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Sunday Times Press Piece

Sarah Brightman is training for 16 hours a day in Russia in preparation for her trip in September

The singer and dancer Sarah Brightman is in training to join a flight to the International Space Station. Iain Dey enters mission control at her Manhattan flat to ask why she is paying a reported £35m to be the first soprano in orbit

Sarah Brightman is recounting the time she fell a little bit in love with a starship trooper — a real one, not the fictional hero of the glitter-strewn 1978 hit she had with Hot Gossip. He was Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon. They met on a boat in Seattle.

“He was amazing. He just did not stop talking,” she says, her eyes glazing over at the memory. “It was just me and him on a yacht watching an air show.”

The meeting had been arranged after Brightman used some of her multimillion-pound fortune to buy a notebook that Aldrin had used on the moon. He scrawled “these notes were made by me on the moon” then signed his name. The page is now framed and has pride of place on the wall of her Los Angeles home, alongside a collection of posters from Soviet space missions that she has bought at auction over the years.

 

In six months’ time the wispy English soprano famous for her roles in Cats and The Phantom of the Opera will have a chance to gather some space memorabilia for a Phantom of her own.

On September 1 she will blast off in a Soyuz space rocket from the Baikonur cosmodrome in the deserts of Kazakhstan. After a six-hour flight she will spend 10 days aboard the International Space Station and will become the first professional musician to perform in space.

It really is happening. It is not a joke, as everyone assumed when she revealed her plans more than two years ago. Neither, she insists, is it an expensive publicity stunt.

“There are far better ways, and much less expensive ways, to do a PR exercise,” she sighs.

We met on Friday morning, during a break in her cosmonaut training, in her Manhattan apartment, a modestly expensive 39th-floor pad right by New York’s biggest bus station. The floor-to-ceiling windows frame a view of the new world trade centre glistening in the clean winter light on the tip of the island.

The room looks like a hotel suite, apart from the Korg electric piano in the corner with a book of Estelle Liebling vocal exercises propped on the music stand.

An Englishwoman in New York: Brightman performs at Madison Square Garden in 2008 

Brightman bought the place sight unseen after being given a tour via the internet. Then, for 18 months, she forgot she owned it. “I was staying in a hotel here with a friend,” she explains. “We had been out to lunch and I said, ‘For goodness’ sake, what am I doing? We’re staying in a hotel and I’ve got an apartment here.’ I went and got the keys from the realtor and came in and had a look. I was thinking of selling it. I wasn’t quite sure. I came in and went, ‘This is absolutely fantastic’ — it has this view, this light. I don’t spend much time in it, but when I do it’s a godsend.”

Brightman, 54, really is rich enough to forget about buying a Manhattan apartment. She has sold 30m records globally, ranking her as the world’s top-selling soprano. Her duet with the blind tenor Andrea Bocelli, Time to Say Goodbye, has sold 12m copies worldwide, ranking it alongside the Beatles’ I Want to Hold Your Hand and cheesy hits such as the Village People’s YMCA.

For many of us her name will always conjure up images of the bird-like young woman with a bubble perm perched on the knee of a lank-haired Andrew Lloyd Webber. She was only 23 in 1984 when she married the composer, who was 12 years her senior. He had left his wife to be with her. The young singer and dancer was branded a gold- digging home-wrecker by the tabloids. Yet after their £6m divorce in 1990 she became a huge commercial success.

Since she announced her planned space mission she has packed in more than 100 concerts. She played the Royal Albert Hall last June, then to crowds in Istanbul, Sofia, Bucharest, Moscow, St Petersburg, Riga and Tallinn, and in concert venues the length and breadth of Japan. She spent Valentine’s Day last year in war-torn Ukraine. She has been all over the Middle East and spent much of 2013 warbling her way around South America.

Technicians prepare Brightman for another training session at Star City in Russia 

Her holiday to the International Space Station is reported to be costing £35m. For the same money you could live in an all-inclusive luxury resort in the Maldives for the next 142 years. Her box office receipts alone could amount to as much as £8m a year, according to calculations from The Sunday Times Rich List, but the astro-jaunt appears to be eating up most of her wealth. 

Although there has been speculation that the trip has been part-funded by a Chinese business conglomerate, Brightman is adamant that she has coughed up every penny herself. 

“Contractually, I can’t say the amount of what the ticket cost. But I have paid myself for the ticket in full,” she says, lowering her brow in a professorial manner. “In full!”

There is an ethereal otherworldliness about Brightman, yet her doe-like expressions and rambling speech hide the steely control freak inside. 

She volunteers the story of how her space trip came to pass — coming close to reprimanding me for not asking sooner. A “dear friend” in California involved in the space business (probably the inventor Dezso Molnar, if internet rumours are to be believed) told her years ago about Sir Richard Branson’s planned Virgin Galactic consumer space flights — prompting her to buy a ticket for the first flight as soon it becomes available.

The crew of Apollo 11, the first moon landing: left to right, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin 

“Through all this I met a lovely gentleman called Peter Diamandis, who is a co-founder of the space agency I have gone through, Space Adventures,” she says. “A couple of years later he said, ‘Look, would you be interested in going to the International Space Station?’ My first reaction was, ‘It’s amazing that you are asking me and that you think I could be a candidate for this.’ But I wasn’t ready for it, to go through all the medicals. Yet it left that little thing in my head.”

A couple of years later the offer was repeated. She agreed to go through the medical testing programme at the Nasa headquarters in Houston, Texas, assuming that as a woman in her fifties she had little chance of passing.

“I got through everything and at a very high level,” she says, flushing with pride. “I was incredibly healthy.”

She then found herself at the Star City training camp in Russia where she was subjected to extreme g-forces, placed in high-altitude chambers, psychologically examined and tested for claustrophobia. Even the physical test, which saw her hooked up to monitors while running on a treadmill, was a breeze.

