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Lesley Garrett: ‘I’ve always had music inside me’

The magic of an upbringing surrounded by all kinds of music in a South Yorkshire pit village is the tale that starts Lesley Garrett’s new show.

The opera singer and TV personality reveals how her whole community was near-obsessed with music and the arts when she was growing up and that it was the glue that held everyone together.

Both her parents and grandparents were musical, with one grandfather composing music on the spot to accompany films at the local cinema, and her whole family sang around the piano at home from as early as she can remember.

Cambridge Arts Theatre new season 2022:: Lesley Garrett. Pic by John Batten (56102579)
Cambridge Arts Theatre new season 2022:: Lesley Garrett. Pic by John Batten (56102579)

So when teenage Lesley finally announced that she was no longer interested in her science A-levels and wanted to take music, her headteacher told her: “We know. We’ve been waiting for you to realise.”

A Diva and a Piano: Lesley Garrett will be at the Cambridge Arts Theatre for one night this Sunday (April 24) where audiences can join Britain’s most popular soprano for an evening of song, reminiscences and chat. Accompanied by pianist Anna Tilbrook, Lesley’s behind-the-scenes anecdotes will give audiences a unique insight into her life on the stage.

Lesley, 67, says: “I can’t remember when I didn’t have a song going around in my head or my heart, from being born. I just always had music inside me. I was brought up in a very powerfully musical area. I was born in the South Yorkshire coalfields in a little place called Thorne pit village near Doncaster and my family were all miners and railway workers and some welders. And the thing that held us all together was music.

“I talk about how lucky I was to be brought up in an area where there was just music everywhere. There were brass bands, there were choirs, there were amateur operatic societies, amateur dramatic societies and my family belonged to them all. There was just always music in my home and in my school. It sounds amazing. It wasn't as if it was a subject that I studied. It was more like something I ate or drank or breathed. It was nourishment, I suppose. I can’t remember when music wasn't there and when I didn’t think I could express myself through singing. So the power of music is something I’ve always been very aware of and very moved by.”

Lesley Garrett will be performing at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. (56170082)
Lesley Garrett will be performing at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. (56170082)

Lesley has enjoyed an incredible 40-year career. She debuted as a soprano with English National Opera in 1984 and won critical acclaim in her roles in many of their productions. She has recently returned for the world premiere production of Nico Muhly’s Marnie.

As well as performing operas and concerts both in the UK and internationally, she has released 14 solo albums, and made numerous television appearances, including Strictly Come Dancing, Loose Women and many of her own shows including The Lesley Garrett Show and Lesley Garrett…Tonight. She has also recently explored the vocals of the West End musical and made acclaimed appearances in The Sound of Music and Carousel.

Listening to her family’s incredible musical history, it’s hard to see how she could have been anything other than a successful singer.

She says: “Both my grandmothers had beautiful voices and my grandfathers on my dad’s side, grandad Garrett, was a dance bandleader and he played all a variety of instruments. He had a band called Arthur Garrett the Blackout Boys, which evolved obviously in the war, but he was going with them well into the 70s. He did the local working men's clubs. And I always feel I got my entertainment genes from my dad’s side of the family. My dad was a powerful tenor.

“He really could rival Pavarotti and was a natural Italianate tenor. He and I just used to sing around the piano all the time, whereas my mum loved choral singing. My mum’s father was born into a mining family. His father and his brothers were colliers, but he had asthma as a child. So his dad said ‘Right lad if tha's not going down’t pit tha'll be put to't piano’. Meaning, if you can't go down the pit you will have to learn to play the piano and the reason he said that is because the next best way after mining and steel of earning a living in South Yorkshire was music. There was so much music going on in Sheffield. So my granddad studied hard and turned out to have a real prodigious talent and had the opportunity actually to go to London and study at the London College of Music.

Lesley Garrett will be performing at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. (56170084)
Lesley Garrett will be performing at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. (56170084)

“He won various national competitions as well. He could have gone on to be a concert pianist but he wanted to stay in Yorkshire. And he eventually formed a small orchestra and played for the silent movies. They had to compose the music when the picture came in on a Friday, because the film didn’t come with a score. So Granddad began to compose and he just had a passion for classical music. He would put concerts on at the weekend with his orchestra using the reduced parts borrowed from the local library. He did all the great works for piano. He called them the cutdown band parts. They were reduced orchestral scores, I learned that was the correct term when I got to the Royal Academy. And he also used to do some of the suites from the operas and the overtures to the opera. So When I finally told him I got a scholarship to go to the Royal Academy of Music, he said ‘Eeh lass, that’s grand I’m that proud of you.’

“Then he said: ‘I love opera… except for singing’. So I tell that story in the show and it always gets a bit of a laugh.”

Lesley will be accompanied during the show by pianist Anna Tilbrook, who has a considerable reputation in song recitals and chamber music. She made her debut at the Wigmore Hall in 1999 and has since become a regular performer at Europe’s major concert halls and festivals. She has won many major international accompaniment prizes including the AESS Bluthner prize and the award for an outstanding woman musician from the ROSL.

Lesley has also been involved with the recording of a new anthem composed for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations. It will be released on April 21, the Queen’s 96th birthday.

She says: “The British Monarchy society very much wanted to commission an anthem for the Queen, for her Platinum Jubilee. When they realised nobody else was doing one they decided to commission it themselves. And I was approached by the society as I have sung many times for the queen. I first sang for her 30 years ago on the Royal Variety Show when I was pregnant and I have sung for her many times since. So I said yes with alacrity. And then we had the best time making this.”

  • A Diva and a Piano: Lesley Garrett will be at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, Sunday April 24. Tickets from £23 are available from the box office on 01223 503333 or cambridgeartstheatre.com.

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