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Lesley Garrett has been on an extraordinary journey in recent times. The popular soprano has swapped the opera house for the musical theatre for six months, to play the Mother Abbess in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound Of Music. She’s also just released an album of classic love songs produced and orchestrated by her long-standing musical collaborator, Tolga Kashif.
The popular singer says she’s had her eyes opened by working in the West End.
“I’ve never had an experience like it. I tell you, we’re completely spoiled in the opera; I’ve never worked so hard in all my life. I don’t know how Connie [Fisher – who stars as Maria] has stayed together; she’s amazing, so strong, so resilient.”
Tickets for The Sound Of Music at the London Palladium are like gold dust at the moment, with the production sold out for months to come. I caught up with Lesley in her dressing room, which she’s transformed into a real home-from-home, furnished with her own bed linen, a lick of paint and some new bits of furniture.
With the musical taking up much of her life over the next six months, she was determined to have somewhere cosy to retreat to and, more importantly, a place where her two children could come and do their homework. It also acts as something of a common room for the rest of the cast.
“It’s a hive of activity. If it’s a Saturday, quite often there’ll be various nuns in here for ‘prayer meetings’, which are basically an excuse for a natter. People also come into my dressing room for snacks – my fridge is always well stocked!
“The company I’m privileged enough to work with is extraordinary. I’ve found I’ve become closer to people than I would perhaps in an operatic situation because the performances are so close together. I see more of my new friends here than I do of my family at the moment. It’s like being in the bosom of a whole new family and I’m the Grand Mamma, which I love!”
The Sound Of Music has been something of a learning curve for one of the UK’s most successful female recording artists.
“When I heard Andrew Lloyd Webber was bringing The Sound Of Music to the West End, I thought, ‘This is my chance!’ I actually applied for the job – the first time I’ve done that in my life. I’ve always wanted to play the role of the Mother Abbess and I’m the perfect age now. It felt right for me to see if I could persuade Andrew Lloyd Webber to let me have a crack at it.
“To be honest, I want to move into more serious roles, and now is the right time for me to do this. Every step has been like it was meant to be; I’ve felt I’ve been following a path that was preset many years ago.”
Landing her dream role was the easy part – it was when she got the role that the hard work really started.
“When I began this wonderful journey, I was surprised by the process, because I hadn’t appreciated just how hard people work in the musical theatre world. Previews are a new thing to me; you just don’t have them in the opera house. There, you might do a dress rehearsal and then have a couple of days off to think about your opening night, then after that have another three days off before your second performance. In musical theatre, in the week before previews, they think nothing of doing two dress rehearsals a day – so it’s performance after performance, run after run after run. I’ve found it incredibly hard work.”
Some of us from Classic FM have been along to see the show and, I confess, we came out of the theatre singing all the hits. Luckily we weren’t alone in this – most of the audience was having a go, too. For passers-by it must have looked like very bad open auditions for the next X Factor.
But there’s just no denying it – Rodgers and Hammerstein knew how to write a song.
“I absolutely agree with you; you can’t get the tunes out of your head can you?” Lesley admits. “That was the thing that made me want to do this role. The fact that my children know all the music, my parents know the music – this work is in everybody’s psyche, even those who haven’t seen the movie. It’s a very happy show; we all go off-stage still singing the songs – I know, it sounds cheesy!”
She also gets to perform some of the best-known songs in The Sound Of Music too; My Favourite Things; How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria and, of course, the goosebump-inducing Climb Every Mountain.
“It’s an important and meaningful song for everybody, because we’ve all had to climb mountains haven’t we? We’ve all had to overcome difficulties, and I think this song epitomises that for many people.”
On the night I saw The Sound Of Music, Climb Every Mountain was one of the biggest crowd-pleasers of the evening, bringing people to their feet.
“Audiences are what make the hard work worthwhile, and they’ve been unbelievable,” says Lesley. “I’ve never experienced a reaction like it. There mustn’t be dividing lines between different genres of music in terms of public appreciation. To me, this music is every bit as good as Mozart. It’s completely different from Mozart but it’s not inferior. If music touches you, whatever that music is, it matters.”
You might be surprised to learn that there was one thing that daunted the singing star of both English and Welsh National Opera about being in the West End – the length of the run.
“It was the idea of doing the same character for six months. I had quite a few concerns about that because I’ve never done anything where I’ve had to perform every day. We had to have a family meeting, we had to ask: would we, as a family, survive?
“So I’m taking care of myself. I’ve had to learn to pace myself because I’ve now done more performances of The Sound Of Music than any other piece in my life. This challenge is possibly the greatest of all.”
Another part of Lesley’s latest journey has been a change of record company and the recording of a new album of romantic ballads, ranging from When I Fall In Love and The Way We Were to Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien and Moon River.
“All the music that’s on the album is music that I have found useful to me at different stages in my life. It’s a very personal disc. We all go through different kinds of emotional experiences, and all of us find certain pieces of music are really important to us at particular times. I’ve chosen music that has either helped me to get through a difficult time or has enabled me to express great joy – because that’s what music is for.”
Lesley’s trusted musical mentor, Tolga Kashif, has produced, arranged and orchestrated the album. He directed the platinum-selling single Perfect Day (on which Lesley sang) and was also behind The Queen Symphony, a piece based on the music of the legendary rock group. He’s worked on previous albums with Lesley and has gone on the road with her too. All of this made him the natural choice for her new release.
“Tolga is just so completely open to any kind of music – he’s the original melting pot! He’s got extraordinary talent and is a great craftsman in the way that he builds a song.”
Lesley tells me that they also used a unique approach to recording the album. “Unusually, we toured the music before we recorded it, and that was great. For me, there’s much more depth to this album because we’d had the chance to play with it on tour. The performances were never the same two nights running. It was so exciting yet so scary, and we’ve tried to capture that on the recordings. The music came together very easily; there are so many love songs and different aspects of love to express.”
So, with the huge success of The Sound Of Music and high hopes for her album, is this a new chapter in Lesley’s life? “Oh, I hope so. It’s funny, journalists ask me ‘What was your big break?’ and I think to myself that I have a big break every couple of years or so. There’s always another new mountain to climb, there always seems to be a new adventure to have.”