The eager diva

John Walsh meets... Lesley Garrett
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The Independent Online
If the list of Things To Avoid Doing In Life is headed by "Playing Poker with Men Called `Doc' " and "Walking into a Soweto Bar and Shouting `Boy!' ", you'll find "Attempting to Patronise Lesley Garrett" pretty high in the batting order. Ms Garrett is a compact (5ft 4ins) lady from Doncaster with enormous grey-green eyes, an eagerly matey manner and a conversational style that's a cross between Edwina Currie and Bet Lynch, switching from hectoring to flirtatious. She is the best-selling female opera singer in the country, the principal soprano at the English National Opera and the most ubiquitous trained voice in the country. She also has a reputation for enthusiastic self-promotion. Not even Nigel Kennedy in his most Stradivarius-chewing, 'allo-monstah persona can hold a candle to Ms Garrett when it comes to self-publicity, whether it's being Gotcha'd by Noel Edmonds, turning up on Esther Rantzen's sink of lachrymosity, Hearts of Gold, or appearing in a variety of plunging frocks on her album sleeves. Even if your interest in the classical repertoire began and ended with "Nessun Dorma", it's likely you've come across Ms Garrett's divine larynx without realising it: she has sung on a dozen TV ads, her voice fluting behind the earthbound attractions of Ragu pasta sauce, Kenco coffee and the Renault 19 car.

A busy life, a life in the spotlights, the footlights, the bestseller charts. But Ms Garrett's celebrity has not, she says, been a smooth trajectory of acclaim. She's got where she is only by enduring the condescension of successive waves of horrible people: male chauvinists, Londoners, classical purists, opera directors, foreign directors, reviewers, prudes, the press... Nothing, in her headlong flow of conversation, was more heartfelt than the moments at which the word "patronise" surfaced. They reached a climax when she was talking about Orpheus and Eurydice, which opens at the ENO on Monday with Ms Garrett playing Gluck's doomed, Hades-stranded heroine. The opera is choreographed and directed by Martha Clarke, "whom I love working with. Her currency is profoundly visual, she deals in texture, shape and colour, the way these things generate mood and emotion and therefore drama, but she leaves it to me to make the story, the drama, work. She doesn't feel she has to teach me, which is wonderful, it's so... not patronising."

Have you spent your life (I asked) being talked down to? "Arghhhh!" Ms Garrett, who had been sitting cross-legged on a kelim footstool for the last hour, abruptly banged both fists on the material, releasing a cloud of Isfahan motes, and uttering a heartbreaking cry. "For being too Northern, too girlish, too tomboyish. For being too little, for being too sexy..."

One reason why some people refuse to take La Garrett seriously is her long-sustained crusade to bring opera to the people. Ever since 1989, when the ENO launched their meet-the-company corporate campaign with a huge photograph of Ms Garrett looking wanton in a long black dress, she has gone out of her way to demystify opera, to be Everyman's guide through the murky jungle of aria, recitative, coloratura and 20-minute death scene.

"I want to get rid of all the stereotypes," she says, "and put people straight about what opera is. You know the vast majority of people in this country still regard opera as elitist, highbrow, difficult to understand, full of enormous people screaming at each other in a foreign language; they think they'll have to watch stories they can't relate to, being sung at prices they can't afford. I want to say, no, it's not like that, it's modern, it's interesting, it's believeable, it's contemporary, and it's probably the biggest turn-on your imagination will ever have."

Phew. But why did she care whether people listened to music? Why did it matter if the majority of people in the UK never heard a single note by Gluck? "If they don't ever hear Gluck because of a misguided impression about the music, if they don't hear it because of a stereotype that they believe without ever questioning, if they don't ever hear Gluck because they imagine it will make them feel stupid - those are all things I abhor. Because it does matter. The wider everyone's artistic experience is, the better it makes you. It's part of the spiritual health of this country, and of our general well-being, to have as much exposure to as much art as possible."

Cynics might point to the 70,000 sales of Ms Garrett's album, Soprano in Red, and say that the more new listeners classical opera acquires, the more CDs the divine Ms G will flog. She deftly anticipates such criticism by turning the whole business of popularism and promotion into a style statement. "It was with the ENO picture that I discovered how exciting it is to create publicity, and it's all part of the package; it's what I do. I find it fascinating to see what captures the public imagination. If you want classical music to have a future, you have to join the club and promote it, to compete with the audio-visual competition."

She readily admits the power of the image, even in the realm of music. "It was that picture of me in the ENO campaign that started my record career. I got a recording contract because of that picture, and I thought, `Hey, this is powerful shit'. The voice came into it second. Of course it rapidly became the most important thing - I wouldn't have done it otherwise."

You could watch her bringing opera to the people via Harry Enfield's Guide to Opera a few years ago, and a documentary with the Birds of a Feather girls Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson. You might have caught a TV "special" devoted to her work entitled Viva La Diva in April 1995. Nobody could have tried harder to change the image of the prima donna from that of a neurotic and demanding termagant to a matey and hoydenish sexpot-next-door. But the downside of all this in-your-lap democratising was a suspicion in the mind of some commentators that Ms Garrett was a little too un-purist to be an authentic classical singer. I remarked that she'd played Eurydice at the ENO before, in Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld, and that Gluck was a radically more stark and serious proposition than the operetta king's high-kicking spoof. Did she approach it differently? "I approach all the roles in exactly the same way," she says with a trace of asperity. "I ask: what is this character about? What's been happening to this woman, what's happening to her now, and what's she going to do next? It doesn't matter of it's comedy or tragedy, it's always people undergoing a profound emotional change. I approach them all very seriously. It's just that some of them have laffs, and some don't..."

