative as that of Madalena Alberto.

The West End actress is in Glasgow, where she’s starring as Eva Peron in Evita, the Tim Rice and Andrew Llloyd Webber’s stage classic. There are many similarities with Alberto and the icon she plays.

Alberto, like Eva Peron, grew up poor in a small town and made her way to the metropolis, determined to become a film star. (In Alberto’s case a village outside Lisbon.) Both woman are charismatic and possess the ability to hold an audience in the palm of

their hand.

And both have the courage of their own convictions. Alberto’s singular voice emerges early in conversation when we discuss the hot, emotive issue of race and casting.

Two weeks ago, a massive amount of column inches were dedicated to the story of Broadway star Sierra Boggess who stepped out of the lead role of Maria in a concert performance of West Side story. A Twitter storm had raged, with one user claiming: “You are a Caucasian woman and this character is Puerto Rican. Stop taking roles from actors of colour.’”

Does Alberto, as a Latina actress herself, feel the white performer was right to step aside?

“I think it was a beautiful gesture, but I don’t know if she felt pressured to do it,” she reflects. “And while West Side Story is one of the few productions that were written for Latinas I’ve never seen it performed by genuine Latinas.”

Indeed, film legend Natalie Wood, whose parents were Russian, starred in the 1961 production of West Side Story.

But does this suggest acceptance of the modern-day Natalie Wood? Should Boggess have been effectively pushed out the door? “Well, I am very strong about diversity casting, not because I am Latina, but also because I work with a theatre company who promotes Latina work in new plays. In this case, I don’t know if casting agents looked at Latina roles for the role. But if not, they should have. And if there is a pool of strong Latina performers looking to play the role then they should be in the front row when it comes to casting

the show.”

That makes complete sense. However, Alberto points out the argument is a little more nuanced. “I’m also wary of casting people to make up numbers,” she maintains. “My fear is that this may compromise the work.”

In recent weeks, theatre critic Quentin Letts found himself battered by opprobrium when he criticised the casting of an actor appearing in a restoration comedy The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich. Letts had suggested (mis)casting by the RSC had come about because the actor was black, that political correctness had weakened the stage product.

A couple of months ago, I tell Alberto, I felt the same attack after criticising the casting of a black actor as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, which seemed about political correctness. Tennessee Williams’ character was a white Pole, and at the time men of colour were not legally allowed to marry white women.

The Portuguese performer says: “I’m not in favour of casting people in a role because of their ethnicity. The thing is, they have to be right for the part. And there has to be a great deal of discernment.”

Alberto also argues for the integrity of a production. It has to be truthful. “You wouldn’t see Porgy and Bess done by white people,” she says with a wry smile. “And while it’s great a black actor can play a white role, you have to ask if that compromises the story.

“Yes, there are productions that can break all the rules. [eg an all-female cast of Macbeth]. As long as you let it be known if that is the intent, to reinterpret a story, to reverse roles. But it’s really important people aren’t being cast simply to tick off numbers.”

Alberto believes the debate would be irrelevant if there were enough talented performers out there of all ethnicities.

The answer, she thinks, lies in encouraging ethnic performers into the business. “There needs to be more doors opened,” she says in firm voice. “It’s not just in acting, it’s in directing, writing, crew management. So we need to let young people know this career can be possible. We need ethnic talent instead of having white people do [on stage] what is not real to them.”

However, she underlines the word “talent” as she speaks. She believes those viewed by casting directors have to be able to deliver on stage. And if they can’t, positive discrimination will have a negative effect.

“I’m worried this is starting to happen, not only with ethnicity but with gender equality. I’m all for women having more space, to have bigger roles but don’t agree with the rule coming up that every production should have 50/50 male/female representation. This could compromise the story. And what if I want to create a story which features only women? Are we coming to the point whereby our rules are that extremist? We need to try to strike a balance. If not, it could be damaging for the theatre and audiences.”

Alberto has the work and life experience to back up her strong voice. She has starred as Fantine in Les Mis, Lucy in Jekyll and Hyde and Hunyak in Chicago. She appeared as Eva Peron four years ago alongside Marti Pellow as Che Guevara and picked up rave reviews. Her focus and dedication to becoming a performer has been evident, long before she was cast in a Portuguese movie, aged 16, before being talent spotted by an English drama college and whisked off to London on a scholarship.

“I had always wanted to act but I was shy,” she offers. “I never told anyone about the dream. I got into the business as a hobby, working on local productions and then I was spotted by the drama college.”

The shy teenager however didn’t think twice about moving to England. “No, I wanted to go. And I have to thank my parents for letting me move to a different country. I also feel very lucky. Usually foreign students don’t get scholarships.”

Usually, those who star in musical theatre have been studying the form since bib-wearing days. Alberto reveals she had hardly sang a note before coming to the UK. “That’s true. I was seen as an actor. But it was good not to be too formed. It meant I could train my voice from scratch. It all happened at the right time.”

Since first taking on the Evita role, Alberto has immersed herself in the character. But the performer reveals a certain amount about her own character when she reveals she plays against expectation.

The Portuguese star hasn’t set out to play Eva Peron simply as a charismatic woman reckoned to have slept her way to the top, a political gold digger who became a manipulative controlling figure in Peron’s government. Alberto has researched the woman thoroughly, looking to reveal the more humane side of the person who battled her way out of poverty, fought for trade union rights, who organised women’s groups and took up the vanguard of the feminist movement in Argentina.

“I read lots of books and watched documentaries about her, and there are so many contradictory accounts of Eva. I think the musical attempts to present its own version of her story, but it’s not necessarily the correct one because we just don’t know. In fact, the show is very cynical towards her, especially via the character of Che Guevara.

“But I found it interesting as an actress to try and portray this character and give her some depth. I wanted the performance to reflect that this was a lady who had been a bastard child who was looked down upon on, who wanted to progress her life. I wanted to find the themes in which I could identify with her, give her the nobilities and the humanities which help the audience connect with the story.”

Alberto has found her connecting points with Eva Peron. “It was easy for me in that she also came from a poor family and all she ever wanted was to go to the big city and become an actress.”

The role of Evita is one of the greatest female stage roles ever written. But like Eva Peron, Alberto meets a challenge head on. “Yes, it’s very challenging. For most of the show you are on stage. And it’s very hard to perform vocally and emotionally. You play Evita from the age of 16 to her death at just 33.”

Alberto, like Evita, is of course Latina. Yet, her accent reveals little trace. In fact, it’s almost American.

“Yes, that’s because I learned English from watching movies and TV shows at home,” she says smiling of life in a small village near Lisbon.

“In Portugal, most of the foreign movies and TV aren’t dubbed, they are in subtitles, so you hear the voices as you read the meaning. This became my natural voice.”

What about playing the role of such a commanding, powerful figure over such a long period of time? Does her actor partner sometimes think she’s becoming a little too Evita at home? “Sometimes my friends joke I’m being a little Eva,” she says, grinning. “But only when I get a bit wound up.”

Evita, the Kings Theatre, Glasgow, until May 19.