Soprano Lesley Garrett fell in love with The Sound of Music as a child. Forty years later, she took on the role of the Mother Abbess. Dionne Christian reports

On the streets of sweltering Singapore, The Sound of Music is a hot ticket item. Ageing Chinese taxi drivers can sing a verse or two from its beloved score and talk about the time, as kids, they saw the film; hotel receptionists explain how excited they are to be going to see the stage show and then they, too, break into song.

Whether it's My Favourite Things, Edelweiss, Do-Re-Mi, the title track or the rousing Climb Ev'ry Mountain, it seems everyone has a song to sing or a memory of the musical which, at first glance, seems a quintessentially European production.

Watching the show again is a reminder of why the Rodgers and Hammerstein show finds a place in the coldest of hearts.

Essentially, it's a story about a dysfunctional family, the von Trapps, in which seven motherless children are desperate for love and attention from a stern father who is too caught up in his own grief to notice.

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When the high-spirited Maria arrives to be their governess, she fills their home and hearts with music, joy and laughter.

It could all end happily ever after but, because it's based on real life, there's a twist. This is Austria just as the Nazis invade and Captain von Trapp, an Austrian patriarch, refuses to acquiesce to the country's ruthless new masters. Sticking to his principles will be fatal so he and Maria hatch a daring escape plan and flee Austria by climbing with the kids across the European alps.

It's got it all in terms of story elements, quirky characters and stirring songs. Anton Luitingh, the resident musical director of the London-based production, which comes to New Zealand in October, couldn't agree more.

Luitingh, a musical theatre leading man turned director, acknowledges he was hesitant about taking on the job, especially after directing the international touring production of Jersey Boys. He thought The Sound of Music might be too old-fashioned, too bound by its traditions the Rodgers and Hammerstein Foundation owns and maintains strict control of the rights.

"I went into it thinking perhaps it was no longer relevant, but found the exact opposite was true," he says. "This production is still embraced around the world because of the storylines and themes, which are about human nature and beating the odds.

"The family faces a terrible dilemma but they do it together so it becomes a very positive story about overcoming adversity; about following your heart because that's when you'll be happiest. The song Climb Ev'ry Mountain is a goose-bump inducing song if ever there was one."

Acclaimed British opera star Lesley Garrett knows the power of that one song.

Garrett will join the cast in New Zealand to play the Mother Abbess, who starts Maria (played by Bethany Dickson) on her journey from a convent to the von Trapp household and continues to act as her loving mentor.

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Born in a Yorkshire village, Garrett's family was musical but not well-to-do. When she was 10, her parents, Margaret and Derek, took her and her two sisters on the bus to Sheffield to see the film, which debuted in 1965, six years after the musical premiered on Broadway to record-breaking advance ticket sales and multiple Tony awards.

"It was terribly exciting and I have never forgotten it. From the first moment she appeared, I loved the character of the Mother Abbess. I loved the power of her voice, but also that she was the epitome of kindness and peacefulness and the type of woman every other woman was drawn to.

"I went home singing Climb Ev'ry Mountain which I viewed as a powerful outpouring of love and encouragement and determination to overcome difficulties. I found it enormously inspiring, a sentiment everyone can relate to and something I have drawn on throughout my life."

Garrett, who in 2002 received a CBE for services to music, says her parents, who died recently, were also tremendously inspirational.

She comes from a long line of homemakers, railway men and coal miners and remembers her father working as a railway signalman but studying part-time to become a school teacher while her mother juggled the household tasks with her teaching studies.

"They both became teachers and they both blossomed so I thought if they can do that, then why can't I become an opera singer?

"They made me feel as if I could do anything so I owe them everything."

Paying for her studies saw her take on a variety of part-time jobs, including washing dishes at the officers' mess at the nearby RAF Lindholme and, while at the Royal Academy of Music, working as a life model.

The soprano's operatic career has included roles with the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, the English National Opera, the Welsh National Opera and in touring productions throughout Europe, North America and Asia but she'd never sung in The Sound of Music.

When Garrett learned Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber was to stage a version at the London Palladium, she got a mutual friend to contact him and ask for an audition. Lloyd Webber thought she'd be perfect for the role so, in 2006, 41 years after being captivated by the film, Garrett donned the Mother Abbess' habit.

It has been three years since she last performed the role and Garrett says she looks forward to re-acquainting herself with "my lovely Mother Abbess".

A lot has changed in her life. Her parents have died as has her oldest and dearest friend; her children have left home.

"These are powerful experiences which are etched on my heart but they have re-kindled my own beliefs and faith.

"When I'm in New Zealand, it will be the first anniversary of my mother's passing so I am grateful to have the Mother Abbess to look after me.

"I am sure it will make my performances all the more powerful and I will drive myself to be the best I can be.

"I know I'll hear my mum telling me, 'Come on lass, spit on your hands and take the fresh hold', which means get a better grip and get on with it.

"Life is sometimes hard, but you've got to climb every mountain, haven't you?"


What: The Sound of Music
Where and when: The Civic, from October 3