Dame Josephine Barstow on surviving the Sheffield Blitz, her friendship with the Earl of Harewood and learning from a new generation in Leeds

Dame Josephine Barstow is one of our most acclaimed opera singers. Phil Penfold talks to her about her career and being back on stage.
Dame Josephine Barstow in A Little Night Music. Picture: Sharron WallaceDame Josephine Barstow in A Little Night Music. Picture: Sharron Wallace
Dame Josephine Barstow in A Little Night Music. Picture: Sharron Wallace

It says a great deal about the generous nature of Dame Josephine Barstow that she hands over a large part of a rare day off from rehearsals to sit down for an interview. And she is in a buoyantly cheerful mood. In fact, if you are in need of a tonic, you would be wise to seek her out, for she is one of those rare people who just radiates good humour. Some female singers are sometimes labelled as “divas”, but it’s not a word you word use to describe the acclaimed soprano.

She has travelled up to Leeds from her home in Sussex – she long ago sold a much-loved home up in Wharfedale.

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Dame Josephine (“Oh, please do call me Dame Jo, or just Jo”, she offers) is back in Leeds to play Heidi Schiller in a Leeds Playhouse and Opera North co-production revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, the “Send in the Clowns” musical.

The opera singer grew up in Sheffield.The opera singer grew up in Sheffield.
The opera singer grew up in Sheffield.

The last time she was on stage was back in 2019, when she got rave reviews in another Sondheim classic, Follies. That played to sold-out houses at the National for months on end. It turns out that when the great composer went backstage one night to greet the cast (a star-studded line-up that included Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee) his only comment to Dame Josephine was: “So you’re the opera singer?”

She chuckles: “Apparently, he doesn’t much like opera singers”.

Given Barstow’s show-stopping performances, he must have surely changed his tune.

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Barstow was born in Sheffield in 1940, and she and her family lived through the Luftwaffe’s bombing raids on the city. “Apparently, I was carried down our long, narrow garden to the Anderson Shelter. I was in a carry-cot, so I was looking up at the skies, and it must have been the lights that triggered the memories. That and the fear that must have been transmitted into my little body from my parents. Apparently, I was also wrapped in newspaper – although I never ever learned the reason for that.”

Josephine Barstow as Salome in 1975. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)Josephine Barstow as Salome in 1975. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Josephine Barstow as Salome in 1975. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

She moved with her family to London when she was about eight and in her teens she discovered a passion for the theatre.

“I’d have been about 14 or 15 years old”, she recalls. “And, as often as I could, I’d spend 2/6d of my pocket money getting the tube in from Cockfosters, right at the end of the Piccadilly Line, to go to the Old Vic.

“It was at the time when John Neville and Richard Burton were the kings of all they surveyed, and one of the productions which had a profound and very vivid impact on me was their Othello, where they alternated playing the leading roles – Iago and Othello. It was extremely exciting.”

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After studying at the University of Birmingham, she made her professional debut singing Mimi (in La bohème) for the Opera for All company, which toured all over the UK. And it was there that she met the man who was to become her husband, Ande Anderson. He sadly died in 1996 – but he did live to see his wife made a Dame, at Buckingham Palace the previous year.

Barstow’s stellar career has taken her to some of the most prestigious opera houses and venues in the world – among them Covent Garden and English National Opera in London, The Met in New York, Bayreuth, Glyndebourne and the Vienna State Opera – but she has always had a “very warm fondness for and gratitude to” Opera North here in Yorkshire, where she was memorable in productions of (among many others) Gloriana, Médée, Albert Herring and Wozzeck.

Northern fans, though, probably didn’t get to see her interpretation of Salome, with its seductive Dance of the Seven Veils. Which brings her on to another Yorkshire connection. She was a great friend of the late Earl of Harewood, who was, she reveals, a great persuader.

“He’d say ‘Jo, would it be interesting if you thought about doing Salome for ENO’, and he’d very carefully retreat a little after I’d said something like ‘George, absolutely no way’, and then I would mull it over, consider things a little, and come up with the answer that was almost inevitably ‘Oh, all right, if you think I can do it, why the heck not?”

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When offered key repertoire roles she has always, she reveals, gone to recordings made by Maria Callas, to discover how that legendary soprano tackled them. “I’ve listened once, and once only, to her interpretation and then I’ve put them to one side, and not returned to them at all,” she says.

She always meticulously researches her roles and has always risen to challenges – you can’t think of many great singers who would have recorded the soundtrack to Oliver! or performed the role of the doomed Nancy with such panache, or loaned her talents to another classic recording of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, where she gave the tempestuous Lilli Vanessi a voluptuous and saucy independence.

And now comes Night Music, where she is, she says, once again learning something new every day. “I never stop learning, I never will. How silly to give up,” she adds.

She is fulsome in her praise of the cast, particularly the young performers Agatha Meehan and Lucy Sherman. Only in their teens, they both alternated the part of Dorothy in the Playhouse’s recent Wizard of Oz, and now return to tackle the role of Frederika.

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“They are both absolutely dedicated, completely absorbed, and yet such lovely people. Are they learning anything from me? I haven’t a clue, but this much is true – I am learning an awful lot from them. I admire the discipline I see around me. There’s a show every night, and eight in a week. Opera singers don’t do that!”

As well as performing, Dame Jo teaches singing, from her home in the Sussex countryside. The main house was built in 1485, and it is the centre of a working farm where she breeds horses, raises cattle and leases pasture for sheep.

So is she very hands on? “Yes of course I am – look at these hands!”, and she stretches them across the space between us. The farm is currently being looked after by a Korean pupil of hers, who came for singing lessons and, because of the pandemic, stayed.

While back in Yorkshire she’ll be making a nostalgic return to Wharfedale, to revisit the beloved 17th century home she left behind, “just to make sure that the new owners are treating it well – as I know they are. There are lots of wonderful memories I have of that place.”

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But then it will be back to Sussex to get back into the rhythm of farming life. Having done just about everything else, would she ever appear in a soap?

What about bringing her farming expertise too? This prompts a hoot of laughter. “Oh, darling”, she says, “I am far too busy with the real thing!”

A Little Night Music continues at Leeds Playhouse until July 17. leedsplayhouse.org.ukSupport The Yorkshire Post and become a subscriber today. Your subscription will help us to continue to bring quality news to the people of Yorkshire. In return, you'll see fewer ads on site, get free access to our app and receive exclusive members-only offers. Click here to subscribe.