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Monday, 31 December, 2001, 00:00 GMT
Lesley Garrett: Doncaster's own diva
Lesley Garrett
Viva la diva!: Lesley Garrett
By Andrew Walker of the BBC's News Profiles Unit

With her flat Yorkshire vowels uncompromised by fame, Lesley Garrett has carried the flame of opera for the people to the four corners of the globe.

Larger than life and horrified at any thought of being grand, she has set about her task with an almost messianic zeal. As she says, "opera is full of passion - and passion is part of all our lives."

She was born in Thorne, a village near Doncaster in South Yorkshire, in 1955. Her father, who was a railway signalman at the time of her birth, decided to make the uncommon step-up to becoming a schoolmaster. This dogged determination to succeed also characterises his daughter.

Music filled the family house: one grandfather had been a classical pianist, the other had his own skiffle group. "I just knew,", she once recalled, "that I had to sing."

After studying music to A-level, Lesley Garrett spent six years at the Royal Academy of Music, where singer Annie Lennox was a contemporary, studying to be a soprano.

Times were hard and, as a student, she paid her way by becoming an artists' model before graduating and winning the Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Prize in 1981.

Lesley Garrett
She has brought glamour to the opera stage
Debuting as Dorinda in Handel's Orlando at the Wexford Festival, she enjoyed engagements with Welsh National Opera, Opera North and Glyndebourne, before joining English National Opera (ENO) in 1984.

The break-up of her first marriage and a kidney infection both affected her singing and, in the mid-80s, she actually lost her voice, which she regained with the help of the Alexander Technique. "You sing with your whole body and mine was very weak", she recalls.

In 1985, her voice restored, Lesley Garrett accepted an offer to become Principal Soprano at the ENO where she played Bella, in Tippett's Midsummer Marriage, Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro and Despina in Cosi Fan Tutti.


But, most controversially, it was her appearence as Adele in Richard Jones 1988 production of Die Fledermaus which stirred the public imagination. Momentarily, and tastefully, baring her bottom, she brought the house down.

"It's very difficult to talk about this Fledermaus business," she said later. "It was a crazy, wonderful, visually extravagant evening of which my bottom was the sensation.

"I completely upstaged the whole thing."

With singer Richard Gavin on Lesley Garrett Tonight
With singer Richard Gavin on Lesley Garrett Tonight
Beyond the media hype, though, Lesley Garrett's extraordinary empathy with the roles she plays, coupled with her soaring yet delicate voice, bereft of waywardness or vibrato, has brought her critical plaudits.

One writer said her voice "is one of extreme purity - not only is it beautifully agile, but she is totally lacking in affectation."

It is this quality which makes Lesley Garrett such a box-office draw. In 1990 she met her husband, Peter, with whom she has two children and signed her first record contract.

Popular arias

Albums such as Diva!, Prima Donna and Simple Gifts mixed popular operatic arias with songs from stage musicals and movies, and were marketed like pop records.

1996's Soprano in Red won the prestigious Gramophone award for best-selling classical album of the year.

More recently, forays into television such as Viva La Diva! and Lesley Garrett Tonight have complimented her work with The Royal Opera and ENO.

Lesley Garrett on Ready, Steady, Cook
Saucy soprano: on Ready, Steady, Cook
Other recent appearences include a cameo on the chart-topping Perfect Day single, at the final FA Cup Final to be held at Wembley Stadium and, with the actor Jonathan Pryce, singing excerpts from My Fair Lady at the Hollywood Bowl.

While popularising opera, Lesley Garrett has taken pains to ensure that it does not become trite or less passionate.

But what else would one expect from the woman whose performance in Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen was once described as projecting, "a life force that makes Zorba the Greek look like a shrinking violet"?

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