Lesley Garrett is Britain’s most famous female soprano and she’s back with a one-woman tour that’s coming to the Assembly Hall next Wednesday evening. Here she tells Eileen Leahy all about her interactive approach to performing her latest show, which includes giving the odd impromptu singing lesson every now and again…
Can you tell us a little bit about what an Audience with Lesley Garrett entails?
It does what it says on the tin, really. It’s very interactive: I’ll be talking about my life and singing songs about all the wonderful and funny things that have happened to me along the way.
How will it be ‘interactive’?
I’ll be inviting the audience to ask me questions and request things for me to sing, but also, if there’s anyone present who sings and they want some advice on how to improve their technique, I’m happy to give some tips. I’ll even get people coming up on stage for impromptu singing lessons! I guess it’s just an intimate chance for me to get to know my audiences, and for them to get to know me.
How many dates are you doing around the country?
There are 20 dates in total, and the first one starts in Hereford next week on September 19. The Tunbridge Wells concert is the second one on September 21, then the tour goes all around the country, finishing on December 8 in Yorkshire.
Have you performed in Tunbridge Wells before?
Yes, I did a few gala concert tours with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and we came to the Assembly Hall, but it was a little while ago. I have always had a lovely time here and the audiences are great. What makes a performance different is the audience, and the one in Tunbridge Wells always draws things from me and ultimately makes me raise my game.
When and where did your most memorable performance take place?
Oh goodness me, that’s a hard one as there have been so many! I have performed at the Bolshoi in Moscow, The Hollywood Bowl and the Sydney Opera House, but I think my favourite operatic experience was recently when I did something with Opera North.
They have been very kind and allowed me to develop a new string to my bow by doing lots more modern opera, such as La Voix Humane by Francis Poulenc. I also did Pleasure, which was written especially for me by a very talented and young composer called Mark Simpson. I loved it because it was so dramatic, powerful and quite heart-wrenching.
How did you get into opera in the first place?
I come from a very musical family and area in South Yorkshire. I was born into a working-class household. My mum and dad were both on the railways and everyone in the district was either doing that or going down the mines, as I grew up in a pit village. My parents were very ambitious, though, and wanted to better themselves, so they got into teaching. My father used to study in his signal box and gained the necessary qualification to go to college and my mum followed him. He eventually became a headmaster at a school in Sheffield and my mother worked at a school in Doncaster.
How did your home life influence your love of music?
Well, we were pretty hard up and the only music I knew was what we would sing at home. Folk, war songs, popular and show tunes – you name it we sang it – but for me it was opera that was the most challenging and interesting to listen to on our radio. Through my school, Thorne Grammar, I was lucky enough to have my voice trained through singing lessons they arranged for me. I decided to try for the top and received a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, and that’s where my journey really began.
What happened next?
I came to London with my auntie and uncle as they could see I had talent and they took me to a different West End show and opera each night of our stay. I fell in love with it all, and that’s when I decided I wanted opera to be my life.
You’ve toured for years, but do you enjoy being on the road?
Well this tour isn’t consecutive nights, it’s only two or three a week, which is comfortable and enough for me. If I performed every night then I would get tired and I’d be worried the show wouldn’t be as good, so I make sure I rest my voice. When I was touring with musicals like The Sound of Music and Carousel, then I would do every night because I was part of a bigger vehicle and I could get into the rhythm of performing the same show.
What are the upsides to touring?
Visiting different parts of the country and being able to reach the smaller communities who wouldn’t normally have access to the big shows. I’ve always been keen to take live music to as many different people as I can.
Your last album, a North Country Lass, was a folk COLLECTION – why did you decide to diversify?
Folk music has always been an enormous influence in my life and I have done a little bit of it on other albums. I was also keen to have different young arrangers work on it to bring their voice to these time-honoured songs. The wonderful thing about folk music – and this also applies to opera – is that it’s so robust you can’t hurt it. It’s such good, well-loved music you can afford to experiment with it, and hopefully reach another audience by doing so. It was a very creative and collaborative process that I enjoyed very much.
What other musical genres do you enjoy performing?
Oh there are so many! I love the songs from the shows and particularly enjoy performing religious and sacred music. There’s not much I won’t have a go at, to be honest! I wasn’t brought up with a lot of jazz so I haven’t done much of that, and I’m always a little anxious when opera singers suddenly declare themselves as ‘jazz artists’. I think you have to understand it well, so I’d hesitate to do it on a regular basis.
Are there any artists you find inspirational? If so, who?
Funnily enough, it’s mostly men. I love the opera singers Bryn Terfel and Ian Bostridge. I find their quality of tone absolutely inspiring and beautiful. The women I admire include Mirella Freni and Adele, she sings very well.
You’ve been in the business for over 30 years, but is there anything else you’d like to achieve in life?
I’d love to do a film score. That would be a wonderful thing to do as I feel that film and opera are very closely related. I’d love to have worked with the late John Barry as I think he had the most wonderful talent, but I’d certainly settle for Ennio Morricone!
You’ve done lots of TV work, too, including hosting your own show and appearing on Loose Women and Strictly – how was that?
I was on the first one in 2004 and was terrified, but I lost two stone and got very fit, and of course I had my wonderful partner Anton Du Beke. He was really lovely and we got to the semi-final!
Can you tell us what your secret is to juggling a successful career with a balanced family life?
Having a wonderfully supportive and understanding husband. I couldn’t have done any of this without my lovely Peter, who is always there for me. We’ve always shared responsibility for absolutely everything.
For me equality is everything, and I think my husband is a great appreciator and supporter of feminism. He’s the reason I have been able to balance motherhood with doing other things in life.
Lesley Garrett will be performing at the Assembly Hall Tunbridge Wells next Wednesday ,September 21, at 7.30pm. To book tickets, which are priced at £28, please visit www.assemblyhalltheatre.co.uk