Opera + Classical Music Features

Lesley Garrett interview: “You have to become an elite athlete just to do it, but it’s the best music there is”

Soprano Lesley Garrett has been successful in everything she’s turned her hand to – stage work (both operatic and musical theatre), concerts, television, recordings and radio. Unlike other so-called”cross-over” artists, she had a glittering career on the opera stage long before she started releasing albums from other genres. This has given her an integrity that makes her passion for bringing “high art” to a wider audience much easier to accept than some young performers who sing opera arias as pop songs, without maybe first understanding the material they’re using.

Lesley’s most recent new departure has been into the world of musical theatre, with her role as the Mother Superior in the West End’s smash hit production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. Nearly four months into the run, I ask her how she’s finding the discipline of eight shows a week, something an opera singer never usually has to handle.

“I’m actually doing seven shows a week – I have Thursdays off to do other work. It’s very challenging, just the discipline of it. But it’s challenging in other ways. Doing a theatre piece with dialogue scenes is a whole new ball game. I feel a great responsibility singing Climb Every Mountain, which is maybe Rogers and Hammerstein’s most inspirational song (along with You’ll Never Walk Alone). The audience seems to relate to that song in a special way – everyone has had their own personal mountain and it all comes out in the song. At the stage door, I meet men in tears who are so moved by the show and by that song in particular. It somehow touches deep emotional parts of people and embodies traditional values like love, particularly family love. It ticks a lot of really important boxes.” She is clearly moved by the extraordinary affection people have for the show. “It’s so exciting and, as the first musical I’ve ever done, has exceeded all my expectations.”

I ask Lesley if she has seen Sing-a-long-a Sound of Music, the phenomenally successful film event where the audience sings along while watching the original Julie Andrews film. “Yes, I saw it in London and it was going to it that made me want to do the stage show. I was in the back row and I stood up and sang Climb Every Mountain at the top of my voice. The audience turned round and applauded and I thought I could do this!’. So, I spoke to my friend Michael Ball and asked if he thought I could do it and he was really encouraging. He set up a meeting with Andrew Lloyd Webber and it went from there.”

I wonder if, having got a taste for it, she’d like to do more musicals. “Oh, definitely, I’d love to. Especially now that I’ve proved to myself that I have the stamina for it”. Which ones? “I don’t know. How about Hello Dolly?”

“I’d love to play Despina as a hard-bitten mean old bag.”

We move on to opera, Lesley’s first and greatest love, and I ask her when we can expect to see her in the opera house again. She says there are no definite plans at the moment but she is currently recording Cosi fan tutte with Toby Spence and Christopher Maltman, with Sir Charles Mackerras conducting. She plays Despina, a role she has performed on the stage before. I ask which parts she now feels ready to play and hasn’t done before. “I’d like to do some Richard Strauss – The Marschallin in particular. Also some Janacek”. I tell her that her performance in The Cunning Little Vixen at ENO some years ago was highly memorable and ask which other roles she has in mind. She says, “If Amanda Roocroft wasn’t such a perfect Jenufa – and I’m thrilled for her that she’s just won an Olivier for it – I’d love to have a go at that role. I’d also like to do the Countess in Figaro. And then there are roles I’d like to revisit. I’d love to play Despina as a hard-bitten mean old bag. Don’t you think that would really work? I’d like to do The Merry Widow again (which she did for Welsh National Opera last year), especially after having done The Sound of Music.”

This leads us on to talk about the opera singers she admires and there’s a strong emphasis on acting ability. She’s very self-deprecating about her own skills in this area (I tell her that many people wouldn’t agree with that), although she feels she’s learned an enormous amount from her Sound of Music colleagues. She cites Renee Fleming, Teresa Stratas, Callas (“of course”) and Bryn Terfel as wonderful singing actors.

Lesley has just released her 13th album, When I Fall in Love, a collection of love songs ranging from Moon River to Cole Porter’s In the Still of the Night and Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, made famous by Edith Piaf. She says it’s a very personal selection, all songs that have meant something special to her at various times during her life. “It’s a celebration of love”.

“I’d like to perform at Covent Garden and I never have.”

Given that she’s been successful in so many fields, I ask her what there is left for her to do. “I’d like to perform at Covent Garden and I never have.” How about some straight acting? “Yes, I’d like to but I’m not good enough at the moment. I’d need training.” Again, her humility about her abilities is remarkable. “I’m determined to improve. What’s good now is that acting is a part of opera training, so new people coming through are grounded in it from the beginning. We didn’t have that when I started.” I remark that it’s inspiring how, when you go to student productions or concerts that, despite doom and gloom predictions about the decline of live music, there are so many young singers still wanting to work in opera. “Well, it’s the most wonderful music in the world. It’s not surprising it still inspires young singers. It’s the most demanding and most rewarding work there is. It’s a very, very difficult road to take and you have to become an elite athlete just to do it, but it’s the best music there is”.

I finish the interview by asking Lesley how she’d like to be remembered. “Primarily as an opera singer. While I love and respect lots of other types of music, that’s what I’d like people to remember.” She hesitates for a moment and changes her mind. “Maybe more than being an opera singer, I’d like to be remembered for bringing a wide range of music to as many people as possible. And keeping it live. Nothing compares with live performance”. She remembers that she has a CD to plug. “But do buy the album as well!”

What’s most striking about talking to Lesley is her genuine sense of modesty and her passion. It’s easy to see why she’s so popular. Even I, a hard-bitten old cynic who prefers listening to Wagner and Birtwistle to Marvin Hamlisch, was charmed and infected by her enthusiasm for all things musical.

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More on Lesley Garrett
Pleasure @ Lyric Hammersmith, London
Lesley Garrett interview: “You have to become an elite athlete just to do it, but it’s the best music there is”
The Merry Widow: Welsh National Opera @ Festival Theatre, Edinburgh