The sensual evangelist and follower of passion: As once high-flying English National Opera faces a financial and artistic crisis, David Lister examines its record and interviews one of its leading sopranos

Click to follow
LESLEY GARRETT is the full-frontal embodiment of English National Opera. The highly talented soprano is glamorous, sensual and evangelistic about making opera more popular. She must be the only prima donna who talks about 'going on the road' to promote her 'latest single'.

She has epitomised ENO's daring, walking a tightrope in The Bartered Bride, sporting moustache and beard in A Masked Ball, and, conversely, displaying every inch of her femininity in a brief nude scene in Die Fledermaus. She also posed provocatively in black chiffon for a poster for the company.

When this was called sexist, she retorted: 'I hate people saying opera is elitist. I'm a working-class girl from the North and it was always in our home. But opera is sexy, it's full of passion.'

This week, after a brief break to sing a Puccini aria on Michael Aspel's TV show, appear with Julian Clary on Channel 4's Viva Cabaret, and have her first baby ('I cry into rehearsals every day about leaving him'), the versatile 38-year-old was back at ENO rehearsing for Handel's Ariodante, which opens at the London Coliseum in 10 days.

ENO's falling audience figures have not diminished her belief in its style. 'Even if The Marriage Of Figaro is set in the 18th century, it is about sexual harassment, the menopause, adolescence, betrayal and love. What could

be more contemporary than that?'

However, she admits the recent 20th- century season 'might have frightened a few people off', and is ambivalent about whether operas need to be performed in English now that we have surtitles. But she is beginning to think that a further change is needed if opera is again to reach a new audience: it must get out of the theatre more to attract people into the theatre: 'The mountain has to come to Mohammed. The venue can be as offputting as the work was in the past. The work has been demystified. You don't hear people say they couldn't understand it. People still think it's expensive, even though it isn't.

'Last year I did a couple of operas- in-concert in parks. Though you do lose some of the visual side, we had 8,000 people for La Boheme paying a tenner, having picnics and bottles of wine, with kids running round waving to you while you were singing.

'What I would really love to see is opera on film. It doesn't for my money translate well to telly. I would like to see an opera done by Steven Spielberg. He could develop Wagner visually in ways which the stage cannot.'

She is also keen that Wagner be put on in episodes a la EastEnders. 'My attention span is not great. I can't handle very long operas.'

What she would dearly like to do is a Madonna-style opera concert - 'The design, the dance element, it lends itself to being spectacular in the style of a pop concert. But I would never, never compromise the music.'

(Photograph omitted)