diva Christmas

Grand diva Sarah Brightman’s advice on surviving pandemics and her new US tour

Sarah Brightman sings again.

The classy, grand diva returns to performing following the COVID-19 pandemic with Sarah Brightman: A Christmas Symphony, a new PBS special as well as a holiday tour of the United States beginning November 26.

has spent nearly a half-century in show business, first appearing on the pop charts in 1978 as part of the group Hot Gossip with the single “I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper.” She transitioned to the stage thereafter, appearing in the original London cast of Cats. In 1987, her career exploded on both sides of the Atlantic when she created the role of Christine Daaé in the original London and Broadway productions of The Phantom of the OperaComposer Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the score around her voice; the pair were married from 1984-1990.

Following her success with Phantom, Brightman released more than a dozen albums, appeared in the films First Night and Repo! The Genetic Opera, and has taken various stage roles. We caught up with Brightman ahead of her new holiday tour to chat about her career, surviving a pandemic, and all things musical.

Sarah Brightman’s US holiday tour kicks off November 26. Sarah Brightman: A Christmas Symphony airs on PBS throughout the months of November and December. Check local listings for schedule.

Is it a relief for you to be performing again?

You know, I’ve been waiting for this to happen. All my friends say “You always think this is going to happen” because I travel so much. I travel to all those sort of Eastern places all the time to perform. I was caught up in the Taiwan Bird Flu, in that time.

Oh goodness.

They wouldn’t allow us out, so I was stuck there at that time. There were no planes in or out. So I’ve been waiting [for a pandemic to hit]. And it did. I just want to be as useful to myself and to other people as much as I could. So I’ve been caring for my mother, who is getting elderly, and my brother who is quite vulnerable on weekends. During the week, I went into what we call “a bubble” with my singing coach in England. And I just kept singing, and it really kept our spirits up. I learned a new repertoire. And fortunately, France opened up and I was able to release an album over there which did very well. And they opened up for a while to do TV shows. I was in Paris, and I would do these TV shows and had great success there. I’m very fortunate.

That’s wonderful.

And I was very happy to do the Christmas show. We were very heavily locked down at that time, but we were able to use this wonderful church in London and I was able to do something to keep my fans busy if they wanted to watch, and also hire some musicians. Everyone was really suffering. So that was the reason for doing it. I figured that when the theatres would open up again it would be the end of this year, which it was.

Related: Andrew Lloyd Webber gives zero Fs while sharing his opinions on film adaptations of his work

Yes.

I knew everyone would want to get back into the mode of normal life again and all those wonderful things about it. So that’s how it came about.

Marvelous. You mentioned that you perform in London’s Christ Church, which is such a beautiful setting. How involved were you in selecting a venue and designing the visual look of the show? What guidance do you offer?

I work very closely with Nathan that designs the lighting and the set. I’ve always been very hands-on with all of it. It really starts with me. I start talking about the scene how I would like something. Then, the men are all technical, and they know how to spotlight and what to do. So it’s just a continual conversation really about textures and subliminal things that you want to give to the audience. So yes, I’ve always been very hands-on with my concerts.

Is putting together a setlist, selecting songs for a concert…is that like putting together album? Is there a mood and a movement to it like a symphony?

What comes to my mind always is life—how I want to do something. Then I start working through music that might fit in with that, depending on what my experience has been lately, what I really want to do at this time in my life. It’s what colors I see, the social consciousness around us. All sorts of things come in. And I just start listening and going through with my producers that huge amount of repertoire working out what I’m really going to suit. If you don’t suit something, there’s absolutely no point in doing it, even if you love it. You should just put it in your iPlayer if it doesn’t suit you. So it’s just a combination of things, everyone is different.

That makes sense.

This Christmas show, for example, I did a Christmas album several years back. So I go through a repertoire that I think will suit it. It’s really just creating something for an audience that I think they’ll enjoy that I’ll suit. And Christmas is a very personal thing, a very emotional time. So checking all the boxes is one of the hardest things for me to do. Not everyone is Christian, but they like to come to Christmas shows to enjoy the feeling of it. So there are songs that are more seasonal, the more religious type of songs you hear. Then there are the more fun songs. And then, of course, there is the Christmas message. But I think I’ve found the balance. I hope everyone enjoys it.

I was delighted to see you invite guest vocalists to the show, in this case, Aled Newman. You’ve had some incredible collaborators over the years, obviously—Jose Carreras, Josh Groban, Andrea Bocelli. Tell me about collaborating. When you’re working with someone of that caliber, how does it challenge you?