Laffs, eh? Did she ever worry that the lighter side of her nature got in the way of her interpretations? She did her brilliant, aren't-I-incorrigible smile. "Yes it does come out all the time, whether I like it or not. It's just kind of there. There's no character in history that hasn't got a lighter side, that hasn't some humour somewhere; but whether they're allowed to demonstrate it within the confines of the role is another matter." The wintry figures of Job, Metternich, Gladstone, Dostoyevsky and the Revd Ian Paisley briefly wandered through my head, looking for their "lighter side" - but then they'd never encountered the bubbly Ms Garrett in full flow, in her zip-fronted red fleece and Buck's Fizz hairstyle.

I wondered how she went down outside England. Had she considered, say, a Wagnerian career? "No, I've never worked in Germany, funnily enough. Never been asked, though I'd love to have a go. I rise to challenges with monotonous regularity. I did actually go to Vienna recently, and it was miserable." Didn't they like her voice? "They must have because they asked me to go and sing. They had me in mind for a part in something. They'd heard my albums, so I brought a whole variety of things. And the boss of the opera house screamed at me that I'd brought the wrong material." Abruptly Ms Garrett became a minatory Brunnhilde. " `Ve don't do zese songs in ziss house,' he shouted, `Vy do you bring zese arias?' I thought, my life's too short for this, so I just said, `By-eee'..."

It all comes down to her childhood, about which she speaks with enormous warmth and animation. She grew up in Doncaster, where her father was a signalmaster and autodidact. "He bought a tiny, derelict, docker's cottage by the side of a river just after I was born, did it up and we moved there and it was Paradise," she recalls. "Then, after my sisters were born, he realised he most wanted to work with children, and decided to be a headmaster. So he did a correspondence course in his signalbox, and went around with a tape-recorder on his bike, and became head teacher at an infants school, "although he encountered a lot of sexual discrimination. It was pretty unheard-of for a man to be in charge of tiny babies."

The family were, of course, egregiously musical, somewhere between the Partridge Family and the Von Trapps. "My father's a big opera fan - but there was a great variety of music around. Music wasn't a hobby of the family but of the whole area of south Yorkshire." What did her father sing? "He loved all Mario Lanza's stuff. And "Danny Boy". And the "Miserere" from Verdi's Il Trovatore, that was a huge favourite, we sang that together a lot. It was wonderful to be so - uncluttered by television. We just had the radio and the piano. Mother sang and played the piano. And we didn't worry about compartments of music. I'd sing "My Old Man Said Follow the Van", followed by Handel's Messiah, and not think anything about it. Then my father would write me a poem, and my mother would play some Bach on the piano. And my uncle would come round and play jazz on the saxophone. And I'd go to school and we'd do Benjamin Britten's The Little Sweep, and the next term we'd do My Fair Lady. It was completely normal to juggle them all together."

When she was 15, her Aunt Eileen took her to London for the first time and introduced her to showbiz, operatic and otherwise. "We went to a different show every night. I saw Madam Butterfly - I'd never seen an opera before. And a Tchaikovsky concert. I saw a musical called 1781, which was extraordinary, and I went to Abelard and Heloise, which changed my life completely." Remembering how Diana Rigg (as Heloise) was loudly mocked for appearing sans clothing during the play, I wondered if this had been the inspiration behind Ms Garrett's brief but notorious flash of naked bottom during a production of Die Fledermaus. "Something that amazed me when I whipped me kit off was that the reaction was exactly the same as with Diana Rigg 20 years before - that is, ridiculous, over the top. As if the papers had learnt nothing in that time."

The most interesting hiccup in Ms Garrett's rise came in 1982, when her first marriage failed and her voice packed up completely. She couldn't sing, couldn't hold a tune, could hardly produce a note - "maybe a tone, that was all. I just couldn't do it. I got a few jobs and bummed around, but I was really frightened. I thought I'd blown it and lost it for good. There was apparently nothing wrong but I just couldn't remember how to sing." She went to her singing teacher to rebuild her whole range of notes (it took, she says, years) but also saw a shrink. "The idea was that I was probably riddled with guilt - that I'd left my husband to pursue my career - and had taken my voice away to punish myself. It all sounded a bit Californian, but it was interesting and I discovered a lot about my own resilience..."

As she bustles about her large and airy house in the fashionable end of Highgate, where she lives with her second husband Peter and their children Chloe and Jeremy, it's hard to imagine this strong, unsinkably optimistic woman being bothered by guilt. You get the impression she has learnt to handle psychological stresses with the same aplomb that she handles critics, opera house bosses and Viennese snobs. Lesley Garrett has become such a force of nature, in her music-for-all crusading, her spot-the-diva self- promotion, her popular albums of crossover songs, that you leave her with the impression of a woman endlessly forging ahead. As if stopping to think, or to look back, might leave her, like Eurydice, becalmed in regions quite alien to her jolly spirit.