Imagine a high energy drink on legs. Whizzing about, but focused on putting a lot of zing into life. That, in essence, is Lesley Garrett. She will turn 64 next spring, shows no signs whatsoever of letting up, and is ready for anything that life – or her agent – chucks at her.
Her glass, she says, is always “three-quarters full”. There is a quick pause while she considers, and then adds with a laugh: “And it isn’t a glass, either. It’s a bucket. And I love it topped up to the brim!” She fills her days with her family, her performances and her support for many charities and organisations. She’s the patron of the Dore Male Voice Choir, for example, and also for the Sheffield-based Lost Chord, which specialises is delivering live music to those with Alzheimer’s. Lesley has been known to turn up, belt out Puccini’s O Mio Babbino Caro, and then launch into a medley of music hall numbers.
At the moment, she’s about to start a run of Messiah, a new play “with a lot of music” by Patrick Barlow. Her co-star is Hugh Dennis. Then there’s another new work for 2019, which will premiere at the Coliseum in London and which sees Lesley’s long-awaited return to her alma mater, “my beloved English National Opera”.
The only cloud in a pretty blue sky, she reveals, is that a new album that she’s just recorded for the Decca label is going to remain on their shelves – for the time being. “Ah well, we can only hope for the best.” She shrugs, smiles, and we move on, but she says as an afterthought: “What I’ve learned, throughout my career is that nothing is certain until you are actually up there, singing the role in front of an audience – or that you see yourself on TV, or you hold the CD or the book that you’ve written, in your hand.
“People can promise you the world, but until it’s there, complete, concrete, done and delivered, that’s when the reality kicks in. You’ve achieved what you set out to do.”
What she’s learned throughout her career is to be unafraid of tackling something new. “Just go for it. Back in the day I used to have three criteria for doing anything. I used to ask myself: ‘Number one. Will this give me artistic satisfaction? Number two, will it advance my career? And, number three – will I make some money to pay the bills? Now, the three things I consider are ‘Will it be fun, will it be fun and… will it be fun?’”
Messiah is, she says, delivering that fun. “The really odd thing is that, in the early 80s, when I was just starting out, I went to the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, and I saw the try-out of a new play by this chap called Patrick Barlow. It was all about this little company trying to put on Handel’s Messiah. And I had a hoot. I loved it. I honestly did think to myself ‘this is wonderful, so funny – and also touching – and I’d love to do it one day’. Well, what with everything else, it sort of slipped to the back of my mind, until, just a few months back, my agent called me up and said ‘Lesley, I’ve got a new role you might like to do. And it’s not in a musical, or an opera, it’s a play!’”
It turned out it was Patrick’s piece. “I could not believe my luck. I said ‘yes’ before I’d even read the script. I’ve never done a play before, and this one seemed to be right up my street. What is joyous for me is that Patrick and I met up, and he told me that he was going to adapt the piece for me.”
She plays Leonora Flyte, who is at the end of her career in the professional world of singers, and who has been coaxed in to tackle some solos.
She has also just been asked to tackle another new opera. “There’s a marvellous new composing talent called Ian Bell, and ENO have commissioned him to write a full-length work on Jack the Ripper.
“It’s not, in fact, going to take him as the central character, but it’ll be looking at the lives of the poor women he attacked, and killed. Now that is brilliant, not just because it gives a completely new perspective to the story, but it also means that it will be giving work to a group of sopranos and mezzos who never get the opportunity to sing mature roles,” she says.
One of the others in the cast is her “very dear chum” Dame Josephine Barstow. “I saw her in the revival of Follies at the National last year. She was simply amazing. She still has the voice and the presence. She’s another Yorkshire lass, but she lives down in Sussex now, and I often pop down and see her. So in this new one, all us girls will be getting together and giving it full wellie.”
Lesley will be playing Catherine Eddowes, whose body was found in the corner of Mitre Square in Whitechapel. “There were two murders that night, and she was the second to be found. Now, when I can, I’m reading up everything I can lay my hands on that gives me background knowledge of the Ripper and these women.”
She lives her life at full tilt. Her husband Peter is a busy GP in north London and her two children, Jeremy and Chloe, now 25 and 24, both graduated from Sheffield University a couple of years back. There is genuine pride in Lesley’s voice when she talks about them.
It will be a family Christmas this year, “not, sadly, in Epworth, but in Muswell Hill. I only get one day off, so getting back north is going to be impossible”.
If she had a motto, she says, “It would be ‘Never ever let an opportunity pass you by’. Go for it. Give it 100 per cent. I think I learned my work ethic from my lovely mum and dad, who started off with next to nowt and who both ended up in marvellous jobs that they loved.
“That’s Yorkshire grit for you, a tenacity that runs in the blood of the people of the county. A tangible northern determination. Am I proud of that? Yes l am, and I make no excuses for it, either. You only walk this world once, so grab life with both hands. The worst thing that anyone can say to me is ‘Ah well, if only...’ That is so sad.”
And then Ms Garrett looks at her watch, grabs her bags, gives a genuine hug, and heads for the train and her next appearance. You get the impression that, if she could get there on a unicycle wearing a picture hat, she would. Just for the sheer fun of it.
Messiah, Lyceum Theatre Sheffield, November 5-10. 0114 249 5999.