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Lesley Garrett - A soprano in Surrey

PUBLISHED: 20:22 17 February 2011 | UPDATED: 15:13 20 February 2013

Lesley Garrett is one of Britain's best-known sopranos and is set to perform at Wisley Music Festival

Lesley Garrett is one of Britain's best-known sopranos and is set to perform at Wisley Music Festival

World famous soprano Lesley Garrett will be performing at Wisley Music Festival, near Woking, on Thursday June 12. TRACY COOK caught up with the down-to-earth Doncaster lass to find out what she has in store for her many fans in Surrey

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine June 2006

World famous soprano Lesley Garrett will be performing at Wisley Music Festival, near Woking, this summer. TRACY COOK caught up with the down-to-earth Doncaster lass to find out what she has in store for her many fans in Surrey

Britain's favourite soprano has a cold the day I speak to her, so her famous voice sounds bunged up, as if she has a peg on her nose. Not that she gets any sympathy from her GP husband, Peter. "Oh no, you have to be at death's door to warrant any attention from him," she laughs.

Not one to give in to a minor sniffle, however, Lesley is currently in the thick of preparations for her forthcoming concert tour and is particularly excited about performing at Wisley Music Festival on Thursday June 12.

"I'm really looking forward to it, especially as I've never been there before," says the 53-year-old, who lives in north London but admits to having a real soft spot for Surrey. "It should be lovely if the sun shines!"

Singing at open air concerts is one of Lesley's favourite ways to spend an evening.

"I love them - it's like a big party," she says. "On a glorious summer evening, there's nothing I'd rather do than stand on a stage and sing along with several thousand people!

"Everyone's picnicking and getting merry - I usually try and throw in a couple of good sing-along numbers like Jerusalem to get everyone going. And then it gets dark and the candles come out - it all gets quite carnival-like."

For all the advantages of performing in the open air, however, singing outdoors does bring its own particular set of problems for a singer.

"Oh yes, it's a real challenge," admits Lesley, who has performed everywhere from London to Sydney, including the Hollywood Bowl and Wembley Stadium. "There are no natural acoustics so I have to rely heavily on my sound engineer so the audience can hear me in a truthful way. And if it's a sunny evening, the orchestra can't see their music, or if it's windy, the sheets of music blow off the stands! And if it's raining, I have large umbrellas and wellies on standby and several burly security guards to carry me over the mud!

"But you know, the resourcefulness and stoicism of the British public never cease to amaze me and they come equipped with everything from candelabra to plastic macs!"

Opera to the masses

These open air events are important to Lesley for another reason as well; because they provide the opportunity to bring opera to a wider audience. Opera has always been her first love, and the music she loves to sing the most, so she has spent a lifetime trying to make it more accessible to people who have never heard it before.

To this end, for the past five years she has also presented her own show on Classic FM.

"It's the highlight of my week," says Lesley, who also has her series, 20 Operas To See Before You Die, on Sky Arts Channel 267. "It gives me enormous pleasure when someone writes to me and says that they've been to one of my concerts, heard me sing opera and then have gone to watch a whole opera and now they go to opera regularly."

She has also just released a new recording of Cosi Fan Tutti singing the part of Despina. But although opera singing is her passion - she was principal soloist at the English National Opera for more than ten years - she hasn't followed the conventional path of the opera singer.

"It was when I had my children - Jeremy, now 15, and Chloe, 14 - I realised I couldn't travel all over Europe doing long opera runs," explains Lesley. "But my career has taken on a wonderful diversity, which I just love."

It certainly has. She has released more than 11 solo CDs and done lots of television too: most recently BBC2's Who Do You Think You Are? in which she traced her family roots, and BBC1's Comic Relief Meets Fame Academy, never mind her appearance in Strictly Come Dancing when she made it to the semi-finals! "I would love to have my own show again!" she says.

But while she may see herself as an entertainer, Lesley is no lightweight. She is a stickler for things being done properly and believes in rigorous training.

"Training is all," she declares. "It does worry me that young singers today tend to neglect it, with this whole getting famous quickly thing. It's like being an athlete - you have to keep your voice toned, your ears toned, your body toned. After all, my body is my instrument."

She still has singing lessons every week with her teacher from her days at the Royal Academy of Music - and another lesson in rigour came with her part as the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, which she finished last year.

"I have a new found respect for singers of musical theatre," she says, "for the discipline to get up every night, give your best performance and keep the standard up, that's tough. An opera singer would find singing twice in a week hard."

She loved doing the show, however, and counts its opening night as one of the many highlights of her career. I wonder if there are any as yet unachieved ambitions to come and she laughs. "Oh, I think Glastonbury would be good fun. They've had Rolf Harris and Shirley Bassey; I think they could do with a bit of Lesley Garrett!" She would certainly know how to cope with the mud.

Down to earth

She may be a diva by profession, but in person she is down to earth, open and would be horrified at being thought grand. She grew up in Thorne, a small village in south Yorkshire, and went to the local grammar school. As Parky has famously said of her: "You can take the girl out of Doncaster, but you can't take Doncaster out of the girl."

Having grown up surrounded by music, it was almost inevitable she would become a singer. Her grandfather was a classical pianist, the other played in a dance band, and music was part of her everyday life, from the pit colliery bands to village singalongs round the piano.

But she has different hopes for her own children. "I don't want them to grow up with musical careers - it's too precarious," she says. "I hope they do something sensible. Having one flighty one in this family is enough! Jeremy seems interested in engineering or design technology and Chloe is good at so many things she will be able to take her pick."

And with that, it's time for her to get back to her busy life and hurry off for an appointment with a designer for one of her gorgeous dresses for Wisley.



Surrey Soundbites...

Favourite place to visit: "It has to be Guildford. It's such a lovely town for a day's shopping."
Best loved building: "Guildford Cathedral. I've never performed there, but I went to a friend's wedding and it's beautiful."
Ideal way to relax: "Watching the Surrey County Cricket team. I love cricket and watch it a lot. I've seen a great deal of Surrey - they're a brilliant team."

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