The working-class girl from Yorkshire is now a famous opera singer who firmly resents being put into ‘a little classical box’

Lesley Garrett, the English soprano, is in town for The Sound of Music in which she is playing the Mother Abbess, and she was over the moon to be here. She has had rave reviews for her Mother Abbess - in Britain and for the Wellington season - and she was, in turn, giving New Zealand rave reviews. "Magical! Wonderful!" She has been once before, years ago, when she popped over from Australia to promote an album. She was asked if she could fly over for a day and a half and because she is terribly obliging, she said yes, of course she would, and also she thought it would be like popping over to the Isle of Wight, from London, say.

Not that she was complaining; she never does. She is perennially sunny and as bouncy as Kanga and anyway it was an experience and she is always up for a new experience and now here she is, for a good long run, and as happy as the day is long about it. We met at her hotel which had, of all marvellous things, a balcony! Imagine! We had a stroll about her balcony because she was so excited about it and wanted to show it off. It is a perfectly fine balcony but you'd think (or I would) that she might have had grander requests, being a quite famous opera singer. She had one: "I want somebody to take me to a rugby match. I love sport. I just love men and balls, really! Don't quote me!"

She's what you might call down-to-earth. The greatest compliment you can pay her is to say that she is utterly without affectation. That is what everyone who meets her seems to say and when you tell her this she says: "Do they? That's nice." Her favourite review, ever, called her the Julie Walters of opera.

I thought she might have a horror of being thought to have airs and graces and she said: "I think I have a horror of boundaries. I think I have a horror of being contained ... I think other people limit you by putting you in a class box or a vocal box and ... some critics want me to stay in this very prescribed and small classical box as an opera singer."


Good luck to them, is all I can say. You'd have to nail the lid of that particular box down very firmly, and she'd still bounce out of it, a bit cross but mostly unperturbed. She does get a bit cross - and some critics are very sniffy indeed about her - especially with a certain UK Telegraph critic who sniffs, loudly, at her career. In addition to being quite famous for being an opera singer she is also known for singing popular stuff and for appearing on populist telly - Strictly Come Dancing; as a panelist on a daytime show called Loose Women. Opera singers, even working class ones from Yorkshire, are not supposed to do these sorts of things. "Who says? Pfffff. Pffff," she went. "It does get to me, yes, because it puzzles me. He [the critic] is saying to the public who like to hear me sing Gershwin or Porter or Rogers and Hammerstein, 'you don't know what you're talking about. You're inferior.' I hate superiority."

You can see that she would, being a working class girl from Yorkshire whose dad was a signalman and whose mother was a seamstress and whose family had an outdoor dunny until she was 8. Still she did grow up to become a quite famous opera singer and you'd think she might have picked up a few airs and graces along the way. At least that is what I'd think, but I had no luck there.

Because: "Do you think I'm posh, Michele?" she said at the end, a little plaintively. "Or, what's that other word?" The other words were "up herself", which had made her laugh - it's an expression anyone born working class, in Yorkshire, gets the gist of, straight off. I'd asked because I was interested in how money and a degree of fame and acclaim might have changed her because it often does change people. But not her. She's what people call grounded. She would be appalled by airs and graces in other people, but most of all in herself.

Her early life does read like something out of a Catherine Cookson novel. Poor but ambitious parents - they both went on to be teachers and her father became a headmaster - who were musical and hard-working and "inspirational", and she loved them both dearly and they both died last year which was "a terrible year". She is not a bit "woe is me" about her childhood because she is not a "woe is me" person and although there was little money to begin with, there was a lot of fun and a piano and, luckily, aspiration and cleverness. There was the "ash-midden" lavvy - so called because it was a shack out the back, with a board with a hole cut in it and a trap door at the back you put the ashes from the fire in and which were removed, weekly, by the ash-midden man. "Very smelly." There was the tin bath in the kitchen which her enterprising dad later turned into a sidecar for his motorbike for young Lesley and her two younger sisters to be taken on countryside jaunts in. And now she has the six-bedroom, Edwardian house, in North London; the "little place" in France (little! There are 8 hectares); the cottage in Yorkshire. Does she have enough money now? "Yes. Oh, yes." She doesn't have any extravagances. "No." She does like jugs and collects them - if that counts as an extravagance. I was asking about money and her houses because the way she lives now seems a world away from the way she lived as a girl. "Yes. It's probably why I like houses. I've invested in property rather than anything else."

