Interview: Lesley Garrett
L ESLEY Garrett almost walked away from Opera North. The crossover operatic singer hadn't done an actual staged opera in nearly a decade, and her comeback role looked daunting to begin with. La Voix Humaine – 45 minutes of one person alone on stage delivering an operatic monologue – was never going to be an easy piece.
But then came something much bigger. The 1959 opera – with music by Francis Poulenc and a libretto by Jean Cocteau, who also wrote the 1930 play upon which the work is based – deals with the loss of a man. The lone character has an extended phone conversation with the lover who is leaving her, punctuated by interruptions thanks to the notoriously bad Parisian phone service of 1930. It is a work that deals bluntly, sometimes brutally, with loss.
And as it happened, Lesley's father died just before Christmas after a long battle with leukaemia.
"I wasn't at all sure I was going to be able to perform this piece," Lesley says. "But because of the warmth and support that this company gives all its artists, they bore me along on a kind of wonderful wave of kindness and understanding and love.
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"It was very personal – as a company they were very, very loving. They gave me the strength to keep going."
Like Lesley, Opera North comes from Yorkshire – and, as she rehearsed the role with the company she began her career with 30 years ago, she remembered an old Yorkshire saying.
"'Spit on your hands and take a fresh hold'," she says. "That's a phrase my dad often used, and it's a phrase I had in my ear."
As she prepares to take to the Theatre Royal stage, Lesley is glad she took a fresh hold. La Voix Humaine comes to Nottingham as part of a Tuesday/Friday double bill with Purcell's Dido and Aeneas; during the week Opera North also presents Verdi's Otello and Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito.
The loss of Lesley's father helped inform the character. "She is in a very fragile state – and, boy ,was I," Lesley says. "From that point of view, my dad helped me, really. I was in a place that she is."
Beyond the emotion, La Vox Humaine is also a technically exhausting work for several reasons.
"First, the acoustic," Lesley says. "Every singer is anxious about that. In the case of this particular piece, I'm anxious on two levels."
There must be beautiful sound, but not too resonant that the words aren't clear. This is a play set to music. Playwright Cocteau's collaboration with Poulenc was close, and Poulenc had a meticulous respect for the words, setting almost every one in the piece.
"It's a very strong indication of how important these words are," she says. "Without that, this piece is meaningless."
But Lesley's not worried about that for several reasons. One, the Theatre Royal's excellent acoustics will help her deliver the lines as they must be delivered. She also hails director Aletta Collins as visionary, but also warm and nurturing. That vision comes through in the double-bill programming of her piece alongside Dido and Aeneas.
"She has connected the two pieces in the most extraordinary way," Lesley says.
Ideas established in one are explored in the other. Psychological breakdown, the theme of a woman abandoned – the pieces offer fascinating parallels that are hinted at in myriad ways. That creativity is one of the reasons Lesley's happy to be back in what she calls "the Opera North family" after three decades.
"When you join Opera North, even for a short time, it is like coming home to the most wonderful family. It is a great feeling to be wrapped up in this wonderful warm Northern blanket.
"It is the place where I started, the place that helped to grow me, if you like."
In the intervening decades since her last Opera North appearance, both singer and company have undergone some major changes. Lesley, of course, became a major crossover star, a singer committed to bringing more people to opera by branching out into popular music.
Meanwhile, the Leeds-based company has grown in size and stature.
"I sang with Opera North right at the beginning of my career," she says. "In that time the company has transformed itself from what was just a fledgling offshoot of English National Opera ... and now it's a completely independent and fabulous world-class company."