Denise Leigh: If at first you don't succeed

Winning the talent show Operatunity has taken the blind singer Denise Leigh to unimagined heights in the music world. But only after a decade of struggle, she tells James Rampton
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Denise Leigh, the blind woman who was the joint winner of Operatunity, Channel 4's upmarket answer to Pop Idol, is standing in unfamiliar surroundings. She is on the stage of the cavernous theatre at the headquarters of Slovak Radio in Bratislava. She is surrounded by the massed ranks of the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra and has just finished an exquisite rendition of Franck's "Panis Angelicus".

Denise Leigh, the blind woman who was the joint winner of Operatunity, Channel 4's upmarket answer to Pop Idol, is standing in unfamiliar surroundings. She is on the stage of the cavernous theatre at the headquarters of Slovak Radio in Bratislava. She is surrounded by the massed ranks of the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra and has just finished an exquisite rendition of Franck's "Panis Angelicus".

For the briefest moment, silence reigns; and then it is broken by a loud and spontaneous chorus of "Bravo!" from the 70-strong orchestra. To emphasise their appreciation, in lieu of clapping, the members of the string section bang their music-stands loudly with their bows.

Up in the control-room, high above the stage, John Fraser, the chief producer and director of recorded productions at EMI Classics, looks down and beams at his protégée, who is in Slovakia recording her debut album, Pie Jesu. "It is difficult to applaud with a violin - it could be very expensive," Fraser says, with a wide smile of contentment. "But it's strange how potent cheap music can be, isn't it?"

Whether the music is cheap or not is debatable. What is beyond doubt is that Leigh has got "it". In the Slovak Radio Theatre, the contours of the singer's voice and those of the orchestra wrap around each other in perfect harmony. Her coloratura - the way in which she "paints" the music - is deft and imaginative. And when she hits the high notes with consummate ease, it's real hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck stuff.

This, Fraser reckons, is what Leigh possesses - a rare capacity to move through music. "Denise's singing bypasses the intellect and appeals directly to your soul," he says. "There are some singers who are quite interchangeable, but something about her sound is very special." He is not alone in thinking so. In his recent MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival, John Humphrys said Operatunity had reduced him to tears.

On the back of that show, Leigh's last album, made with Jane Gilchrist, the other winner, shifted a respectable 90,000 copies. It received a silver disc and sat at No 1 in BBC Music Magazine's Core Classics Chart for five months. She and Gilchrist are currently undertaking a 33-date national tour with a show entitled A Night at the Opera. Leigh has sung in front of the Queen at St James's Palace and appeared on the same bill as artists as diverse as Andrea Bocelli, Katherine Jenkins and Carl Davis. She has even performed a benefit for the North Wales Air Ambulance - although she strenuously resisted their suggestion that the show be called "Chopper-atunity". And, perhaps her biggest gig so far, she and Gilchrist appeared at the Last Night of the Proms show in Hyde Park.

Just two years ago, Leigh was a keen amateur singer and former cornet-player in a brass band, who took on what engagements she could fit in between bringing up three young children in her home village of Audley, near Stoke-on-Trent. So how did she get so far so fast? The popularity of Operatunity undoubtedly helped. "I'd had a decade of struggling before Operatunity," she recalls over lunch in the beautiful medieval main square of Bratislava. "But everything happens for a reason. If I'd gone to music college in my early twenties, as I intended to before I got pregnant with my first child, I would now have been a struggling professional and wouldn't have been able to apply for Operatunity.

"People were inspired by that show because they saw us having our dreams fulfilled. They like watching underdogs achieve something. Everybody wants to see two girls who have come from nowhere do a good job. That's a life-affirming experience, a fairy tale, and everybody likes fairy tales. It has a happy ending."

For Fraser, the programme worked so well because it showed viewers how hard it is to become a classical musician. Unlike Pop Idol, it's not just a question of turning up in a sexy outfit, pouting a bit and being handed a £1m contract. "In the past, classical music has been regarded as snooty and unapproachable," he says, "because most people don't realise that those involved are ordinary people who just happen to be talented and work hard. The public see the finished product but have no idea of the application required to get there."

