Viv Hardwick learns Britain’s favourite soprano Lesley Garrett is ready for even more magical nights of opera

PROUD of her heritage as the Diva of Doncaster, Lesley Garrett finds time after a Manchester fundraiser for the victims of the arena bomb blast to chat about launching her latest venture, Magic of the Opera, which makes its debut at Newcastle City Hall next week (Friday June 16).

Asked what remains magical about opera, the 62-year-old international star says: “I suppose I’ve got these two sides to my nature. There’s Lesley the artist and Lesley the entertainer. It comes from my grandfathers. One was a dance band leader, who led Arthur Garrett and the Black-out Boys and the other was a fantastic classical pianist.

“These gene strands are impossible to ignore and I have to give time to both. Opera-wise, I’ve very involved again having returned to Opera North, who commissioned a new opera for me from a fantastic Liverpudlian called Mark Simpson and it was entitled Pleasure. It was set in a gay bar and I was the toilet attendant and mother confessor to all the clients,” says Garrett.

Her own confession is that she was finding roles few and far between for older sopranos. “Traditionally, older women were written off after childbearing years and sopranos, after the menopause, lost the tops of their voices, so there were no roles written for them. Mezzos ended up as bag ladies and witches, but there were few powerful roles for older women. I made the point that if opera was going to reflect contemporary society, to avoid becoming a museum art-form, we have to start writing about contemporary issues and society. You just have to look at who is running Germany, Britain, the IMF, and should be running the US, to see where these powerful women are. Various young composers, who ironically grew up with my TV shows and albums, are now writing roles for me. I’m very excited about that, with my classical hat on,” she says.

Her entertainment hat is now adorning the line-up for the Magic of the Opera, presented by the newly-formed Nottingham Theatre production company, UK Theatre Bureau. The English National Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by music arranger Ben Crick, will feature songs from popular opera with Garrett singing alongside John Cunningham (baritone), Hannah Mason (mezzo soprano) and Lee Bradley (tenor).

“It’s fantastic this performance has a full orchestra because opera needs that sound. I’ve yet to meet my colleagues, but the four of us are not only performing solo arias but ensembles as well. The latter is the greatest joy for me because I love singing ensembles, creating amazing music with other people. We’ve got lots of Bizet, Rossini, Verdi and Offenbach. I’m singing the Barcarolle and pieces from Carmen, Ave Maria plus a piece arranged for all four of us based on O Sole Mio. This is unashamedly a wonderful programme designed for people who are classically uncomfortable, but also for those who love opera and want to hear their favourite pieces,” says Garrett.

She feels that most of her singing career has been spent attracting newcomers to opera. “I sang so much around the piano as a kid in South Yorkshire. The school would put on Benjamin Britton one term and My Fair Lady the next. I think that’s why my career has gone the way it has because I continue to mix it up. To me it’s all good music. The scores of Rodgers and Hammerstein are just jewels. They are classic examples of their genre. It’s not classical music, but they are classics of their kind,” she adds.

Her job, she feels, is finding the right style of singing because she wouldn’t tackle Bach in the same way as Verdi, or Mozart the same way as Andrew Lloyd Webber. “But they all need first class singing.”

Garrett has never forgotten her roots in Thorne, near Doncaster, and has visited her family’s cottage in the area for the past 35 years. “We kept the flat in London, but I’ve always commuted regularly and I feel like I’ve got my own lane on the MI. I credit Yorkshire with keeping my feet on the ground, and that’s important. Yorkshire folk don’t let you get too big for your boots. It’s a funny tightrope you have to walk. You’re absolutely encourage to make the best of every single opportunity, but if you go that little bit too far you get, ‘Who do you think you are?... get your feet back on the ground’. I think that balance helps you.”

She says her children consider themselves to be Northerners and “when the decision was made about going to university they both chose without hesitation to go to Sheffield and both have just graduated”.

“My children, Jeremy and Chloe, have always been close and they have only been half-an-hour away from us in Sheffield. Both have now graduated and on with the next part of their lives. We only went through the empty nest period quite briefly because now they are both living back at home and together with various partners and friends we’ve ended up with about five kids. Sometimes we end up with a few more and have a full house. This is something that my husband and I love, but our friends think we are bonkers. We like having young people around and they keep us up to date with all the millennial goings-on and we’re happy to have them,” Garrett says.

Having been Britain’s best-known opera star for years, the singer isn’t quite so confident about the small screen future of opera and musicals.

“It’s very difficult to get operas or musicals onto mainstream television these days. I have no real idea why because they are as popular as they ever were. You can still see these productions on Sky Arts, but I can only consider this is all down to financial constraints. If we want opera and musicals to continue to thrive we have to support them in this medium. That isn’t being done and it’s a cause of enormous worry. All I can do is my bit.

“We managed to get Pleasure on BBC Radio 3, but it was only an hour-and-a-quarter long. I think length is a problem because people struggle to concentrate for long periods nowadays or perhaps the powers that be think that so it never challenges viewers and listeners with the possibility of a longer piece. I think that is incredibly patronising. I do feel that part of the entertainment industry in general is to encourage improvement and challenge its audience, not always dumb down and go for the safe option. As a human being I hate that. I can’t believe I’m on my own. Opera is the most powerful and fundamental audio-visual art form that you will ever encounter.”

  • Magic of the Opera with Lesley Garrett, Newcastle City Hall, Friday, June 16. Box Office: 08448-112121 or