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Mother of all vocal queens

PUBLISHED: 12:48 03 October 2008 | UPDATED: 17:13 16 August 2010

IT S rare for an opera singer to become a household name. Save for Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti, few have successfully managed to extend their appeal and fame outside of classical music circles.

IT'S rare for an opera singer to become a household name. Save for Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti, few have successfully managed to extend their appeal and fame outside of classical music circles.

Rarer still is an opera singer who can turn their hand to musical theatre, TV and radio presenting all with equal aplomb.

One such performer is Lesley Garrett, the Doncaster Diva with the rich, sonorous voice and wholesome good looks that made wives and children across the country wonder why their husbands and fathers were suddenly interested in Verdi.

Two years on from her acclaimed role playing the Mother Abbess in Andrew Lloyd Webber's production of The Sound of Music, the lyric soprano is back on the musical stage in another well-loved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Carousel - playing mother hen character Nettie.

"Two years ago now I saw that Andrew Lloyd Webber was brining The Sound of Music to the West End," she recalls, "I had never done a musical before and I had always wanted to sing the Mother Abbess and I phoned him up and suggested that he might like to consider me for the part and he said: 'yes please, sign here'.

"It was my first attempt at a musical and I enjoyed myself so much that I was just determined I was going to do another one as soon as I could. When the casting director for The Sound of Music was asked to cast Carousel he thought of me, which was very sweet of him. He asked me if I would like to do Nettie and, of course, Nettie sings two of the greatest songs in the musical universe - June is Bustin' Out All Over and You'll Never Walk Alone - so they didn't really have to twist my arm, I can tell you."

As famous for her warm, welcoming personality as she is for her pure, emotive voice, it isn't difficult to picture Garrett in the role, a fact that the singer says has not escaped her.

"She's such a fantastic character. I empathise with her a lot. My children say I am essentially a Nettie because I am always feeding people and making sure they are ok. When my children's friends come round I always ask them if they are having any problems at school or if they would like mashed potatoes with their sausages or chips and that's just what Nettie does. She's just this big Earth mother, this pillar of the community, and I just feel that it is the right time in my life to play that character because that's who I am really." Garrett was born in Thorne, a village near Doncaster in South Yorkshire, in 1955.

Music filled the family home - one of her grandfathers was a classical pianist, the other had his own skiffle group and even at 81 years old her mother remains an active part of two choral societies.

While she credits her mother with introducing her to the oratorio and opera for which she is best known, musical theatre also played an important part in her early musical education.

"I grew up with all the great musicals like I grew up with opera. At home and at school we didn't really make a great distinction - people in South Yorkshire don't. Where I grew up it was just all music that I enjoyed. I've grown up knowing all these songs."

Garrett is joined on stage by Jeremiah James from Theatreland pop group Teatro, and Alexandra Silber, seen in the West End earlier this year in Fiddler on the Roof, as doomed lovers Billy and June.

"The cast are so strong," she beams. "I was wondering if I would have to modify my sound to make it work with singers with other different training, but not at all. They have all got such fantastically strong wonderful voices right the way through. I don't have to do anything to my sound, I can just sing in my normal voice."

* Lesley Garrett appears in Carousel at the Churchill theatre in Bromley until October 4. Call the box office on 0870 060 6620 for tickets and information.

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