She is a keen supporter of the Labour Party and she is still, she said emphatically, working class. Working class means "to me, to earn my own living. I've never been supported by anyone else. It means to pay my own way, so it means independence, and that means freedom". She doesn't sound the way now that she must have sounded growing up; she might even sound a bit posh, relatively speaking. "No, if anything it's less posh, actually." How did that happen? "Because I got closer to the truth. Well, there's this sort of artifice when you're young. There's a lot of preconceptions. A lot of what you think you should sound like, a lot of what you think other people want you to sound like going on. And the older you get, the more confident you get, the more you explore yourself and the more spiritual you get, the more you think that, actually, 'this is my sound and this is what I want to say with that sound'. And I'm not going to let anybody dissuade me from that and I believe that and that's the truth."

Also, she said, when she goes "home", to Yorkshire: "I become a complete 'ee by gum' Yorkshireman!" She doesn't, surely? "Of course I do!" Then why not talk like that all the time? "Because I'm musical. You're unconsciously influenced by the sounds around you." She'll probably go home sounding like a New Zealander which would be amusing down at the fush and chuppy.

She's a funny sort of opera singer, I think, although of course she doesn't. Opera singers don't generally pop up in The Sound of Music which I always thought was a bit cheesy but no, she said, it's not a bit cheesy. She is more used to glam costumes, but of course because she is playing a nun, she wears a habit, which she adores. (You could put her in sackcloth and ashes and she'd find something enthusiastic to say about them.) The habit is made from "very fine serge. Is that really my fabric? Serge!" Also, I said opera singers were supposed to be grand and that if I was an opera singer I'd be terribly grand. She looked at me as though I was as daft as a brush. It is silly to be grand because "it alienates people. It cuts you off from people". And she would really hate that because then she'd have nobody to talk to and it is fair to say that she's a good talker. Her nickname as a child was Gobby Garrett. As a child! Nobody has come up with a better one. I asked, faintly, whether her GP husband talked a lot and she laughed like mad. "Ha, ha, ha! Not a huge amount! Funnily enough. No, he does talk, really. He has to talk a lot for a living so I think when he comes home he's quite happy for me to rabbit on, as I do, as you know."

She is trying, she claims, to stop being so gobby and to become a serene person, like the Mother Abbess.


A very strange thing happens when she puts on her serge costume. She becomes calm and serene and finds a "still centre" she has never had but always longed for. She has become more spiritual, she said. "The extrovert part of me has always been the dominant part and the introvert part of me is very important as I get older. I'm finding more and more that it's linked with my faith and my lovely Mother Abbess."

The talking less bit is still a work in progress. She talks a lot because she gets so excited about things and you get the idea that if she didn't talk about how exciting things are, she'd burst.

When she first started singing in operas, she was often criticised for over-acting, but "I was just terribly excited to be on the stage!"

Lesley Garrett, they used to say in the chorus when she was at the English National Opera company: Never knowingly upstaged. That might sound a little catty, but she loved it.

"I was called the John Lewis of opera! You know that store in London? They have this motto: Never knowingly under-sold. I was very complimented by the fact that they could say it to my face ... and they knew I'd laugh, and I'd laugh uproariously. But it's true! The reviews would say often say I was over-acting or scene-stealing, which I never meant to do!"

Her very favourite review ever said that she was the Julie Walters of opera. "That made me smile greatly! That made me very happy!"


She does have terrific bounce and she is tremendously likeable so you can see why she might have been forgiven for accidental scene-stealing where other, grander, opera singers might not have been.

"Oh the boobs! The boobs are fine. Apparently [my cleavage] has its own website!"

On the subject of bounce - and at the risk of sounding as though I'm from the Daily Mail - how are the boobs? "Oh the boobs! The boobs are fine." The Daily Mail is a bit obsessed with her cleavage. "Apparently it has its own website!"

She is tiny on the bottom, a size 10, and a 14 on the top so, she said, it makes it rather difficult to get clothes to fit. Her extravagance might be having clothes made. She is 59 and looks terrific. Is she still having Botox? "Ha, ha! No. I just thought I'd give it a go. I'm very much one for giving things a go."

I had to go and have a little lie down after seeing her - all that bounce! - but other than the total lack of grandness, she doesn't disappoint.

The Sound of Music is at the Civic until October 26; Lesley Garrett In Recital is at the Aotea Centre on October 30.