Interview The blind opera star Denise Leigh talks about overcoming disability and fulfilling lifelong dreams.
Singing her own song
When Denise Leigh took a bow at the recent Beijing Olympics, the rapturous applause which met her was extra-sweet to her ears. While the opera singer was invited to perform alongside Céline Dion and Chaka Khan at the Artists of Excellence Concert as part of the Chinese Olympic celebrations, at the back of her mind was the memory of being rejected from singing groups at the age of 11 with the message: "We don't have room for your type".
Denise is blind. Had it not been for her steely determination and embracing of the extraordinary opportunities which have presented themselves to her, life could have been very different. "Every time I went for an audition with a local amateur dramatic or operatic society, I was told: 'We don't have disabled people in our group,'" the soprano says. "They claimed it was because their insurance would not cover a blind person on stage, but I think they just did not like the idea of it.
"I was always really upset and just slunk away and cried. It took me ages to get over it. There are always going to be people with preconceived ideas about blindness but can you imagine being told that at 11? I just wasn't given a chance." Instead of being deterred, she pursued her love of music, a journey which has brought her to Dubai to perform tonight at the Music by Moonlight concert to raise funds for Foresight - a charity based in the city and dedicated helping to find a cure for hereditary blindness.
Accompanied by her husband Stefan Andrusyschyn on accordion, she will be performing extracts from Handel and Verdi and a selection of choral songs. But while her success may seem effortless to her legions of fans across the world, it has been a long and arduous battle for the 37-year-old mother of three. Denise was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a condition which causes the gradual deterioration of the retina. She has no vision in her right eye and minimal light perception in her left.
Denise's blindness means that she has to perform in bare feet so she can sense the vibrations of her accompanying musicians to make up for her lack of sight, while the stage has to be marked out with white gaffer tape to prevent her falling into the orchestra pit. "I was born with quite a lot of vision but from the age of 15, I barely had anything," she says. "At one point it was noticeably deteriorating on a weekly basis. I simply thought I had done well to keep my sight as long as I had."
She was brought up in the tiny village of Audley, Staffordshire in the UK by her welder father and her mother, who is also blind. As a child, school presented a series of problems. After being sent to boarding school and hating it, she struggled through a series of regular schools. However, at the tender age of seven, she discovered a natural flair for music. "I found an old tape recorder belonging to my mother which allowed you to multilayer sounds," she said. "I became fascinated by harmonies and found I could quite easily layer tracks.
"I must have had perfect pitch but did not realise it. My family is not musical at all," Denise recalls. "Then I found I could pick up an instrument and learn to play it very quickly. I started playing the trumpet and the cornet. While doing that, I discovered that I was good at composing music, too. My parents really encouraged me and I got involved in a lot of brass bands." Despite being snubbed by local operatic groups, she was spotted at 16 in a school production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. A local charity then paid for her to take singing lessons for three years. However, Denise's working-class roots meant that when she left school she was expected to "either become a telephonist, a piano tuner or go on invalidity benefit".
"My parents were both unemployed by then," she says. "There was not very much money. I lived in a culture where you left school at 16, went to work and got married." Indeed, her ambitions hit the bumpers when, aged 19, she married her first husband, Andrew. The relationship lasted for two years. "Everything went off the rails," Denise remembers. "I was trying to keep the singing going but I was swimming against the tide."
By the time she was 21, Denise spilt up with Andrew and quickly married again. Her second husband Mark, a trombonist, had played at her first wedding. Their shared love of music helped her to get her career back on track and she even secured a much sought-after place at the Royal Northern College of Music. But, once again, all this went on hold when she became pregnant with their first child. Denise's daughter, Rebecca, is now 14 and has two brothers, Michael, 12, and Sam, 11.
"The college kept my place open, but when I should have been at music college I was trying to make a family work," she remembers. "I was still very young, then. I didn't regret becoming a mother at that age. You should never be sorry about a baby. It did but it take me longer to graduate, though." Denise coupled her studies with teaching music theory and playing working men's clubs. Her big break came in 2001 when a neighbour suggested she enter Operatunity, a British reality TV contest that gave normal people the chance to become opera singers.
