The straight-talking diva from Donny on classical girl power, Botox and why she would still strip off on stage in her sixth decade.
Lesley Garrett is one of those women who, when they say they are comfortable in their body, you really believe that they mean it. Chatty, cheerful and busy with a string of projects, the diva from Donny – she was born and raised in Doncaster – is a fabulously well-preserved 57.
Growing older has endowed her with greater patience and “more realistic expectations”, she says. But it hasn’t dimmed her curiosity about life, nor her energy levels: she’s currently promoting her latest album revising our rich British folk music heritage and is in the middle of a diamond jubilee tour with an all-female orchestra that she dubs “classical girl power”.
And it hasn’t made her retiring in any sense of the word. Having hit the headlines two decades ago for what she blithely refers to as “a moment of nudity” in Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus at English National Opera (ENO), the soprano says she’d happily strip on stage in her sixth decade.
“Don’t call me a crossoverstar. It sounds like a bra”
“Well [at ENO], I was singing a song about taking your clothes off,” she points out, “and I had earned a living taking my clothes off as an artist’s model when I was a student at the Royal Academy of Music – so stripping meant nothing to me.”
And she would do it again, for art’s sake.
“Of course, if it was absolutely vital to the characterisation,” says Garret. “Every serious actor or actress would say yes to that, and I am serious about the work I do. If I was playing Poppea, who famously has a bath scene, I would be naked because you can’t be in a bath with clothes on!”
She keeps fit by walking and cycling with her GP husband Peter at their second home near the Pyrenees, though singing itself is a prime form of exercise.
“The great thing is that singing keeps you fit with the breathing techniques. It’s very athletic,” she explains.
One thing she does admit to on the cosmetic front is a brief encounter with Botox a few years ago – though only to help with headaches. “It helped enormously by stopping tension in the forehead,” she explains, a remedy that’s been borne out recently by scientific research.
Her upbringing in an aspirational working-class home in south Yorkshire was “unprivileged in a material sense, but so rich in other ways. We had a tin bath in front of the fire and recycling is nothing new to me because nothing was ever thrown away by my parents. We grew all our own food and had chickens, rabbits, goats and pigs. It was an idyllic childhood”.
And what glued it all together was music. “My dad is a big Pavarotti-style tenor and my mother is a beautiful English lyric soprano who still sings in choirs in Scunthorpe and Doncaster.”
Family aside, this musical multi-tasker’s other inspiration was the Three Tenors, who first brought opera to the masses in 1990.
“We have to break down the preconceptions about it all being fat people in foreign languages screaming at each other,” says Garrett. “Art is to be shared.”
And like her heroes, she has never been frightened to take risks and crack new markets. Alongside the extensive recording career (her new album, A North Country Girl, is her 14th), she has presented her own TV series and even become a West End musical star in The Sound of Music and Carousel. Just don’t call her a “crossover” star; she says it reminds her of a bra.
She was also one of the first celebrity guinea-pigs on Strictly Come Dancing’s debut season in 2004, coming third with her dance partner Anton du Beke – and she’s kept up her dancing ever since with Peter.
As a baby boomer who feels her generation was “born with the best luck – the Pill and free education”, she’s comfortable with her age and thinks maturity has brought many benefits.
“I have a tolerance now that I’ve not always had. And although I have as much curiosity about life as I always did, it’s tempered by wisdom. I have to have a variety of projects on the go, otherwise I’m just restless. So I tended to charge through life, thinking everything was possible, but now my expectations are more realistic,” she says.
As for her advice to young people starting out, she says it’s vital to “make your own luck. Busk, sing in a pub, anything, to practise and communicate to your audience”.
Sounds classic Lesley Garrett. If only the average 21-year old can keep up with her powerhouse energy . . .