Lesley Garrett talks about her musical heritage and the vissitudes of an entertainer's career

PUBLISHED: 12:54 25 September 2019 | UPDATED: 16:06 02 October 2019

An evening with Lesley Garrett is at Saffron Hall

An evening with Lesley Garrett is at Saffron Hall

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An evening with Lesley Garrett will be at Saffron Hall on Wednesday, October 9

Opera singer Lesley Garrett's grandfather had a weak chest, so instead of being sent down the mine, he was "put to the piano", another sure way, 120 years ago of earning a living.

She is from a musical family. Both grandfathers were musicians and she says her father had a voice to rival Pavarotti.

Her parents were not surprised that the teenage Lesley wanted to sing but but she says: "My dad wondered how you would get paid for it."

She grew up in Doncaster, initially in a house without main drains or electricity, which her father gradually did up. She is proud of coming from a mining community.

"My paternal grandfather was a band leader, Arthur Garrett and the Blackout Boys. My mother's father became a pianist because he had a weak chest and couldn't go down the mine.

"A 120 years ago, there were two ways of making money, you went down the mine or you played music, so his father said: 'Well if you're not going down the mine we'll put you to the piano.'"

Despite this heritage, she decided, only "later on" while taking her A levels to study music instead of sciences.

"When I got to the Royal College of Music all the other students seemed like professionals already, while I could barely sight-read. They all seemed to have been part of the National Youth Orchestra, I was woefully behind.

"My mother sent me an envelope full of little stones. There was a note inside saying: "I thought you might need some Yorkshire grit'. She reminded me of the Yorkshire saying when things get tough: "You spit on your hands and take a fresh hold."

These are some of the stories she may share with the audience when An Evening With Lesley Garrett reaches Saffron Hall on Wednesday, October 9.

She says: "I tell the story of my career and the funny things that have happened to me and I illustrate that with singing.

"There will be questions from the audience. It's a bit like Ian McKellen having a lovely time at the moment, I love to hear what people think of opera and classical music."

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Now 64 and a CBE, she will mark 40 years next year as a professional opera singer.

It began when, as a teenager, her auntie took her to London for a holiday.

"We went to a different opera or musical every night. When we saw Madame Butterfly and I heard One Fine Day, I knew that was what I wanted to do."

Coincidentally, a job with English National Opera at the Colliseum was a first job. She was blissfully happy.

Life is never simple for performers. Not only is the industry precarious, she discovered early on that your body can let you down too. She has a kidney in the wrong place and underfunctioning.

"I lost my voice for several months. I realised that you don't just sing with your throat, you sing with your entire body, your mind, spirit, heart and soul and if anything happens to any one of them that affects your singing. That was 1984. I was able to make a comeback, but I was nearly felled at the first hurdle."

Her son Jeremy is a software designer and her daughter Chloe is a theatre director. She is relieved that neither chose to sing.

"That would worry me, because I know how hard it is. The potential for disappointment is vast.

"It's now increasingly difficult for industry or individuals to support the arts. When times are hard, it is always the arts that suffer. I am anxious for young colleagues. And I speak for all of us when I say how grateful we are for any support we get.

"It grieves me that the arts are not seen at government level as a proud British product. We are revered the world over for our musicianship, our drama and our culture and yet this is not supported. This is a huge area of job creation and an incredible flagship for our country - at a time when we need to be proud of something."

Over four decades, the soaring Garrett, has presented radio programmes, won third place in Strictly Come Dancing and appeared in musicals.

Her next ambition is to do panto. There are rumours that this Christmas will see Lesley Garrett playing the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella. She would also like to sing a film score. "I would love to do a blockbuster."

Surely there is no block that Lesley Garrett could not bust.

An Evening with Lesley Garrett at Saffron Hall, October 9. 7.30pm. Tickets, £10-£25 from 0845 548 7650 or www.saffronhall.com or Saffron Walden Tourist Information 01799 524002.

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