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“I’m the Heineken of opera singers – I reach the places other singers don’t reach!” We’re sitting in the boardroom of Classic FM radio and Lesley Garrett - Britain’s favourite soprano - is on ebullient form.
When we last met seven years ago, she was Our Lesley: The Diva From Doncaster delighting audiences up and down the country in sell-out concerts and in a string of roles for English National Opera. Since then she has sold another shed-full of discs, joined the board of ENO, become a welcome presence on Classic FM, had her own series on television, been awarded a CBE for services to music, toured twice a year throughout the UK… and learned ballroom dancing.
Her appointment diary looks like a railway timetable. “It’s my duty to respond to the needs of my audience and give them what they want,” enthuses the feisty star, “and I like to take them to places where they wouldn’t ordinarily go.” While she is fast becoming a national treasure, few opera singers have ever shown such career versatility and opened themselves to so many new challenges…
THE BALLROOM DANCER
Her most recent challenge, of course, has been becoming a ballroom dancer. And thereby hangs a strange coincidence.
“I’ve always wanted to learn ballroom dancing, and I finally decided I was going to do it. So last Christmas I bought my husband a stick-on hairy chest, a pot of Brylcreem and an invitation to join his wife for a course of ballroom lessons. We’d been twice when a call came through from the BBC asking if I’d be interested in taking part in a programme called Strictly Come Dancing. I bit their hands off!”
The celebrities were paired off with international dance champions.
“I asked for someone who could teach me really well but who would make me laugh, understand me as a performer and be musical. And Anton Du Beke is all of those things. We had to learn some extremely complicated choreography, hundreds of different steps, and,” she adds with a blissful grin, “it – was – heaven! I can’t remember when I was last that happy. I couldn’t wait to get to the rehearsals each day.
“You see, dancers are just like singers: they make music with their bodies. I hadn’t realised how closely related singing and dancing are. I lost 18lbs and became incredibly fit – I suddenly had muscles! I averaged about four hours dancing a day for three months, and that was on top of everything else.
“I had a very full diary – I’d just come home in the evening, have a cuddle on the sofa with the kids for an hour and they’d say, ‘She’s gone again – Mum’s dropped off.’”
Garrett had to learn all 10 of the classic dances, both ballroom – the foxtrot, waltz, Viennese waltz, tango and quickstep; and Latin – the cha-cha, samba, rumba, jive and paso doble. Lesley’s and Anton’s speciality was the foxtrot. They made it through to the semi-finals and danced on live television.
“I’ve never been so frightened! Maybe I had got a bit comfortable. I needed the excitement, the rush of adrenalin. But that’s why I push the boat out all the time with different, challenging repertoire.”
THE OPERA STAR
Garrett has just recorded Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince, an opera for children based on the story by Saint-Exupéry. Portman, famous for her film music (she won an Oscar for Emma), has written a charming, melodic score that’s both accessible and economical.
“We went auditioning all round the country through Blue Peter to find the perfect Little Prince. And we discovered this extraordinary little boy, Joseph, who has the most lovely voice – he’d never sung before. Another coincidence is that my fellow Classic FM presenter Aled Jones is also in it. Not only that but he’s followed me in my dance steps and taken part in the current series of Strictly Come Dancing.”
THE MERRY WIDOW
This time next year Lesley will be joining Welsh National Opera for her first Hanna Glawari, the heroine of Lehár’s sparkling operetta The Merry Widow. It’s a role, Classic FM suggests, that’s made for her. Why hasn’t she done it before?
“Well, I needed to be this age. I needed to be more mature and more in control of my physicality. And that’s what Strictly Come Dancing has done for me. The Merry Widow will be a perfect vehicle for me – and the costumes will be fabulous.”
You like your frocks, don’t you, we tease…
“I love my frocks! Of course I do, darling. I have this theory that if they hate the singing, at least they can go away humming the frocks.”
THE TV PRESENTER
Is there a danger of her being better known as an entertainer than as an opera singer?
She bridles. “One reason why I took a break from opera was to come back with the batteries recharged and with a different Lesley Garrett – a more mature, stylish, more elegant Lesley Garrett. I want there to be a Phase Two of Lesley Garrett as far as the theatre’s concerned. I have to feel I’m developing all the time. I can’t bear the merest whiff of staleness to permeate me nostrils,” she says, camply exaggerating her Yorkshire accent.
“That’s why I’ve gone off-piste deliberately in the last couple of years, doing a whole variety of different challenges. I’ve been experimenting with presenting because I want to be the friendly face of classical music and opera, and create a relationship with the public so that if I’m in the position to present documentaries they’ll say, ‘Oh we know her, we love her singing, we’ll trust what she says.’ Then I can take them forward. I want to find people who are not confident about classical music and give them the great gift of this music that I adore.”
THE RADIO BROADCASTER
Lesley fairly burns with missionary zeal. “I think people need a helping hand. Classical music is not in every home as much as it was 40 years ago when I was a child. In the area where I grew up, lots of people had pianos in their front rooms, and lots of people had a mum or an auntie who could sit down and play a bit of Chopin. It was really quite common, but is much less so today.
“Now, you could moan about that and regret it, or you could think, ‘How can I use modern technology to reinvigorate that interest in classical music?’ So I spend my life thinking of ways to get classical music back into the home. That’s why I’m here at Classic FM and why I’ve been associated with this company ever since it began.”
THE MUSIC CAMPAIGNER
To help her keep all the balls in the air, she has a personal manager and a PA who work and travel with her all the time, as well as the indispensable Joy Mammen with whom Lesley still has voice lessons twice a week, as she has for the past 20 years.
“She is my personal vocal fitness trainer as well as my coach.”
Married to her GP husband since 1991, Lesley also has a full-time nanny for their children, Jeremy and Chloe. Has she noticed how many schoolchildren think classical music is uncool?
“It dismays me. It has to be taught – and it’s not. It was so much a part of schooling. When you think about how music touches us all – I doubt there’s a child in the country who doesn’t listen to the radio, or television or a CD at some point every single day, just as in the same way you take up a book and read it.
“Now you wouldn’t for a minute not teach reading in school, so why on earth are we not teaching music? It’s fundamental to our lives, it touches our hearts in a way that nothing else does. If we don’t teach it in schools, the next generation is going to be so culturally impoverished and will be denied this extraordinary access that music gives to our souls, to our emotional well-being.”