Lesley Garrett: Proms Queen
We talk to soprano star Lesley Garrett about her rise to the top, and coming to Chiswick Proms this summer
The best kind of music is when it is interactive, and it is out there in the community,” says Lesley Garrett. “That is how I learnt – singing around the piano, singing in groups. I grew up around a south Yorkshire coal-field and the second most important thing for all of us after coal was music. I grew up with it in my bones.”
The down-to-earth northerner, who has graced some of the most famous stages in the world, is therefore delighted to be coming to Chiswick Proms this summer. Not only for the quintessentially British pastime of the proms, complete with Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia, but because it will have workshops for kids, and the opportunity for adults to really get into the spirit of the performances. “I’m never happier than when I am continuing that tradition I was part of and offering people the chance to join in. It is definitely a contact sport!”
It is a busy time for Lesley, who has just finished performing a new work for the English National Opera, telling the story of Jack the Ripper’s victims. “The victims have always been lumped together, as if they were just one, but this sets out to tell each of their stories and see them as individual people,” she says.
She is also preparing to tour in the autumn. Lesley celebrates the anniversary of her 40-year career next year, and her new show will bring together her anecdotes and favourite music over the decades. “I’m so looking forward to getting out on the road. I’ll be talking about my career, tales of things that have happened, and the music that has inspired me.”
Lesley is not one to rest on her laurels. As well as singing, she has had her own TV show and appeared on many others – she loves taking part in quiz shows for charity, was one of the first participants on Strictly Come Dancing, and says she fulfilled one of her ambitions last year when she got in to the semi-final of Celebrity MasterChef. “I would love to do The Great British Bake Off, too – my dad was a master baker when I was little, although he did go on to become a headmaster, and I do love baking, that would be a lot of fun.”
She also supports three charities: Future Talent, which helps young musicians, Help Musicians UK, a benevolent charity to support musicians that are struggling for whatever reason, and The Lost Chord, which employs young musicians to perform for the residents of dementia homes. She says of the latter initiative: “The effect the music has is miraculous. The residents suddenly come out of their shells, they join in, and are empowered for a little while. And for the young musicians it is a good way of establishing a rapport with an audience, if they can do it in that sort of environment it gives them confidence to go on a stage anywhere,” explains Lesley.
While many singers who have sung on the stage at the Bolshoi and packed out the Sydney Opera House might describe themselves as artists, Lesley, who received a CBE for her services to music, says that first and foremost you are a commodity.
“It is important to be flexible. You are in a marketplace, and you are a product – you have to make the best of yourself and you have to take care of all the component parts of what makes a good singer, and there are a lot of them.”
And don’t be picky, she says: “If something comes your way take it. You don’t know what you might discover about yourself. I have sung everything from jingles for adverts to full blown opera on the Bolshoi stage, and I will continue to do that. It is all good fun and a great education.”
Lesley lives in North London with her husband, a GP, and, until recently her grown-up children. Her daughter is a theatre director and her son a java script programmer. “They are 26 and 25 and are just in the process of moving into a flat together. They have said they have to cut the umbilical cord! But I hope they will be bringing their washing back home and coming for a good feed up! I love a family dinner,” says Lesley.
She also frequently heads back to South Yorkshire. “I go back to my little cottage in Epworth as much as I possibly can. My sisters, nephews and nieces are all up there. It is my little retreat.”
Chiswick Proms, 7- 9 June