It’s kind of a relief, because you have someone sharing with you. It’s very lovely. I always remember when I took a break from doing musicals or concerts. I became just an actress for a while doing straight plays. I remember how wonderful it was to just bounce off another actor, another person. Although everyone’s an actor now…

[Laughter]

And I just enjoy that. I think that’s a lot of what a duet gives you. Also, for the listener, it’s rather lovely. They get a break from one type of voice to another type of voice. They have two textures in there. So it’s just a lovely thing to do.

How do you prepare for a show? What’s your routine like, not just vocally. What’s your mental routine like?

Well, when I wake up it’s usually in the late morning, especially if I’m touring. After my coffee, I go into my mode. I have to. I just—I don’t know. I just gear up for it slowly mentally, then physically. I do my singing scales. I have lunch at the right time. Everything is meticulously planned. I don’t like being thrown, but at the same time, I’m always ready to perform. You have to be professional and keep going. Especially when you’re touring, there’s no life. I don’t party, I don’t do anything. I just keep my vocal cords running and everything good. That’s basically it—all the stuff you’re taught from a young age to be a performer.

Yes.

It’s a discipline of focus as well. Focus is probably the most important thing. You can do all types of things, but if you’re not focused for a performance, you have to learn.

As I watched, I wondered if you would do a Lloyd Weber song. I didn’t expect him to actually show up! Is it a strange feeling…being so connected to a composer like that, particularly one that is also your ex-husband?

Well, I mean, I see it as a very positive thing. How often does an actress have one of the biggest musicals of our era—still running, still loved, still watched by young ones coming up—and I was the muse for it. I was the one that inspired him to write it. I was a young woman coming into the business. I did very strong singing training and learning. And he hadn’t really written a more classical type of score before. And look what happened from it! So much of those songs were written for me or around the things my voice was good at. It was a wonderful time actually. I feel very appreciative it happened to me. It’s great!

When I mentioned that I would interview you to one of my colleagues here at the site, he lost his mind. He also begged me to ask you about a film you made called Repo: The Genetic Opera. I say with all sincerity that you are excellent in the film. Do you ever perform those songs in concert?

Not really. It was a sort of one-off thing. The director, Darren Bausman, and I have no idea how picked up on it. But when you get clever directors, they’re very good at casting. I think he recognized my gothic soul. He rang me and said “I think you’re perfect for this part,” and explained it to me. I was actually recording an album at the time and said “Excuse me, I have to do this movie.”

[Laughter]

I’m so glad I did. It was an amazing experience, and I really felt the part as well. I love these kinds of classic, modern horror pieces. I think they will always be there and people will always enjoy them.

It’s also a wonderful part for you, in that it allows you to sing both pop music and more classical opera-style songs. You’re one of the few singers I know that is comfortable doing both.

Yes, thank you.

Do you want to do more films? Musicals or otherwise?

You know, I did a lovely film with Richard E. Grant called First Night a few years ago. That was slightly comedic.

Yes, I know it.

I’m not one to sort of jump around doing things. I’m very focused on what I do. It’s because music has always been so strong that it’s the career I want, and that people seem to enjoy when I do. I think because I put so much into each thing that I do I’ve never dabbled too much, probably to my detriment. But that’s the way I am. But I do love doing movies. They’re fabulous. I think if the opportunity came up for me to audition or read, I’d do it. I’d love to do another movie.

Brightman in ‘Repo! The Genetic Opera’

I’d love to see it happen. Now, because you’ve been singing so long, tell me about keeping your voice in shape over time. What advice could you offer our readers who might be singers to keep their voices in shape?

Well, just before this interview I actually came from a two-and-a-half-hour lesson with my singing coach. It’s a continual work. There’s the physical part of it that the audience gets to enjoy. We’re athletes, and we just keep going. I was actually just telling someone the vocal chords don’t get older. The mass around them gets older, and that’s what we have to work on. That’s the athletic part—all the muscles and tissues and everything. I know I’m being technical here, but that’s what it is. So actually, if you really work at it and always take care, there’s no reason why those vocal cords shouldn’t sound the same from 20 to 70. So that’s how I approach it. What you do with a teacher often doesn’t have a lot to do with what an audience gets in the end, but without it, none of that would work. I’m just continually working on that. Even when I tour I still work with a coach. So, for younger people, it’s a continual thing. It’s never I’ve done all the work. Now I can just do it. It’s not that. You’re always schooled.

Sarah Brightman’s US holiday tour kicks off November 26. Sarah Brightman: A Christmas Symphony airs on PBS throughout the months of November and December. Check local listings.