Brightman in concert in Shanghai, China, in 2013 

“I’m a dancer!” she protests. “I am a trained dancer. I was a ballerina when I was younger. There was never any question in that area for me.”

Brightman claims to have been hooked on space since she saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon when she was eight. It was that night, she says, that she resolved to work really hard at whatever she was good at to go as far as she could in life.

Much of her childhood was spent around planes and gliders. Brightman’s father was an amateur pilot, as was her uncle. During her years on the London stage she would spend many of her mornings off flying to Paris or Amsterdam with a friend who kept a small plane at Elstree, Hertfordshire. 

She took some flying lessons, including sessions in a Harrier jump jet. Yet it was all a long way from the training required to fly in a Soyuz rocket — where there is no such thing as a passenger.

There are only three people aboard a Soyuz rocket. Her mission commander, Colonel Sergey Volkov, is a 41-year-old Russian on his third space mission who started training to be a cosmonaut 18 years ago. Space travel runs in the family — his father was one of the cosmonauts on board the space station Mir on the day the Soviet Union collapsed.

The flight engineer is a 38-year-old Dane, Andreas Mogensen, who has been with the European space programme since 2009. He has a doctorate from the University of Texas and a master’s degree from Imperial College London. He spent a week last September conducting experiments for Nasa in the American space agency’s underwater deep sea laboratory off Key West, Florida, which is used to simulate conditions in space.

Brightman will have sole responsibility for certain functions of the space station while she is aboard: “It’s to do with pressure. I can’t talk about it — there’s more I need to learn.

A Soyuz-FG rocket blasts off for a crewed mission to the International Space Station 

“If you are a space flight participant, yes, you don’t do that much but you have to understand the whole vehicle and how it works in case of an off- nominal situation,” she says, adopting what appears to be the jargon of Star City. 

“You are learning exactly what they [the cosmonauts] have to learn. It’s a shorter length of time. Of course, you can’t learn everything. But you need a good understanding. When you are in that simulator and you are harnessed in with your helmet, in your suit, it’s serious. Your instinct is to want to have as much knowledge as you can about that vehicle, just for your own safety, and for the people that are with you. It is what it is.”

Training at Star City means 16-hour days. Four hours a day are dedicated to Russian language lessons. Lectures, conducted in Russian, focus on how each component of the Soyuz operates. Her only respite is watching House of Cards in her room late at night. “It’s like conducting an orchestra or performing a show,” she says. 

“It may seem a strange analogy but, as I was explaining to one of the professors, it’s the only analogy I have. If you are conducting an orchestra, you can’t just understand a bit of it and a few notes here and there. You have to understand the whole thing from A to Z.”

Roughly once a week they are tested in front of the Star City top brass in a verbal exam. Failure is not an option: “It terrifies me. I haven’t been tested on things since I was a schoolgirl. To be in front of a group of people explaining what happens on a Soyuz control panel or explain the life-support system alarms — it’s pretty scary.” 

Every bizarre detail about the trip is relayed meticulously as she perches on an armchair in a Nike running top and leggings.

Brightman’s soprano space performance will happen towards the end of the mission. It takes seven days to acclimatise and she is worried about damaging her voice. In space, all the spare fluid in the body drifts towards the face, filling the sinuses and creating symptoms similar to a heavy cold that could make vocal acrobatics tricky.

She has exchanged emails with Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut who became an internet sensation after performing David Bowie’s Space Odyssey from the International Space Station. He said singing would be fine but filling your lungs in orbit required some preparation. She has also spoken to an Austrian cosmonaut who trained with the Vienna Boys’ Choir “who know their stuff”. He said he sang all the time in space and it was fine.

“I’m doing some zero-g flights very soon,” she said. “I’ll probably do some scales while I’m up there.”

Brightman claims her vocal range has improved as she has aged, but confesses that the power is starting to fade a little. “The voice is a muscle,” she says. “You can be an amazing athlete, but it doesn’t matter how much you train — you get older. The voice doesn’t go, it changes.”

The nature of her space performance has yet to be finalised. It will see her sing with an orchestra, a choir or perhaps another international star back on Earth. A firm of specialist sound engineers has been hired to co-ordinate the time delays and ensure that they can perform in unison.

The surreal nature of being the first soprano in space is something she rarely thinks about while bolting on her helmet and climbing into the Soyuz simulator, she says.

“I feel sort of trained for it, just because of what I do in my life,” she says. 

“People in Britain maybe don’t know what I have been doing for the last 20 years, but I have had a pretty full-on career all over the world. That’s what I do. It’s gruelling, but I love it. I feel designed to do it and it works. Without it, I wouldn’t function that well. I wish we had more of a lifetime to get things done, but we have the life that we do.”

Her comparative lack of contemporary success at home seems to sadden her. She concedes that she is “not fashionable” but she cannot control tastes. The tabloid scrutiny that came with her marriage to Lloyd Webber and their divorce has not put her off returning home, she says.

“My family are in Britain. I am British, I have a British passport. It’s my country. What you are describing goes with the territory. It’s an accepted thing. Probably, regardless of divorces from years back, my career would have gone in the way that it has anyway. We all have our paths. We all go into certain areas because we are good at them. The fact that I have travelled the world and had the career that I had would have happened anyway.”

Now most of her earnings are being ploughed into this one peculiar adventure. Her decision is no different, she says, from that of people who reach middle age and then decide to cruise the world or buy a vineyard in France.

“People in their fifties and sixties who have saved some money, they want to do something they wouldn’t have done earlier in their lives. They make some decisions. This was my decision to do this. I know it’s very short. Once I have gone in September for the 10 days, it’s done. But it brings me such a huge amount of happiness.”

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