Lesley Garrett: ‘Val the toilet cleaner was the best role I’ve done’

Soprano Lesley Garrett. Picture: David White.

Soprano Lesley Garrett. Picture: David White. - Credit: Archant

BRIDGET GALTON talks to the Muswell Hill soprano about Cricket, Christmas, the wonders of HRT and why she’d like to play Hillary Clinton

When Opera North told Lesley Garrett they were creating her a powerful title role about a modern subject, she hoped for an Angela Merkel or Hillary Clinton.

Instead she former ENO star was offered Val the toilet cleaner in Mark Simpson’s modern opera Pleasure.

Leaving aside the tantalising prospect of Garrett in Hillary the opera, she says the working class woman forced to abandon her son from an abusive marriage who now works in a hedonistic gay club “was the best role I’ve done in my career.”

“Great opera really doesn’t reflect modern society but it needs to if it’s going to be seen as a contemporary art form,” says the Muswell Hill singer. “We need bigger roles of significance for women. Like theatre, the opera world struggles to find decent roles for older women. We need to change that.”

Garrett reveals that sopranos’ careers used to end with the menopause: “They’d lose the top third of their voice because their larynx dried up. But the wonders of HRT and better training have kept us going.”

Having spent the previous years singing with pop stars and in West End musicals she was grateful to Opera North who “very kindly rehabilitated me after I had gone off to do TV shows” by casting her in Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine three years ago.

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“The opera world can be a little..” she pauses, “traditional. They rather thought I had gone over to the dark side but I really always have been an opera singer. Until I started doing musicals I had cornered the market in younger sisters, shepherdesses and maids. When I came back, my acting had improved tremendously through doing the West End and I found I could bring other qualities to opera, but there was a scarcity of roles. Traditional 19th and 20th century opera has women fixed in powerless insignificant roles. You can update them as much as you like but that’s the way the mostly male composers saw them.”

As the ENO’s principal soprano in the 80s she sang title roles in Cosi Fan Tutte and Die Fledermaus and was among the most high profile classical singers to cross over into mainstream entertainment. This included appearing in the first ever Strictly Come Dancing in 2004 partnered with Anton du Beke.

“It was the biggest physical and mental challenge I have ever had. It started as a humble eight week show, it was meant to be two hours a week but we soon realised it was a full on commitment. I had to drag Anton round the country on my tour so we could practice between shows. We were flabbergasted by the popularity of it.”

Lesley traces her life changing breakthrough back to 1990 when she had her first TV appearance, her first record deal and appeared in an ENO poster campaign in a diaphanous chiffon gown with the statement She Makes Music.

“I was all over the tube not looking anything like the traditional idea of an opera singer.”

She also met her husband of 25 years Muswell Hill GP Peter Christian after being set up on a blind date by the pianist Imogen Cooper.

“It changed my life I had completely given up on finding Mr Right. I had auditioned the world and he just wasn’t’ out there.

“We went for lunch and instantly fell in love.”

When they had their two children Jeremy and Chloe, Lesley gave up international touring and focused on TV and opera projects closer to home.

“I had waited for him all my life then having the children gave me the chance to be at home. It was a struggle at times to do everything but Peter loves music and has always been so supportive. Until then I had always had relationships within my own profession.”

A proud Yorkshirewoman with a deserved reputation for being warm and down to earth, the 61-year-old’s episode of BBC genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are? revealed multiple musical relatives including a great grandfather who took up piano because his weak chest stopped him going down the pit and a grandfather in a band called Arthur Garrett and the Blackout Boys.

“I think there is a gene,” she muses.

“My grandfather made my father learn piano and he loved classical music. We were very poor but rich in what mattered; love and music.

“I also had music at school. I lived for 4 o’clock when I could get into the school hall. We had a choir, an orchestra, music competitions and singing classes in lunch breaks.”

She thinks now that without that support she wouldn’t be where she is.

“Music is what I am. Singing is who I am. I was born a singer and never regarded it as a separate subject but without my family and school I would never have made it. They realised I had talent and let me drop science to do music. My father was a great inspiration, as a railway worker who became a schoolteacher at a time when working class families had few aspirations, he made me think I could go for it.”

It was on a trip to London aged 16 that Lesley saw the ENO’s Madame Butterfly and knew where she wanted to be.

“I thought that’s where I have to be. I’m going to be on that stage.”

Two years later she gained a place at The Royal Academy of Music on Marylebone Road.

Since the 70s she has kept her voice limber with weekly lessons from Gospel Oak teacher Joy Mammen.

“I credit her with keeping my voice fit. It’s like having a personal vocal fitness trainer, she’s been a wonderful rock all my life.”

Now touring An Audience With Lesley Garrett she tells “the story of my life, the hysterically funny things that have happened and the songs and arias that have been significant to me. It’s a fun balance to all the modern opera I have been doing.”

Request slots where audiences ask for their favourites yield the likes of Panis Angelicus, Puccini’s great operas, “Carmen is a big favourite” show tunes like You’ll Never Walk Alone and Climb Every Mountain or film music like Moon River and He Was Beautiful.

“Opera is better known than people realise and I never tire of singing great music. I could sing for a week and never have to repeat myself. Music is vital to all of us, for emotional connection, to express ourselves emotionally and to pull communities together.”

Cricket was also big in her life her grandfather used to play for Doncaster Town, her father was a wicket keeper and mum kept score.

“I spent my weekends running round the boundary shouting to the opposing fielder ‘what’s your name my mum needs it for the score book.’”

So she’s proud to be female president of the Lord’s Taverners whose annual Christmas carol concert on December 12 raises funds for youth cricket and disability sports.

“It’s a family event and wonderful to raise money for children who don’t’ have access to sport,” says Lesley who will sing and do a reading alongside President Sir Michael Parkinson and actor Robert Lindsay.

“I find Christmas a very moving time of year,” she says adding that she will be travelling to Yorkshire for a big family Christmas.

“We get together every year. I remember back to my own childhood, one year my mum made all our Christmas presents because she could’t afford to buy them. It’s a chance to give thanks, to come together and think how much I love my family. I never take it for granted.”

Carol Concert with the Stars at St Marylebone Parish Church is on December 12 with popular carols sung by the St Marylebone Parish choir £20 per person free for under 16s starts 6.30pm events@lordstaverners.org