Back to her first love

Lesley Garrett
Lesley Garrett

“IT’S a nice irony, isn’t it?” volunteers a talkative Lesley Garrett; “opening two operas on Valentine’s Day about two women abandoned by their lovers.”

The operas, programmed as a double bill by Opera North, Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice) and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, open in Leeds tonight – Thursday.

Adding intrigue to the occasion is that it sees the return to the opera stage after a long absence of the singer in the Poulenc’s often intense, highly emotional 45-minute monodrama.

About a woman, Elle, who carries on a regularly interrupted, one-sided telephone conversation with the man who has rejected her, it is far from the sort of part associated in the past with the popular South Yorkshire-born and raised soprano.

“That’s why I’m doing it,” laughs Garrett mischievously. “Seriously,” she adds, “I wanted to do it. I’ve been busy doing other things, as you know, and I just thought last year, this is ridiculous. I’m an opera singer; I should be doing opera.”

The last opera, as such, the one-time City of Sheffield Girls’ Choir member appeared in was The Merry Widow with Welsh National Opera eight years ago. Before that, is in the mists of time.

Recent years have seen tours, TV shows, the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music for Andrew Lloyd Webber at the London Palladium, followed by a spell as Nettie Fowler in Carousel at the Savoy.

“I’ve always sort of kept in touch,” insists Garrett. “I’ve done a couple of recordings: I did Sir Charles Mackerras’ last recording of Così (fan Tutte, 2008), and I’ve kept my training going. I have singing lessons every week, so there’s no question that my voice has not been kept in pristine condition.”

Re-launching her career on the opera stage at Opera North has an element of dejá vu, as it took off with company in its early days as an offshoot of English National Opera. It was after a Marriage of Figaro there in the early Eighties that Lord Harewood offered her a job at the sister company in London.

“It’s a company that’s been close to my heart for many years because it helped in launching my career. It’s great to see how it has developed and grown. It’s now judged as an international company in its own right,” says the soprano.

So how has La Voix Humaine (performed in an English translation) come about?

“As I say, I decided I wanted to get back into opera so I approached Opera North and they welcomed me with open arms, but felt if I was going to come back, come back with something new and different, because in the intervening year I have grown and developed.

“Working in the West End requires a very fine level of acting ability and I had to work hard on my acting skills to stand up against the music theatre artists I was working with who were very talented indeed.

“I wanted the challenge, to bring that experience and training to this role because Elle is a fully-fledged dramatic, passionate, hugely emotional character. It’s appealed to me all the way along the line and I’m relishing getting my teeth into a big character.”

It was Garrett who suggested La Voix Humaine (text by Jean Cocteau) to Opera North, although she describes it as “very much a meeting of minds.”

At which point, the loquacious soprano embarks on a long, wide-ranging discourse: historical, medical, political, on the lack of suitable roles for mature sopranos, specifically within her lyric voice range.

Getting this particular one back on track, what sort of challenges the Poulenc has raised for her?

“Remembering thousands and thousands of words without a break. In a normal opera, you get a chance to think what you’re going to do next when someone else is singing; here it has to be completely automatic which makes it very truthful because I have to live the moment.

“There’s no opportunity to switch off, I have to keep myself focused the whole time.

“I’m revelling in it, I must say. I’ve never been happier in my life,” she laughs and launches into another discourse.

“I made the decision last year that I wanted to concentrate more on opera and classical work, because when my children were growing up I wanted to be at home.

“Being an opera singer requires enormous selfishness; it’s actually self-engaging. Opera singers have to take care of themselves in a very determined way and when you’ve got kids, I personally, found that almost impossible.

“I’m guilty of accepting less-demanding work, if you like, while my children were growing up and now they’ve come to northern universities and are in their first years – Chloe’s at Bradford and Jeremy’s at Sheffield.

“It’s enabled me to come back and pick up my classical career and focus on that,” states the soprano, a trio she has formed with clarinetist Emma Johnson and pianist Andrew West having already started to make waves.

“I’m going back to what I ought to be doing, to be honest with you, because this my training and this is my love,” she continues.

“I’m not in any way regretting the work I’ve done in the last eight or so years. It’s been absolutely brilliant, performing in all the different places with the different organisations that I have and it’s given me the chance to promote opera.

“I’ve never stopped talking about it, never stopped loving it, and am never going to stop singing it. I’ve sung all the popular arias and, hopefully, I’ve been continuing to carry the flag for opera.”

So there you are!

As is Opera North’s wont, the Leeds-based company will not be airing its Poulenc/ Purcell double bill to Sheffield so you will have to travel to see Lesley Garrett in La Voix Humaine, at the Grand Theatre, Leeds: tonight (Thursday), Sunday (4pm), Tuesday, next Thursday (February 21) and February 23. Thereafter, it tours to the Theatre Royal Newcastle: February 26, March 1; if you happen to be in Belfast on March 8, at the Grand Opera House; The Lowry, Salford Quays: March 12, March 15; and the Theatre Royal Nottingham: March 19, March 22.