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‘Posing naked helped me pay my way through the Royal Academy’

Lesley Garrett
Lesley Garrett's upbringing in a stretched household made her determined to be financially self-reliant and independent - Andrew Crowley

One of the world’s top opera singers, Yorkshire-born and bred Lesley Garrett, 69, became the principal soprano for the English National Opera in 1984. She now sits on its board and recently performed in The Barber of Seville. She has extended her career into broadcasting, musicals, classical music and writing.

She has released 14 solo albums and was awarded a CBE in 2002 for her services to music. She is married to Peter, a retired GP, with whom she lives in north London, and they have two adult children, Jeremy and Chloe.

How did your childhood influence your attitude towards money?

I grew up near Doncaster, in the heart of the coal industry. My family were all miners or railway workers and we all lived in council houses. Both my parents worked at the local railway station: my father as a signalman and my mother in the booking office. It was post-war Britain and money was very tight, but there was a tremendous sense of community and rebuilding – a real gung-ho, can-do attitude.

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We grew a lot of our own food and kept pigs, goats and chickens. Mum handled the family finances using jam jars to which she’d add cash weekly for all our bills. It gave me a sense of value. My parents were ambitious and wanted us to have our own home. By careful saving, they were able to buy two derelict cottages in our village for £100 when I was five. There was no running water or any utility services.

My father renovated it all himself over four years, and he taught me and my two sisters all the plumbing, wiring and building skills he learnt. There was none of this “You can’t do that because you’re a girl”. They also wanted to better themselves, having left school with no qualifications.

By the time I was 13, dad had become a headmaster of a local school and mum the head of music. They were my inspiration to always be self-reliant and financially independent. I was determined never to be worried about money, due to the anxiety about money as a child.

Lesley Garrett in the messiah
Lesley Garrett extended her career as a performer through taking on roles in musicals as well as broadcasting gigs - Robert Day

What was your first job?

While at Thorne Grammar School, I was a Saturday girl, selling vegetables at the local market. I was only 14. After that I worked for a market gardener, pulling tomatoes and planting lettuce. Then,when I was 19, I went to work at nearby RAF Lindholme, washing dishes for £16 a week. It was great fun, and I got several flattering marriage proposals.

Where did your musical inspiration come from?

Both sets of grandparents, who lived nearby, and my parents were very musical. My maternal granddad couldn’t go down the pits because of his asthma, so the next best way locally of earning a living was music – this was the turn of the last century. By his 20s, he had won national competitions and was playing for famous silent movies.

He taught me to play the piano and my love of classical music. My paternal granddad was a dance band leader for Arthur Garrett and the Blackout Boys. My mum had a beautiful voice, loved choral music, and sang in choirs. Dad loved opera and performing it – he had a voice and a girth to rival Pavarotti.

How did they react to you wanting to make music your career?

They were horrified. I was passionate about science and they thought I was going to go to university and do them proud. Growing up in the countryside I loved wildlife and natural history, and to them music wasn’t something you studied, you just did it. But at school, I was always doing musicals, shows and operas. When my auntie took me to London, something just clicked, and I knew it’s what my destiny was. I got scholarships from my local authority, and I won a county award to take me to the Royal Academy at 18.

Lesley Garrett as Elle in Opera North's production of La voix humaine
Lesley as Elle in Opera North's production of La Voix Humaine

Did you struggle financially?

No, even though I didn’t have any financial support from my parents. In hindsight I should have gone to Europe as an au pair, learned languages and saved. My county award and subsequent scholarships from the Munster Trust and Peter Stiverson Foundation didn’t cover all my expenses, so I did waitressing, bar work and a stint at a newsagents.

I didn’t care what I did to make ends meet. The best job I got and the one that really sustained me at the Royal Academy was nude modelling at Hampstead Garden Suburbs Institute. I loved it – it was really easy and while sitting for hours naked, I’d be learning music in my head. It really instilled in me that I couldn’t expect handouts and I had to work to get what I wanted.

Did that time influence how you raised your own children?

I’ve tried to bring up Jeremy and Chloe to appreciate the benefits of hard work because if you make or create opportunities on your own, it’s much more satisfying than if you’re just given an easy route. The most important aspect of good mental health is independence and security you’ve generated for yourself.

How did having children affect your career?

Being an opera singer isn’t really compatible with stable family life, with all the international travelling, so when I had my children in the 1990s, I had to rethink my outlook, but it was never a sacrifice.

I had my own TV show, did one-off specials, appeared on Strictly and in the West End, so I was never more than a short train ride away. I didn’t close myself off to new opportunities and I was keen to take on roles where I learnt something.

Lesley Garrett in Rhondda Rips It Up! a music hall-style take on women's suffrage
Lesley began investing in property early on in her career. Here she stars in Rhondda Rips It Up! a music hall-style take on women's suffrage - Betina Skovbro

Are you a saver or a spender?

I’m both. I don’t spend it until I have it. I hate debt, always have. I’ve seen what debt can do to someone’s mental health and the fear it causes. I almost never use a credit card, apart from for the benefits such as the insurance and protection it brings. I do like to spend and be generous with friends and family, helping them.

I appreciate money for the freedom it brings. I like being able to redecorate because I’ve seen a gorgeous wallpaper I love. I drive a little BMW, but I’d like a fun eco-friendly car. As I’ve got older, I’m more concerned about climate change and investing in the planet. Our family are avid litter pickers.

Best investment?

Property, like the 4-bed smallholding farm I bought in Tarn, near Toulouse in the south of France in the early 2000s. It’s in the middle of the Forest of Grésigne – there are the most wonderful walks and a tremendous array of wildflowers.

I’ve invested heavily in property since my 20s, when I bought my first flat in Queen’s Park and then two neighbouring houses in the historical village of Epworth, Yorkshire, near my sisters and parents. I reconfigured the rooms and I let the smaller part, which pays for the entire property. It’s probably worth five times what I paid for it.

I believe there are two kinds of investment – a financial investment and an emotional investment, involving your happiness and wellbeing. My French place serves both – we’ve spent a lot doing it up but it’s accrued value, and we have priceless family memories. My French is still terrible, so getting better is my retirement project.

We bought our six-bed Edwardian house in north London in 1993, the year Jeremy was born, for £247,000, and the house two doors down from us has just gone for £2.5m.

Lesley Garrett, launching the Youth Music Trust, of which she was a trustee, in 1998
Lesley Garrett, launching the Youth Music Trust, of which she was a trustee, in 1998 - Andrew Shaw

Worst investment?

A running machine I bought at the start of the pandemic. It’s sitting in my office and I’m yet to get on it. I need to make the time.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt about money?

How liberating earning money can be. It’s freedom from worrying.

Is there anything you hate about dealing with money?

Not particularly. It’s just me, my husband and my agent Lawrence Kershaw taking care of my finances. I’ve never had a financial adviser – I don’t like people I don’t know telling me what I can and cannot do with my money.

If you could change one thing about the financial world and government, what would it be?

Increase the culture budget. The health benefits alone are incalculable. Successive governments haven’t prioritised this. The first thing that Churchill did when we went to war was increase the culture budget because he said we’re going to need stuff to make us feel better.

We should measure wealth by happiness like Bhutan and by the quality of the minds who live in our country. Culture increases imagination, which in turn brings creativity and progress.