Lesley Garrett

The Sound of Music, heading for Wellington, has had more than a little to do with the life and career of its British co-star, Lesley Garrett.

Garrett, 59, first played the role of Mother Abbess in 2006 at the start of the production’s London run.

It was her first foray into musicals after a long career as an opera singer. She sounded out the possibility of the role with a friend, who had a word with Andrew Lloyd Webber, the man in charge. Then she donned the habit and was a hit at the London Palladium – and with the critics.

But her first brush with the long-running musical was much earlier.

“I was a little child in the 1960s and saw The Sound of Music and fell in love with it, particularly Mother Abbess. The song about climbing the mountain was the apex – climbing every mountain, getting to the top of the mountain, and the mountain of the show. It was a pivotal moment, the power of that, on me. It blew me away, the woman with the power, the Mother Abbess. I longed to play it all my life.”

Garrett is returning to the role for New Zealand just because, she says, “I wanted to come to New Zealand. I’ve been there 10 years ago to promote an album for a day and now my children are both at university, I can travel more, and we have Skype.”

So she’ll put on the habit and do it all again, remembering that her first time in the role “was possibly the highlight of my life”, not just, she says, because the show was so successful.

“I loved the role and the production. I just feel better when I play this character. I feel like I’m a better human being. I put this wonderful habit on and it makes me feel good about the world.”

Climb Ev’ry Mountain seems as much an analogy of her life as a song title. Her story seems to be one of rags to riches but, she says, it’s not at all.

“My childhood was rich in family and music.”

She was born in Yorkshire “and the whole area was industrial with pits and factories but they all had bands and choirs . . . That’s all we had. There was no telly.”

Her father was a railway signalman and her mother a seamstress: both were musically adept.

“When I was 7 or 8 they went into education. My father went to night school and to training college and ended up headmaster of a Sheffield school.”

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Her mother became a teacher and a school head of music.

“I saw my parents climb that mountain and that was truly inspiring.”

She grew up with an eclectic mix of music and knew, at 15, that, if her parents could do what they did, she could be an opera singer. The epiphany came when an aunt took her to see her first opera. Dressed in their best, they watched the English National Opera – where she would later become lead soprano – perform Madame Butterfly.

“When I got home I went to the headmistress and said I wanted to be a singer.”

She had been studying science but the headmistress was not surprised. “She juggled timetables so I could do an A-level in music and I got into the royal academy and the rest is history. The ball kept rolling.”

She became a star in the opera and television world. She was lead soprano at the English National Opera for a decade from 1984, has recorded 14 solo CDs, had many television appearances and several shows, and was an early participant in Strictly Come Dancing.

Everything, she says, eventually had to fit in with her family life. She was well into her 30s when she met and married her doctor husband, Peter, in 1990.

Friends brought him to see her sing at a time when she had given up on the idea of finding a life partner and having a family – “I’d auditioned the world and he just wasn’t out there”. They went out to dinner, and that was another “the rest is history”.

It was, she says, quite genuinely, love at first sight. “We have two gorgeous children, a precious thing I never thought would happen.

“I gave up on international work once the children were born but I had some residual contracts.”

One took her to St Louis on an American tour on her daughter’s first birthday. She was singing Tchaikovsky’s None but the Lonely Heart when she burst into tears. “I told them I was very sorry, they were lovely, but it was my little girl’s birthday and I should be there. Those lovely American people gave me a standing ovation.”

When she was committed to overseas performances, she tried to take the children.

“I took them to Australia and we made it a family holiday. I couldn’t bear to be away from them. Family is more important than career. All the decisions I’ve made, I’ve made around family, to care for them. Singing is a priority too, but I can sing anywhere.

“You can only be as happy as your most unhappy child and that goes for the rest of your life. For me it was a no-brainer. If I’d been away, they would have been unhappy.”

She says her career has been “a fantastic journey” and at nearly 60, she is still travelling it. “I think it’s a case of ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it’.”

Not losing it takes discipline.

“I have singing lessons every week which keeps me vocally fit. Vocal hygiene is a whole area on its own.”

She needs to drink plenty of water, keep out of dusty or otherwise dubious atmospheres, and be careful with what she eats – “not too much coffee or spicy foods which might give reflux during the night”.

“And not too much talking.” She needs to keep generally fit.

“It’s all part of my routine. If I go on holiday for two weeks my voice feels affected. I can have a week but any longer and I’m in trouble. I haven’t noticed it get harder as I get older. If anything it’s a bit easier, my voice knows how to behave. It took me a long time to get my routine together.”

Music, she says, is like “eating and breathing, a powerful natural urge” and brings her fulfilment and a sense of power.

“Singing gives me the spiritual connection to the very heart of myself. It’s so holistic, when you sing.

“It’s an intensely physical activity but it connects my heart, my brain and my spirit, all the elements of what I am, never more so than when I’m playing Mother Abbess. I bless the day I was asked to play that role.”