Soprano Lesley Garrett steps out of her comfort zone for a new Christmas comedy
PUBLISHED: 00:00 01 November 2018
Richard Hubert Smith
Soprano Lesley Garrett tells Tony Greenway why she's stepping out of her comfort zone for a new Christmas comedy
Appearances can be deceptive, can’t they? Whenever you see Yorkshire-born opera star Lesley Garrett on TV, she’s funny, chatty and chirpy and — while remaining genuinely down-to-earth — always fills the room with her epic personality. So it’s a shock to find that in real life she’s reserved, quiet and painfully shy, and answers to questions have to be all but coaxed out of her. No of course not. The woman is a force of nature, an operatic whirlwind. She’s immediately chatting at 100 miles per hour, massively enthusiastic and hardly pausing for breath. Rather brilliantly, it turns out that Lesley Garrett is exactly how you think she’s going to be, only more so, and with the volume turned up to 11.
This month she appears at the Sheffield Lyceum in a new comedy called The Messiah, with Outnumbered’s Hugh Dennis and Doc Martin’s John Marquez. Garrett plays a soprano called Leonora Ffflyte (with three fs) who comes to town with two actors to perform the nativity story. Naturally, everything that can go wrong does go wrong.
This is massive change of pace for Garrett. Yes, she’s sung on the world’s biggest stages, performed at various FA Cup finals, hosted her own TV show, appeared on Strictly Come Dancing (coming third), was a regular panelist on Loose Women, and joined the cast of various stage musical hits, most notably My Fair Lady at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and The Sound of Music in the West End. Yet she’s never taken on a flat-out comedy role before, so The Messiah is miles out of her comfort zone.
‘And that’s great,’ she says. ‘That’s where I like to be. That’s why I do these mad things, like Strictly. I did Masterchef last year because it means I progress, I develop, I learn. I’m always looking to grow and I don’t like being complacent. I’ve got five children at home, all in their twenties — they’re not all mine, they’ve just ended up living with me and my husband — and it’s chaos, but I love them being there. They’ve got such refreshing views and I see a different world through their eyes. So I think it’s important to keep re-evaluating things.’
Garrett’s CV is impressively diverse. You might even call it wildly unpredictable. Her first love, though, is opera (she likens being a soprano to an extreme sport) and it always will be. After exploring musical theatre for some years, she felt compelled to return to the medium that made her famous so, in 2016, she came to Leeds to star in a contemporary Opera North production called Pleasure, where she played — wait for it — a toilet attendant in a gay nightclub. Predictably the Telegraph hated it and the Guardian loved it. Garrett adored it. ‘It dealt with so many contemporary issues, and I absolutely loved every minute of it,’ she says. ‘It required me to clean a working toilet on stage while singing. So, you know, physical skills were needed too...’
The problem is — how do I put this delicately? — finding juicy roles at her stage of life isn’t always easy. ‘I’m having them written for me now because young composers are realising that there are a lack of roles for older women — and older sopranos particularly,’ she says. ‘But now women occupy positions of great power in society, we have a female Prime Minister after all, and this needs to be reflected in opera, otherwise it becomes a museum art form. We need to keep opera contemporary. The message is getting through: older women are fit, healthy and our voices are strong.’
So this month, alongside The Messiah, Garrett is touring with the Welsh National Opera in a production called Rhondda Rips it Up! about the Welsh Suffrage movement. Then in spring she’ll be starring in the world premier of an English National Opera production called Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel, alongside Susan Bullock, Dame Josephine Barstow and Janis Kelly. ‘I’m all for finding new audiences and encouraging people to try opera because there’s still this idea that it’s for an elitist few,’ she says. ‘I’ve spent my whole life trying to disabuse the public of that view and I’ll continue to do so.’
Garrett’s other forthcoming — and rather lighter — project is recording an album with West End star Maria Friedman and actress Bonnie Langford. Called The Golden Girls, it features a mix of show tunes, film themes and standards and is released at the end of the month. Then in early 2019 the trio will tour together, playing York and Scarborough in January and Sheffield in February.
Garrett, Friedman and Langford: I’m not going to lie, it seems like an unusual mix. ‘Maria and I have sung together many times in the past and Bonnie and I knew each other professionally,’ explains Garrett. ‘We’ve all got kids of a similar age and now we’re firm friends who see each other socially. When we first sang together our voices blended so beautifully. Some songs on the album are very poppy and I take a backseat on those; others are more lyrical, so I take more of a front seat. We shared them out between us. All the songs tell a story and have a sense of drama. And we all feel passionately that older women should be celebrated and not written off.’
Garrett still has a house in the north near Thorne, the village where she was born. ‘I love industrial archeology, so my favourite part of Yorkshire has to be the south,’ she says. ‘I love power stations: I’ve got a thing about them. There’s a string of them striding like giants across the South Yorkshire coalfield. They catch my breath every time I see them.’ She puts a lot of emphasis on her Yorkshire heritage. Her great-grandparents were miners and her dad was a Doncaster signalman who became a teacher and then a headmaster. ‘There are railwaymen, steel workers and welders in my family. I come from an industrial and working class background and I dip into it as often as I can.’
Even so, it all seems a long way from Glyndebourne or the stage of the Royal Opera House but Garrett insists that she only got to perform in those places thanks to her roots — not in spite of them. ‘I learnt a lot of my classical repertoire when I was a kid because we sang it around the piano,’ she says. ‘My maternal grandad was a wonderful pianist who had the opportunity to study in London at a conservatoire and become a concert pianist. He chose to stay in Sheffield instead and played in an orchestra that wrote and performed music for silent movies. He gave me my love of classical music. So my background is my inspiration.’
With the new comedy, album, opera and more in the works, Lesley Garrett’s diary is choc full. She plainly works hard and trains hard — but be honest: it’s not a bad life, is it? ‘It’s a wonderful life!’ she says. ‘Are you kidding? It’s heaven on a stick. I’m having the best fun ever.’
The Messiah Sheffield Lyceum, November 5th-10th sheffieldtheatres.co.uk