The most un-diva like opera star

I had the pleasure of interviewing Lesley Garrett at the weekend. She really is the most un-diva like of opera stars – really down to earth, friendly and chatty. I saw her recently in a production of Messiah at Richmond theatre – not the Messiah, as in Handel, which you might expect, but a piece of glorious nonsense with Hugh Dennis and John Marquez (the policeman in Doc Martin) about a theatre troupe staging a production about the birth of Jesus. They were just larking about really, while she ostensibly tried to sing serious arias. It was her first play and she thoroughly enjoyed herself. “it was like being in a comedy class with High and John. I felt I should be paying them to be there”.

She’s done a lot of ‘firsts’. She achieved fame and success as an opera singer in her twenties, with the English National Opera, but has branched out in all directions, into management, sitting on the board of the ENO, and in TV, as a participant in the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, Celebrity Masterchef and genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are?  Channel 4’s Countdown and latterly on Loose Women. “Up until 1990 I was just an opera singer” she says (using ‘just’ as if being the ENO’s principal soprano were no big deal). “I was beginning to get parts in Europe but then I met my husband” (North London GP Dr Peter Christian) “who just turned up in my dressing room one night. We got married and had our two children quite quickly and I found I didn’t want to travel. I didn’t want to be one of those artists who was always travelling and away from their children a lot”.

Meeting her husband coincided with her first album and her first TV deal. Now her children are 25 and 26 and she has a fabulously varied career under her belt, including 14 solo albums to her name. Her latest album, The Golden Girls, recorded with Bonnie Langford and Maria Friedman, was recorded at a studio in Chiswick, with the photoshoot done at Chiswick House. She will be returning there this summer for Chiswick Proms, 7-9 June, starring in the Last Night of the Proms on the Sunday night.

She is still very involved in performing operas, and is keen to promote new operas and good roles for older women. She’s just finished Jack the Ripper – The Women of Whitechapel, by Iain Bell, with a libretto by Emma Jenkins which explores powerful themes of community and women struggling against the odds. “There was no difference between destitution and prostitution in Victorian England” she says “if you were destitute you were automatically assumed to be a prostitute”. The opera is told from the women’s perspective and although the Ripper is ever present, he doesn’t actually appear. The parts were written for specific performers and grim though the subject matter may be, they are all parts for older women. “Of his five victims” (Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly, murdered in 1888) “they were all older women in their forties or early fifties, except one”. having campaigned for roles for older women in opera, this represents something of a breakthrough: “Here you had Dame Josephine Barstow at her full powers in her late seventies as the madam of a brothel”.

Another of her bêtes noires is the lack of music provision in schools these days, so another of the strings to her bow is organising music workshops for children. One of the reasons she’s pleased to be taking part in Chiswick Proms this summer is the family atmosphere of parents and children enjoying music together. She says Last Night of the Proms on Sunday 9 June will be “a wonderful eclectic mix with something to suit everyone” with a 55 piece orchestra recreating the atmosphere of the Albert Hall in the gardens of Chiswick House with tried and tested favourites including Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance and Jerusalem, and lots of flag waving.

Chiswick Proms are members of The Chiswick Calendar’s Club Card scheme, so holders of our Club Cards can get a 10% discount on tickets for the Chiswick Proms weekend, which also includes an evening of comedy, with Jason Manford and Shappi Khorsandi on Friday 7 and an evening of musical comedy with Ruthie Henshall on Saturday 8 June. Just enter our special discount code: CAL10 at the  online check-out when buying tickets.