It is clear from the way she has overcome rejection, heartbreak and huge disadvantages that Denise is far from ordinary. However, she insists that no one was more stunned than her when she was named the joint winner of the series. As her prize, she was given the chance to achieve a long-held dream of performing with the English National Opera, taking the role of Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto. "I thought the competition would be for people with a background in opera and young music college graduates, for not a mum in her thirties," she says.
Winning the contest has transformed Denise's life. "It has not made me wealthy," she says. "But it has meant that I could turn professional and change a hobby into a career. As a result I got to work with some amazing musicians - even people such as Andrea Bocelli." As much as it was the fulfilment of a dream, performing with the English National Opera did throw up a few challenges. "Acting is difficult when you cannot see the emotion on people's faces," she adds. "It took me a long time to move like a sighted person. The tension was high at rehearsals. I had to run on stage at one point in the opera and had to time it just right.
"I would come on when I heard Rigoletto singing a certain line. In another scene the chorus had to whisper to me so I knew where they were. But you only have to make a different stride or lose count of your steps to be confused - and you can't be counting steps all the time when you are in character. "Still, I think that being blind has worked in my favour. It made me more independent. Not being accepted initially gave me time to go off and learn a vast repertoire of music."
Unfortunately, as Denise's on-stage career was flourishing, her marriage was beginning to unravel. Eventually she and Mark, 45, decided to separate. However, they did remain under the same roof for another four years for the sake of the children. As a result, she was a little more cautious when she met the man who would become her third husband. Stefan, a former UK national accordion champion, is 13 years her junior and is also blind. The couple first encountered one another at an awards ceremony in 2005 staged by the Royal National Institute for the Blind.
She said: "He was brought in as an emergency pianist. I had spoken to him earlier on the phone and thought he had an overinflated opinion of himself, so decided I was going to have to bring him down a peg or two. "So I asked him if he knew Glitter and Be Gay, a difficult aria from Candide by Leonard Bernstein. He said: 'I'm going to have to work on that,' and I thought, "Hah! He doesn't know it.'"
But it was instant attraction when the pair met. "It was a difficult situation. I was technically married with three children and the sensible part of me was saying: 'He is only 22'." The pair discovered they had chemistry on stage as well as off and formed an alliance, partnering each other at concerts. As neither could drive, Mark, who remained on amicable terms with Denise, would ferry the couple to gigs.
Denise and Stefan, who is now 24, married last Christmas. They now work together almost exclusively. "The age gap does not make a difference," she says. "He makes me laugh all the time and brings out my inner child. "He is fabulous with the children and a great musician to boot. We have a really good friendship and because we work exclusively with each other, we instinctively know what the other is going to play.
"We complement each other perfectly because we are exposed to each other all day. Occasionally we have to go off and give the other a breather but it works very well." Since her TV success, Denise has toured the world and released two albums. The first, Operatunity: The Winners was a bestseller across Europe and topped the UK's classical charts for five months, while Pie Jesu was her debut solo venture.
Now she hopes that others will take heart from her astonishing rise to fame: "I do not want any blind person to think there is a glass ceiling for them. I put off using a cane until four years ago but I have learned that being blind is not something to be ashamed of. "It is not the most interesting thing about me, but by denying it I was letting it become a bigger thing than it is. Whether you are blind or not, if you have a dream you have got to pursue it and take every opportunity that is thrown at you. If you don't, you will always be left wondering what could have been."
And what of the groups who rejected her as an 11-year-old? "They have invited me to perform for them since. Funnily enough, I appear to be busy every time," she says. Denise and Stefan will be performing from 7.30pm in the grounds of Le Meridien Mina Seyahi. There is a limited guest list with a suggested donation of Dh190 per person. For more details call 04 3643703 or email @email:firstname.lastname@example.org