It was 40 years ago that Sarah Brightman ‘lost her heart to a Starship Trooper’, the cringey but catchy novelty record that helped launch her career. Since then via Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals (and marriage), performing at not one but two Olympic Games closing ceremonies and being every major male recording artist’s duet partner of choice – from José Carreras to Cliff Richard, Andrea Bocelli to Paul Stanley from Kiss – Brightman has become the world’s most successful soprano in terms of record sales. But her heart is still lost in space.
In 2012 Brightman enrolled in the Russian space programme, undergoing astronaut training for several months in 2015 (at her own astronomical expense). In the end, she had to withdraw from her flight due to “personal family reasons” but the experience was still life-changing.
Our planet is delicate, but we don’t really know the meaning of that
“Psychologically you have to start thinking in a completely different way,” Brightman says, speaking on the phone from her apartment in New York. “You thought deeply about how our planet is. How humankind is. Deeper than you would ever normally think.
“One always says that we’re so delicate and our planet is delicate, but we don’t really know the meaning of that. Really, there’s not a lot out there in space – nothing that we can get to anyway – so our time should be working on all the social problems we have, looking after this planet because it could be gone in a flash at any time.”
Brightman trained for up to 16 hours a day at Star City near Moscow, preparing for a mission aboard a Soyuz rocket, the only transportation currently ferrying crew to the International Space Station, and the model that failed last month resulting in a forced emergency landing. The risk is always present.
“I’ve come across crews that have gone through the same thing,” Brightman says. “The record is great with these things, but they’re dangerous at the same time. You know, we’re not really meant to be meant to be jumping off from here.”
Another member of the space race, Sir Richard Branson promised recently that commercial Virgin Galactic flights could be only weeks away. Brightman already has her ticket – “I bought it ages ago” – but to her it’s a different kind of space tourism. “It’s a suborbital ride,” she explains. “It doesn’t go further than a certain height, gives you a little feeling and then comes back down. But the idea of it is great.”
Brightman’s pioneering space endeavours are possible because she was the pioneer of ‘popera’. A series of albums through the 1990s sold millions of copies worldwide and dramatically broadened the audience listening to opera. Without Brightman classical music may have remained locked up in concert halls but thanks to her, along with the Three Tenors and that old ‘just one Cornetto’ advert, the music was brought to the masses, paving the way for crossover artists like Josh Groban or Ball & Boe.
Her latest album, HYMN, reconciles her fascination with science and a belief that a vacuum of spirituality has resulted in our quite challenging time.
“Everything feels a bit muddled and dystopian,” she says. “I think we’re kind of subliminally all aware of it.
“I went to church when I was younger, I was part of the choir. I remember it made me feel happy, something about voices coming together, the threads that go between human beings and you find that especially when you’re together singing. Different races all over the world have always done this and it makes them feel better.”
Brightman is undertaking a mammoth 125 date tourtouching down in all five continents – but skipping the UK. “You know I would love to add it,” Brightman says. “I don’t get a huge amount of support from my own country and so it’s difficult for me to do concerts there.
“I’m probably an export,” she laughs.
She says “never say never” about returning to a West End or Broadway stage but until then we can see her live HYMN show in UK cinemas this week.
That show, like the new album, includes a new solo rendition of her biggest hit Time To Say Goodbye, with lyrics that she translated herself.
The title hints at the end of a relationship but the original Italian title, ‘Con te partirò’, means I will leave with you. So are we coming or going?
“Well, this is this is the problem with translating from other languages and trying to make things make sense,” Brightman explains. “It’s never the same and you’re right, it doesn’t make complete sense. But then I think it was the cadence of that particular phrase that made sense with the song and actually it’s a good thing because it was easier for people outside of Italy to connect with it.”
She recalls being surprised outside of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas when the fountains – one of the great manmade spectacles in the world – started up behind her, dancing along to the song. Nobody told her Time To Say Goodbye had become one of Las Vegas’ anthems and so she asked to see hotel mogul Steve Wynn to say hello.
“It’s beautiful, I know people really enjoy it but if you stay in the hotel, it’s really annoying when that’s what you hear every half an hour,” she says.
Back in New York, Brightman is wondering whether she should go and see the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man. I say that I thought it took a little of the wonder out of the space race, focusing instead on the workmanlike professionalism of astronauts.
“The people have to be like that because it has to be incredibly practical,” Brightman says. “Of course, there is the wonderment but you understand that really, all you want to do at the end is get home.
“It’s curiosity… but that curiosity only leads you home.”