In 2006 Yorkshire soprano Lesley Garrett surprised the music world when she left opera in favour of West End musicals. But now she’s back, although, as she tells Nick Ahad, it hasn’t all been plain sailing.
She’s a hard-working Northern lass, who, despite travelling around the world, has stayed as true to her roots as a giant redwood. The sort of woman who believes in working hard, isn’t afraid of a challenge and who believes in the adage that if life goes wrong, “spit on your hands and take a fresh hold”.
Which probably explains why Lesley Garrett, of Doncaster working-class stock, decided she would give something new a try a few years back.
“It’s the Yorkshire, working class work ethic. I’m from a family of railway workers and miners and my parents have always been a massive inspiration to me. They were always looking to take on new challenges and that’s how I felt,” says Garrett.
So, much to the surprise of anyone who had followed her career, she decided in 2006, to move out of the opera world in which she had built her career, and take on a role in a musical. She appeared in the West End in The Sound of Music as Mother Abbess in autumn of that year and as Nettie in Carousel a year later. “There’s a few things behind the decision really,” says Garrett, whose accent becomes ever more South Yorkshire as the conversation progresses.
“I was finding it increasingly difficult to find soprano roles once I reached a certain age. I was in my early fifties, wondering what I was going to do. Part of the problem is that there are very few roles for older women in opera – they just weren’t written because traditionally when women hit the menopause they lost three or four notes from the top of their range, so when operas were being written, parts for older women tended to be much lower than soprano.
“These days with HRT it means you don’t lose those top notes – but there are no roles available.”
Garrett found in musicals the roles missing for older women in the operatic repertoire. “There was also the fact that I wanted to try something new. My dad was a railway worker and, when I was very young, he decided to wanted to become a teacher, so he would study while in the signalbox – by the time I was 12 he was a headmaster. My mum also decided to train as a teacher, and became head of music at a school in South Yorkshire.
“They were and still are a massive inspiration to me, so all of that kind of added up to me making the decision to go into musicals.”
And it was a time Garrett loved enormously. “The roles were perfect and I make no distinction between performing in a musical or performing in an opera.
“Appearing in the West End meant that I could stay at home with the family and it gave me a chance to sing in front of British audiences, which I absolutely love to do.
“It gave me a chance to do eight shows a week and see if I was up to that task and to develop my stamina. There was nothing about it that was a negative.”
However, in hindsight, it may have been a mistake, she admits. Having spent her life in the world of opera, building a substantial following around the world, she thought that a trip into musicals might be a minor diversion in her career. It turned into something of a cul-de-sac. Four years after making her debut in a West End musical, she was keen to return to the world of opera, but found doors closed at every turn.
“I was beginning to think I would never do opera again. To my surprise, when I came out of the musicals I felt like I had been written off, like the establishment had given up on me.”
Having worked around the world and with companies like Opera North, Welsh National Opera and the English National Opera, as principal soprano for 12 years, you might think Garrett could take for granted that she would find it easy enough to return to opera. Not so.
She approached Leeds-based Opera North, the company with which her career began.
“I explained that I felt like I’d been written off by the opera world and, much to my surprise, Opera North said they thought I had given up on opera. The opera world can sometimes be a little stuffy and when I went into musicals, the fact was that someone else would have come along and been cast in those roles that I would have done at one time. It was a bit of a shock that the opera world wasn’t willing to take me back, but I suppose I had put my eggs all in one basket.
“When I met with Opera North they were delighted when I explained that going into musicals was nothing more than a detour.”
That misunderstanding explained, the road was clear for Garrett to return to the world of opera – and do so through Opera North.
The soprano and the company worked together on various ideas. The singer is “committed to credible casting”, which means, for the 57-year-old, finding roles that are written for a woman of her age.
“I won’t perform a role that’s too young for me, where’s the sense in that? I want to be believable,” she says.
In the end the role suggested itself easily. Next February Garrett will sing the role of Elle in a new production of Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine. Poulenc wrote the one-act opera for a solo character, based on the Jean Cocteau play. Although it lasts just 45 minutes, it is considered a serious challenge for a singer.
“I’ve not done an opera for five years, I’ve never done anything on my own – always had a team behind me and in terms of acting this is a seriously demanding role, I’ve never attempted anything as dark at this,” she says. Although a challenge, returning to Opera North, where her career began, is something which fills Garrett with excitement.
“It was the most formative time of my early career, the time I spent with Opera North, so to be going back is very special.”