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Hitting the Right Note

Internationally-renowned opera diva, West End musical star, recording artist and now performing in a Clapham church, Ruth Wyatt meets musical powerhouse Lesley Garrett CBE.

Garrett is a human dynamo. She’s currently on stage at the Coliseum, which she’ll swap for a Clapham church for a night, before headlining at the Northern Christmas Proms, interspersed with a dizzying round of charitable engagements, whilst campaigning for better operatic roles for mature women and preparing for Christmas with 14 members of her family. She also thinks Christmas needs a bit of rebranding, but she might have to catch her breath first.

Then next year sees her in a new production for the Welsh National Opera celebrating the 100th anniversary of British suffrage, Rhondda Rips It Up!, followed by a ground-breaking piece for the English National Opera about Jack the Ripper, told from the victims’ perspective. And breathe.

I would say it’s tiring just listening to her, but it isn’t – it’s energising. Her passion, verve and positivity are as infectious as her laugh.

She is everything you’d expect her to be if you’d caught her performance in this year’s Celebrity MasterChef: warm, chatty, funny and down to earth, but without the continual breaking into song. “I only sang a few times in all those weeks of filming, but they put it in every single time. Made me look like I was always at it,” she chuckles.

To be fair, she does burst into song fairly often, she concedes. “It’s a stress reliever, you see, so sometimes I just have to let it out. I sang all the way through labour, actually. Street Scene [an American-style opera in which she starred] was on the telly in the bloody common room at the time so they had me at both ends of the ward,” she continues. “I ended up having an emergency caesarean at the same time as the finale and my husband quipped ‘trust you to take curtain calls in two different theatres at the same time'.”

Famously straight-talking, as befits a north country lass, the 62-year-old soprano is a vocal campaigner for better roles for older singers. Traditionally sopranos were written off after childbearing. “Partly it’s because they didn’t matter; women didn’t matter then as much as we do now, and partly it was because sopranos lost the top of their range with menopause,” she explains. “We didn’t exist except as witches and bag ladies, and who wants to be a bag lady?”

That said, Garrett did perform the role of a toilet attendant in a gay club called Val in a new opera, Pleasure, to rave reviews last year. “That’s different,” she asserts. “That was important. [The piece] is about domestic violence and it is bang up to date, which opera needs to be in the 21st century. Opera’s not about kings and queens of 200-odd years ago; it’s about life, current affairs, people, stories.”

A night performing in St Paul’s Church in Clapham sounds like light relief. “I do really enjoy doing that ‘audience with’ style – it’s fun to chat about music that has been important at turning points in my life,” she sighs. “Every evening is different because the audience is different and you never know what someone is going to say. Mind you, I have to have someone to keep me to some kind of time. I’ve been called the Ken Dodd of opera as I can go on and on and on. I always sing lots more than I am supposed to and if I didn’t have someone there with an eye on the clock, I’d still be singing at midnight.”

An Audience with Lesley Garrett at St Paul’s Church in Clapham on December 9. https://events.

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