Prime Time
Prima Donny

Lesley Garrett, soprano supreme, now stars in a Saturday night telly tackfest. The Doncaster Diva has dollied up and is taking opera to the masses.


The classical music world's efforts to appeal to the great unwashed (that's us lot, by the way) have always been a bit bonkers. There's been Mario Lanza huffing and puffing through 50's musicals; Pavarotti And Pals kicking footballs about during the Italia90 World Cup Finals; endless K-Telly "Fat Lady Sings" compilations; Nigel Kennedy's fiddling footie hooligan; Vanessa Mae in her nightie standing in a duckpond, The Royal Philomaniacs stood up on the Hammersmith Odeon stage all awkward like...

"I'm absolutely against elitism, ignorance and the patronising of audiences. I'm very pro presenting the best music I can to the widest audience possible."


Somehow Opera has had a harder time of it since the Great British Public found out how much public money was being spent. An artform long used to huge orchestras, vast elaborate set pieces and grand venues is now having a good go at meeting it's public. And heading up the front, arms wide, is our Lesley Garrett, daughter of a Doncaster railway signalman. After two decades as the darling of the English National Opera she has stepped off the pedestal and into our living rooms without missing a beat.

It's as if she found her true voice when the music stopped. We had no idea that behind her Atlanta, her Eurydice, her Zaide and her Musetta was a down to earth Yorkshire lass with a gorgeous local accent. Prima Donnas are supposed to smile and bow and wave. All small talk curtailed in preparation for the next perfect performance. Lesley Garrett's smouldering passionate characterisations of Verdi and Puccini heroines had put her alongside the great international sopranos like Jesse Norman, Joan Sutherland and Renata Tebaldi. To hear her speaking broad Yorkshire left us gobsmacked.

Up until then the Garrett image had been akin to a silent movie star, swooning around on erotically charged publicity shots and CD covers, only really visible in character on the big stages. It certainly helped that she had the figure and glamour to suit those passionate heroines, and she added a frisson to her English National Opera roles that soon attracted great attention. But It took a performance alongside comic drag sensation Lily Savage (all fag ash and lippy scouse humour) on a benefit stage to ease her into talkies.

Lesley Garrett and Lily Savage (Paul O'Grady ) at a benefit for the Stonewall lesbian and gay organisation. They did a duet of Rossini's Cat Duet and brought the house down.

This is where the down-to-earth Yorkshire lass (who just happened to be this awesome Soprano Prima Donna) began to emerge Garboesque. There was a South Bank Show documentary and a behind-the-scenes thing with prime-timers Pauline Quirk and Linda Robson. Then finally a big glam special entitled "Viva la Diva" which featured Lesley's performances of musical numbers as well as popular Arias. The audience lapped up the show. It tapped into our love of daft musicals and made us realise just how much of the heavy stuff we already knew from advertising jingles and TV themes. That it was linked with such disarming homely chat from the lass herself, and packaged in a Saturday Night gloss that had long been swamped by gritty hospital dramas and grotty doccy soaps about Airports and hotel workers.

Lesley Garrett has a passion for the opera world that is beginning to have a real impact now. Her Saturday TV show "Lesley Garrett Tonight" follows the original formula of mixing camp with classic, and is now into it's second series. She is proving uniquely able to attract the heaviest of opera heavies into sharing a spotlight with mere TV stars. Her ability to slip form "Hello Chuck" Cilla-style homilies to belting out a number from Don Giovanni is a winning one. Stirring it all up with Eurovision/Eurotrash set pieces and the kind of dancers not seen on the screen since the days of the Petula Clark Show or Val Doonican is perfectly in keeping with the times.

The English have always loved it's best boys and panto dames. Lesley is showing that that all this and more can be found at the heart of the Opera world, and draws on songs from My Fair Lady and An American In Paris to prove her point. It's all there. The costumes. The blokes dressed up as women. The sassy broads running rings round paupers and princes. Camp as bottled coffee. The distance between Carmen and Cinders is not too far at all, missus.

Meanwhile the Classical world took another step towards mainstream pop culture by presenting it's first Classical Brit Awards in May. Our Lesley was there of course. Charlotte Church, the Welsh teenager who has two albums in the US pop charts, was inevitably Artist of The Year, and Nigel Kennedy got a gong for Outstanding Contribution to Classical Music. Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli was honoured by listeners of Classic FM...

Lesley's autobiography is just out - called "Notes From A Small Soprano" it further documents the extraordinary rise from Donny schoolgirl to International Diva Superstar. That there's little mention at all of the telly work shows that she's not about to turn into a chatshow host. Music still comes first. It's clear she's only just pausing for breath. The Safety Curtain is up and Act Three is about to begin. Shh.

"I don't just come from a musical family, but from a musical community. The musical heritage of Yorkshire is deep and wide. This was the land of smoke and fire, coal steel and sweat. The community that underpinned my upbringing was born from the pits and the steelworks and the railways. And woven into the fabric of this harsh existence was music."

Back cover of 'Notes From a Small Soprano' (Hodder and Stoughton)

Ann D


Born: 10th April 1955, Waterside, near Thorne, Doncaster. Daughter of a railwayman who would go on to be a school headmaster.

Studied: Royal Academy of Music
In 1979 she won the prestigious Decca-Kathleen Ferrier Competition and went on to perform at the Wexford Festival, Welsh National Opera, Opera North, the Buxton Festival and Glyndbourne.

In 1984 she joined the English National Opera, and made international headlines when, during a production of Die Fledermaus she bared her backside to the audience. She was quickly established as a star in both serious and comedic roles.

Appearances on TV began to grow after a Stonewall benefit concert appearance alongside Lily Savage in 1996. She appeared on the Lily Savage Show, and took part in a documentary called Jobs For The Girls alongside Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson. Her first TV special "Viva La Diva" has developed into several TV series.

Lesley Garrett Appreciation Page
Interview with Lesley Garrett
"Official" Lesley Garrett Homepage

NB: The last one is not what it says it is. It's the homepage of BMG (a music company) and offers a password protected webpage dedicated to selling you stuff and takes an age to get to. No biography, no information and no interactivity.The normally effective and vigorous Lesley Garrett publicity machine is nowhere to be seen on the web.