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Soprano Lesley Garrett is preparing to return to the operatic stage after an eight-year absence, but she’s not making it easy, as she tells Steve Pratt
Lesley Garrett has been welcomed back into the Opera North family but admits that she’s “frightened to death” of her operatic comeback after an eight-year absence.
The world-renowned Yorkshire soprano, who had some of her earlier roles with the Leeds-based company, isn’t making it easy on herself as she’s performing in the one-woman show La Voix Humaine, by Poulenc and based on a play by Jean Cocteau following one side of the final phone conversation between two former lovers.
“I wanted to come back with something people didn’t expect me to do,” says the Doncaster- born singer. “I could have returned with an operetta or Gilbert & Sullivan. But I’m eight years older since I last sang in an opera so I said let’s do something very mature, more grown up.
“It’s a very difficult one-woman show – 45 minutes of intense, passionate, powerful singing.”
She approached Opera North about a return to the operatic stage. “It wasn’t deliberate that I hadn’t done an opera. I seemed to be doing a lot of telly, touring and musicals in the West End and I thought, ‘what’s happened to my opera work?’.
“I’m passionate about opera. It’s what I was born to do, so I approached Opera North through my agent and said I wanted to come back – and to Yorkshire.
“I last sang with Opera North 30 years ago and in that time they’ve become the most extraordinary company, an international company in their own right. It’s lovely to be welcomed into the Opera North family again.”
La Voix Humaine is being staged in a double bill with Purcell’s Dido And Aeneas (in which Garrett doesn’t appear). “That’s a fascinating companion piece dealing with the same subject, but set 300 years earlier. We’re opening these two operas about abandoned women on Valentine’s Day,” she notes.
“This is the biggest challenge I have ever had and I’m frightened to death, I admit. But I wanted to go back and do something different.
I didn’t know the piece and it’s taken me months and months to learn. It’s been a real labour of love; it’s great to stretch yourself.”
When she was looking for a role for her comeback she found the opera repertoire was very limited for more mature sopranos. At 57, Garrett falls into that category. She thinks composers should be writing more, and better, works for women her age.
“Before, women weren’t powerful. Once they were past child-bearing age they were written off. Now we have equality and opera songs need to reflect that,” she says.
“It’s a practical thing too. In the past when women got past the menopause, they’d lose the top of their voices. That doesn’t happen now because of HRT and better health care.
We are going into our seventies and so we need better roles.”
She cites Dame Josephine Barstow as one of those opera stars still singing at that age. Now Garrett wants composers to write work for the more mature singer.
Although not appearing in operas, she has never been far away from that art form.
“I’ve always kept a pretty fierce regime. I have singing lessons every week, warm my voice up every day, and am careful about my lifestyle. It’s my way of life,” she says.
What she’s been doing is appearing in concerts, festivals and musicals, including The Sound Of Music and Carousel. “Theatre gets in your blood. You get terrible withdrawal symptoms if you’re away from the stage too long. The acting requirements for West End musicals are very demanding and after doing those my acting abilities have improved.”
Her return to Opera North, which also tours the production to Newcastle and Belfast, is part of what she calls an exodus of her family from their London home. Both her children, Jeremy, 20, and Chloe, 18, are studying at universities in Sheffield and Bradford.
Garrett has never forgotten her Yorkshire roots and always kept a home in the county. “I love Yorkshire passion and traditions. There’s a sort of passion I find in Yorkshire that I really value and come home for that. There’s a wonderful resourcefulness that matters to me enormously, and loyalty too.
“The return to Opera North has whetted my appetite. I hope if this is successful I’ll be making return visits to Opera North. And there are lots of lovely Northern festivals on both sides of the Pennines.
“What’s made me very happy is to find Opera North at the centre of a vibrant and satisfying cultural scene in Yorkshire and in the North in general.”
Her excitement is obvious. There is no downside, she emphasises. “It’s all about timing.
To be an opera singer you have to commit 100 per cent to the job.
“It’s incredibly demanding. While my kids have been growing up my focus has been very split. I don’t think I could have done opera for the past eight years, not until they left home.”
- OPERA NORTH AT NEWCASTLE THEATRE ROYAL Feb 27 and March 2, Otello Feb 28, La Clemenza Di Tito Feb 26 and March 2, La Voix Humaine/Dido And Aeneas Box office 08448-112121 and online theatreroyal.co.uk
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