Lesley Garrett on growing old just a little bit disgracefully

Opera singer Lesley Garrett.
Opera singer Lesley Garrett.
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Having recently played a lavatory attendant in a gay nightclub, Lesley Garrett tells Phil Penfold why life is full of surprises.

Lesley Garrett doesn’t giggle. She doesn’t chuckle. Instead when something tickles the Yorkshire-born opera star, she releases a full, no holds-barred gold-plated chortle that comes from deep within. Bouncing into the room, her sense of enthusiasm is infectious as she rattles off story after story.

“When I was at school, you know, they nicknamed me ‘Gobby Garrett,” she says at one point. “Can you tell why?”

Garrett is just about to start on a tour – An Audience with Lesley Garrett – that will take her all over the UK. And in the next few weeks we’ll be able to see her in action on BBC 4’s new series, Sound Waves, which will explore the whys and the hows of the human voice.

“It’s really about what happens when you communicate,” Lesley explains. “I had a whale of a time making it – they shoved camera up my nose and down my neck, and I even got to sing in the middle of an MRI scan.

“The images are incredible, really revealing. How tiny little muscles have such a huge impact on what you sound like. For me, it was incredibly educational, but it was also a lot of fun. You’ll be able to witness what happens when an opera singer really gives it full belt.”

The same, she hopes, will apply to An Audience With….

“At every one of the dates there’ll be someone to interview me, my accompanist on the piano, the audience and me, and I’ll be singing a few songs, fielding a lot of questions, telling a few stories and doing a few requests. Every night is different, because every venue, every audience is different. It’s so enjoyable, because it puts me right back in touch with the fans who have been so loyal to me, and it really keeps me on my toes.”

It is about as different as her last opera project, a new piece by Mark Simpson called Pleasure, as it is possible to get. Set in a gay nightclub ‘somewhere in the North’, Lesley took the lead role as cloakroom and lavatory attendant Val and she and the show were given glowing reviews.

Garrett, who has just celebrated her 61st birthday, admits that she was a little taken aback when she was initially approached about the part, but was soon convinced.

“Val was supposed to be lithe and trim,” she reveals, “The description I was given my Mark, who is such a very clever man, was ‘slight as a bird’. So I did have to be careful with what I was eating – I didn’t want the bird in question to be an elderly ostrich.”

Garrett’s professional debut came in 1979, and since then she has conquered the world of opera, has played to packed houses in West End musicals, has toured constantly, sold millions of CDs, appeared in ratings-topping TV shows, and has an enthusiastic fan club. Oh, and she’s managed to stay married to the same man for over a quarter of a century – her husband Peter is a doctor who has just taken on a new and challenging position in Haringey, North London.

The two of them apparently, relax in the same bed at night – he reads magazines about music and opera, and she is the one who is avidly interested in the latest medical stories and techniques.

“We must look,” she says with another huge grin, “like a very odd couple indeed.”

The couple also have two children, Jeremy and Chloe, and their arrival was the cause of a change of direction for Garrett’s career. She was poised to play dates across the globe, but Lesley decided that “family came first”. Instead of flying off to engagements in Rio or Rome or Rotterdam, she remained a “home bird”, performing at gigs and dates and in recording and TV studios where she could return home to the family base in Muswell Hill at night.

“I’d decided that my husband, and son and daughter took pride of place in my life,” she recalls, rather. “I told a friend and fellow opera singer, who confessed that she had decided that she wouldn’t have children, and that that was her sacrifice.”

Lesley has previously said that she was in her mid-thirties when she met Peter.

While her home life has always provided stability, on stage Garrett is increasingly looking to be pushed out of her comfort zone. That was certainly the case with Pleasure.

“A couple of years ago, I told Opera North that I was always interested in hearing about other projects, and then came the call about Pleasure. With me as a lavatory attendant. After roaring with laughter, I asked who had written it and they said, ‘Do you know a chap called Mark Simpson?’

“Well, it so happened that I did, because I’d met him when we did The Last Night of the Proms in the Park together. He’d just won BBC Young Musician of the Year and also BBC Young Composer of the Year, the first person ever to carry off both accolades. I thought then that this is a young man going places.”

It could, however, been very different for Garrett who initially wanted to be a folk singer.

“If I’d had my way, I’d have been the Joan Baez of South Yorkshire. But then I went off to London, and other things came along.

“When I did TV work, made the CDs, appeared in the likes of Carousel and The Sound of Music, people in the opera world really rather gave up on me. They thought that I wasn’t interested in that side of singing any more. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just when an opportunity is offered, I really go for it.”

Someone once suggested that Lesley just might be the best example there is of a crossover singer, switching effortlessly from one genre to another. It’s the only time that she looks even the slightest bit exasperated.

“Crossover? It sounds like a brand of bra.” There’s a slight pause as she sighs: “But, as we all know, the roles for women actors and singers seem to diminish as age rolls on.”

Jeremy and Chloe both graduated from Sheffield University this summer and while her son studied computer science, Chloe is looking at a possible career as a director.

The family still have their second home, a rural retreat, in Epworth in North Lincolnshire, and Lesley is a very active patron of The Lost Chord, a Sheffield charity that facilitates and organises live music events and visits to care and respite homes, particularly specialising in the Alzheimer’s field.

“Of course I go and sing for them,” she says stoutly. “I went across a few weeks ago to one home, and I gave them Puccini’s O Mio Babbino Caro, one of my favourites. But then a lovely old lady tugged at my sleeve and said ‘Very nice dear, but can’t you give us Daisy, Daisy instead? I ended up doing an afternoon of music hall memories and loved every second of it.”

And if Lesley was to offer a little advice to anyone aspiring to a career in opera, what would it be? Without a second of hesitation she says: “Have a go at it. You can’t hurt it. It is simply never too late to do anything you want. That’s not just opera and singing. It applies to anything. Get cracking. Give it a shot. Do you know the saddest two words in the English language? ‘If only…’.”

An Audience with Lesley Garrett plays various dates in Yorkshire this autumn, including the City Varieties in Leeds, The Lawrence Batley in Huddersfield, Pocklington Arts Centre and CAST in Doncaster.