Sarah Brightman knows what it means to “shoot for the stars.” A one-of-a-kind soprano, the “Phantom of the Opera” singer, who originated the iconic role of Christine 27 years ago, has a voice that can reach as high as the cosmos.
Soon, so will the singer herself, as she becomes the first singer to record a song from space as part of a three-person team that will orbit the Earth 16 times daily. Her first album since 2008, “Dreamchaser” (out April 16), is an extension of this intergalactic mission – a trip that shouldn’t surprise her gay fans. Brightman did, after all, lose her heart to a starship trooper. The performer continues this space odyssey with a show Sept. 27 at the Fox Theatre in Detroit.
In our recent interview, we chatted with the renowned singer about that campy disco-era music video, being a “heavenly” diva and getting high off those high notes.
How did you select the cover songs for this album?
Because of the journey I’m hoping to take in a couple of years to space, I wanted to create a body of work that incorporated the feeling of our emotions of space. I wanted to collect pieces which really felt very expansive – some with deeper meanings and from a different perspective – and that would bring all sorts of emotions up, so a lot of the songs were pieces I’d wanted to do for a long time but couldn’t, because I am an interpreter of music rather than a composer of it. These pieces kind of all fell into place when I thought of the theme of this album. It was really a journey for me collecting them all and putting them all together.
How did Sia’s “Breathe Me” fall into the vision that you had for the album?
That song has a deeper meaning; it’s not just the voice that goes to extraordinary places, but it’s about what it’s saying. I think the same with, for example, the piece “One Day Like This,” which Elbow originally did. The song is really trying to explain an experience – one experience we can have can last a lifetime. I think in today’s world, we’re very greedy for experience, and what we sometimes forget is that the smaller experiences that we have are actually the bigger ones, and we’re losing the beauty of them. I think “One Day” is similar to the Sia piece “Breathe Me,” and I also liked the idea of “Breathe Me” being about space – there is no oxygen out there – and so it has something to do with the physical feeling of breathing, as well. I thought of that and what it means – it holds our life together.
You will be the first professional singer to take a trip to space in the next year or two. Isn’t this some kind of Guinness World Record?
Yes, but that came afterwards. That wasn’t the reason for going. It’s a much deeper thing which one could either talk about or not. But yes, I do happen to be the first professional singer to go up.
Has this been a lifelong dream of yours?
It has, yes. I grew up through the ’60s, and space was very forefront at the time. I watched the first man land on the moon on my black-and-white TV screen. It opened my eyes and my mind to what we were capable of, and that we could do things that were completely out of the box if we wished to do so or felt we had the force to. It gave me a force, and it gave me an energy. It was a very open time and very experimental time, and I thank that time for the career that I have because it gave me the courage, in a way, to move forward and to work really hard.
A lot of the pieces on television, the TV dramas, and in the movies were very space-oriented because space exploration was all opening up, so we were very influenced at that time and really felt that space and space exploration and moving off the planet and into different places was going to be very much part of our lives – when in fact it wasn’t. So when the opportunity came up for me to be able to take a flight on the Virgin Galactic, and then further on down the line to make this particular journey on the Soyuz, I sort of grasped the opportunity and hoped that I would get through the medicals and the training, which I did. It brought me to this moment now, of us talking.
It’ll be interesting to hear your stories after you return to Earth.
Yes, I know. That’s one of the things I really want to share. I’m not a scientist and I’m not a doctor and I’m not an engineer and all of those things, so I probably will see some of it from a different perspective and might be able to reach people more normally in that way.
You are, however, a phenomenal singer. What’s the highest note you can sing?
When I was younger it used to be much higher, because, of course, as you get older your high notes can still be reached but they don’t mean as much. The voice does richer things. It used to be an E flat; I think that used to be my highest note. Now I think it’s probably a D. Generally the repertoire I do doesn’t need that note – that’s more sort of “Queen of the Night Aria.”
When you’re hitting a note that high, what goes through your mind? Do you have to think about it? Does your body convulse?
(Laughs) You have a fair amount of air rushing from your lungs to your vocal cords, and then obviously the resonances are open up in your head, which actually makes you feel quite sort of light-headed and high. So they give you a … fun feeling. (Laughs)
Like smoking pot?
It’s much better than having a spliffy. (Laughs)
Have you ever nearly passed out?
You do actually feel very faint sometimes. I have often, yes. Sometimes you get a lot of those resonances when you open them and there’s air going through. Obviously air doesn’t go through the head – it’s only imaginary – but the lungs are filled and you’re using certain energies. It is a wonderful feeling when you’re getting it right. (Laughs)
You’ll be on the road later this year. For people who’ve never experienced a Sarah Brightman show, what is that experience like?
I like to take people somewhere else completely. I like to take them to different worlds. This time, it’s going to be definitely outer planetary. (Laughs) It’s definitely a journey to the stars, but in the most romantic ways, as well – in a beautiful way. In the most jewel-like, crystalline way I can think of.
There will also be moments of huge amounts of energy in it. The beauty of technology today is that with these wonderful screens we have and what we can put on them, as well as the singer singing along, everything melts together with light, with the persona there and also the visuals behind you. You can really create stunning atmospherics for people to really just enjoy the music to, and that’s what I intend to do.
Can we talk about the “I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper” video?
Of course we can! (Laughs) See, that proves my love of space, even though it was so tongue in cheek then.
You really were futuristic, even in the ’70s.
I know, and in my Mary Quant tights. Mary Quant did wonderful makeup and glittery things and tights and stuff like that. It was a very sort of “in” look at that time. And those silvery suits were by Mary Quant.
Is that video the gayest thing you’ve done in your career?
(Laughs) So I’m told! I did it a few years back for gay pride in England, and I was able to go on and do “I Lost My Heart” to its fullest. I had loads of dancers and everybody was going crazy out there. It’s a really fun song to do.
You’ve been around gay people your whole life. Your brother is gay and so is a second cousin of yours. What’s your relationship like with your brother?
It’s the best. It’s always been wonderful, since he’s been a baby. There’s been a real sort of connection there. It’s lovely with him because he’s got that female side, so he understands all points of view. He loves theater and he loves music and he loves what I do, and he loves my mother and looks after her because I can’t always be there for her. He’s just a lovely guy.
When was it that you noticed you had a gay following? When you were performing with Hot Gossip?
Yes, it was. And it’s very important to me, because I always feel that the gay following – they generally know what’s gonna happen before it does. They’re very “in the know” with all the arts, and so I’ve always felt when that following is strong I’m kind of doing the right things, because they have good taste and are very happy to explore. They love the fantastic and all of those areas where a lot of people wouldn’t necessarily go.
It’s been a long time since you’ve done Broadway. Are your theater days over?
It’s never say never with these things. I can’t imagine it at the moment, but there may be a point where I say, “You know, I really would like to be in one place and do a Broadway show or a play or something in New York or L.A. or London, wherever it may be, and really enjoy myself focusing just on that.”
Females who can sing as well as you are usually recognized as divas. Is that a term you would consider yourself?
Well, it’s funny – “diva” actually means goddess-like, and I think it’s an extremely positive term. There have been negative connotations – “diva” meaning difficult and throwing their weight around – but I never see it as something like that. I see it as something that’s heavenly.
And in that way, you certainly are a diva.
(Laughs) I hope so. It does seem that I’m flying off to the heavens!