That's all well and good, but cynics might suggest that it is Leigh's blindness and not her musical gift that has propelled her into the limelight. The thought certainly occurred to Fraser initially when he was one of the judges on Operatunity. "When we were considering the winners, I had to fight to sort out in my head exactly why I was drawn to Denise," concedes the producer, who has worked at EMI for 27 years and has collaborated with artists from Yehudi Menuhin to Paul McCartney. "Were she sighted, would I still be as affected? Yes, absolutely. There is a vulnerability in her voice that's to do with her fast vibrato. It's not a small voice, but it possesses a fragility that I find very affecting."

For her part, Leigh treats her blindness in a matter-of-fact way - she's not about to make a big deal about it, and doesn't expect anyone else to, either. "I'd be silly if I said my blindness wasn't an advantage in some respects. As much as anything else, it helps with identification - Jane is the blonde one and I'm the blind one! I don't mind that at all," says the 33-year-old Leigh.

"I'm also happy to think that the fact I can't see has been used in a very positive way in the media. But I'm not happy to be thought of as a role model. People have to take credit for their own achievements. I've had letters from blind people saying things like 'seeing you win Operatunity has inspired me to go back to university'. That's great, but their motivation has to come from themselves, not me. I'm not a standard-bearer. My goal is not to promote blindness; I'm just trying to build a career."

Although registered blind since birth, Leigh has 4-5 per cent residual sight in her left eye and uses that to learn new scores that are projected on to a screen. It's a labour-intensive process, and there are no short cuts. "That takes me two weeks," Leigh says. "After that, I don't have to look at the score. It's securely memorised. That's an advantage in the rehearsal room. I can internalise and find motivation very easily because I can't rely on the score. Other singers have a big mental barrier about putting the score down, but for me that's not an issue. If you're not concentrating on the score, you can pull things out of yourself that you wouldn't otherwise have been able to do."

But doesn't it matter that she can't see the conductor? "No," she asserts. "Even a sighted person can't watch the conductor all the time. I'm very decisive and if I'm working with a conductor who's very decisive, we just fall in with each other. You learn to feel each other's breathing-rhythms and body language, which are so important. With the last CD, the only problem was when I didn't see that the conductor, Paul Daniel, had stopped, and he had to tell me to shut up! We also work a lot with imagery. So Leo Siberski [the promising young German who is conducting the orchestra on Leigh's new CD] will say, 'I want you to imagine the coloratura here is like a stone rolling down a mountain or you're dragging yourself through water.'

"I also have synaesthesia, a condition where I associate certain colours with certain sounds. It helps me memorise music. For instance, E flat for me is always blue. I had an argument with another singer who insisted that E flat was orange. I said, 'You're talking rubbish - everybody knows it's blue!' So if Leo says, 'I want you to bring in a blue feeling here', I know exactly what he means."

For all her new-found status, Leigh has not let the attention go to her head. "It is true that until last year I'd never been abroad, and now I get to work with musicians I previously couldn't even afford to see performing. It's still very surreal - I haven't lost that sense of amazement. But when I'm at home, life is exactly the same. I'm determined to carry on as a full-time mum. I'm the most un-showbizzy person in the world. Every night, I climb into bed with the children at 8.30. I don't lead a rock'n'roll lifestyle. I've never trashed a hotel room or chucked a TV out of the window. And let's face it, unless they're called Pavarotti, nobody ever got rich from making classical-music CDs."

Leigh will always keep singing, however much money she earns. "Singing is like a direct line of communication between you and every single person in the room," she observes. "It all comes back to sex. When you're singing in front of an audience, you put yourself into a very intimate and vulnerable state that's close to sex. You experience the same sort of emotions."

Leigh is many things. She is irreverent and wickedly funny. (She tells me, "I once saw this poster for a Romanian company doing a touring production of Tosca, 'featuring the famous leap of death'. Then in the very small print at the bottom, it read, 'There will be no leap of death in Swindon.' That's typical Swindon!") But above all, she is ferociously determined; Mary King, one of the Operatunity judges, remarked Leigh had "balls of steel".

"I don't do rests," the singer declares. "My blindness has not stopped me doing anything. I'm not scared of it. It's not the end of the world. There are much worse things. You can still lead a very full, productive life. It's been a driving force for me, because I've always felt I had extra ground to make up."

So, is there nothing she can't do? "Drive," she replies, before bursting out laughing. "Ask a stupid question! And I wouldn't be very keen on tightrope walking, either."

'Pie Jesu' is out now on EMI Classics. 'A Night at the Opera' is touring nationally to 4 December (0871 220 0260;