The power of music can touch lives

Lesley Garrett
Lesley Garrett
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The power and purity of her voice can bring an audience of thousands in the biggest auditoriums in the world to an awestruck hush.

But world-renowned opera diva Lesley Garrett is constantly awed by the incredible power of music itself.

75th Anniversary Gala Concert held in the City Hall Sheffield on Saturday September 29th 2007.  Lesley Garrett performs.

75th Anniversary Gala Concert held in the City Hall Sheffield on Saturday September 29th 2007. Lesley Garrett performs.

“It is far more than entertainment. I believe there is a psychological need for it,” she says, her eternally flat Yorkshire vowels inflamed with passion.

“A song or a symphony can relax or energise you; it gives you a means of expression and a way of accessing emotion. You can laugh with joy or end up in tears over a piece of music that is special to you.”

Music’s ability to reach out to the soul is the very reason Lesley is heading back home, on February 4, to stage an evening her legion of fans will be falling over themselves to book tickets for.

A Conversation With Lesley Garrett will see the world-class soprano singing her favourite songs, talking about her life and taking questions from the audience.

Lesley Garrett

Lesley Garrett

She is laying herself bare for a cause so close to her heart. It is hoped the evening will raise more than £100,000 for Lost Chord, the South Yorkshire charity that provides interactive musical experiences for people struggling with dementia.

Lesley became a patron of the charity after discovering at first-hand the incredible connections Lost Chord’s musicians were able to make with sufferers of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Her much-loved Auntie Joan was one of them.

Before her mum Margaret’s elder sister developed dementia eight years ago, she was the cornerstone of the family. “She lived next door to us and was a wonderful woman, a terrific mum to my cousins, Ian and Elaine,” says Lesley, 55.

Charity ambassador: Lesley Garrett knows what fine work Lost Chord do

Charity ambassador: Lesley Garrett knows what fine work Lost Chord do

“She was such a capable woman - our school dinner-lady and a great cook. She loved music and was a terrific pianist and singer.”

But all that Auntie Joan was got stolen from her by dementia – and Lesley and her family could only sit and watch.

“It was so sad to see her going into this slow decline. It became like a living death for her, Lesley explains. “My mother, her sister, felt like she was mourning a person who was still alive.”

But Lesley discovered that her mother had been able to break into Joan’s world - by playing her beloved niece’s music to her.

“Mum had taken Auntie Joan to lots of my concerts over the years. When she visited her in the care home, sometimes she took a few of my CDs with her.

“Auntie Joan had got to the stage where she didn’t even know her own children any more, which is just about the most tragic thing a mother can imagine.

“But as the songs were played, she would look into mum’s face and cry. Somehow, she recognised my voice.”

When Lesley heard about the amazing response Lost Chord was having with Alzheimer’s and dementia sufferers, she arranged for its musicians to visit her aunt’s care home in Stainforth just before she died two years ago, at the age of 80.

“This charity really touches me; it underlines everything I believe about music,” she says.

“It’s proven that music has a calming effect on the psyche. You just have to go to one of the charity’s music sessions to see how true that is,” explains the Thorne-born 55-year-old opera singer with a stack of hit albums to her name and a CBE from the Queen.

“You see people who can’t recognise their husband’s face, or even their own name, suddenly remembering the lyrics to songs.

“They sing along joyfully. It is quite incredible.

A visit to the opera that changed a young girl’s ambitions

Britain’s most popular soprano might have been a science teacher but for a trip to the opera in London’s West End at the tender age of 15.

Lesley, the eldest of three girls, had a passion for science and thought that was where her future lay - until an aunt took her to see a performance of Madame Butterfly in the capital.

“I sat there, mesmerised by the English National Opera’s performance and thought: Oh, that’s what I’ve got to do,” she recalls.

At that tender age, her singing ability had not been recognised, even within the boundaries of Thorne Grammar School.

“They had told me I was loud at school, and I’d have to stand at the back when we sang,” she laughs. But after her London trip, she set her cap at main parts in school performances.

“After I’d played the lead in Dr Doolittle at 16, I asked my music teacher, Miss Wood, if she thought I could make singing my career. She told me to go for it, so I did,” she recalls.

Lesley’s mum was equally enthusiastic, although her dad Derek cautiously advised her to “get a teaching certificate to fall back on.”

She give a deep and hearty laugh: “I said to him: ‘Since when did this family fall back on anything?’ As a child I’d witnessed them determinedly following their dreams – and succeeding.”

Her dad was a railway signalman until he decided to become a teacher. And her mum, a bank clerk, studied to become a music teacher at Kirk Sandall Middle School.

“They had come from hard-up backgrounds. Most of my family were miners or steelworkers. But by the time I was 12, they had their careers. Dad became a primary school head-teacher,” she says.

Clearly, their success instilled in her the belief that the loftiest of ambitions could be achieved if you persevered. Lesley got certificates in teaching and typing to please her dad, then auditioned for the Royal Academy Of Music. The little Doncaster lass with the big voice got in – and studied there for six years before joining the English National Opera in 1984 – the very company who had so impressed her at the tender age of 15 that night in London’s West End.

Undeniably, her voice, which has been described as one of “extreme purity” by the best critics in the business, was what got her to the top in a hugely competitive field.

But Lesley believes her success is also down to her South Yorkshire birthright.

“Next to Wales, this county is one of the most musical places in the world,” she says. “It has a wonderful choral tradition. Brass bands, choirs, operatic societies... it’s all here and so important to ordinary people.

“Where there is hard manual work for men and women, there is usually a great love of music. People use it for counter-balance. My family were all miners and steelworkers. They couldn’t wait to get home to make music.

“Without a doubt, being from Doncaster gave me my voice.”

Lesley discovered that her musical roots went even deeper into South Yorkshire soil than she had realised when she appeared in the BBC’s family history series, Who Do You Think You Are. She found out one of her grandfathers had a skiffle band and the other was a classical pianist.

“He played for silent movies in Sheffield. When the talkies arrived and money got tight, he cycled to Thorne to find a job playing for the turns at the White Hart Hotel,” she tells proudly.

“Some of it must have been a bit soul-destroying - he was classically trained. But he had his moments and really, what he was doing was an exercise in social inclusion. He was bringing music to the working people.

“Actually, that’s exactly what I do. I’m following in his footsteps.”

“She is deeply proud of her Yorkshire heritage and the ethics and values it gave her. It must be why she remains so down-to-earth, open and friendly – interviewing Lesley is more like a fast and furious gossip with the woman next to you in the checkout queue. There is not a trace of diva about her. Audiences at In Conversation With are in for an entertaining night.

Lesley lives in London with her GP husband, son Jeremy, 18, and Chloe, 17, but it seems the umbilical chord with South Yorkshire can never be cut. It pings her “back home” at least once a month.

She has a house in Epworth, six miles from Thorne, and is a familiar sight in the villages where her family live. She loves the fact that locals are used to seeing her.They greet her like one of them.

“They’ll say: Saw you on Loose Women the other day, Lesley... Liked your top,” she laughs.

“It’s lovely.”

A date with Lesley

Tickets for In Conversation With Lesley Garrett at Sheffield Hallam University’s Pennine Theatre on February 4, at 7.30pm, are available, priced £15 from the Arena Ticket Shop on 0114 256 5567 or via www.arenaticketshop.co.uk

Lesley Garrett will be accompanied by acclaimed young Australian pianist David Barnard.

For information about Lost Chord, contact Helena Muller on Helena@lostchord.fsnet.co.uk or ring 0779 0649 305.