Just days before her death at the age of 35, former child star Lena Zavaroni was talking about a return to the stage, an inquest heard yesterday.

But after brain surgery to treat years of debilitating depression, the singer developed a chest infection which killed her.

Rothesay-born Miss Zavaroni had taken a drugs overdose and threatened to kill herself unless surgeons agreed to an operation to correct part of her brain.

The frail and emaciated singer who had battled with the anorexia nervosa eating disorder for more than 20 years, underwent the '' relatively minor'' operation at Cardiff's University Hospital of Wales on September 7 this year.

Consultant neurosurgeon Brian Simpson told the Cardiff inquest that after the 90-minute operation Miss Zavaroni, weighing three-and-a-half-stone, was ''very well''.

He said: ''She asked me if I thought there was any chance she would get back on the stage. She was talking about her family and about her future.''

But after three weeks, the singer's condition deteriorated ''rapidly and profoundly'', and despite antibiotics treatment in intensive care she died on October 1 with her family at her bedside.

Miss Zavaroni, who found fame in the 1970s TV talent show Opportunity Knocks, died from bronchial pneumonia, the inquest heard.

''It did not appear to be related directly to the operation,'' said Mr Simpson. But he did acknowledge that her chronic malnourished state made it more difficult for her body to fight infection.

Miss Zavaroni's father, Victor, sister Carla, 37, and stepmother Christine sat in the front of the court to attend the hearing.

Questioning whether his daughter was strong enough to undergo surgery, Mr Zavaroni asked: ''Why didn't they wait? I am sure that if Lena so desperately wanted the operation she would have agreed to put on half a stone.''

But Mr Simpson said the surgery had ''passed off uneventfully'' and that a brain scan had confirmed that the procedure had been successful.

He insisted the operation had been for her depression and not anorexia. ''Her response was that she had learned to live with her anorexia and felt she was in a kind of equilibrium with it. But she said she could not live with the increasing torment and suffering from the depressive illness,'' he said.

''She felt de-personalised. She felt she had no feelings or future. She described this as torment.''

Mr Simpson said Miss Zavaroni had been ''very, very keen indeed to have the operation performed''. He said: ''She had taken a drugs overdose shortly before then and expressed the view that if she couldn't have the operation, or if it was not successful, then she would kill herself.''

Mr Simpson insisted that stringent regulations covering operations under the Mental Health Act had been followed and that Miss Zavaroni had been fully consulted.

Mr Simpson said he had carried out 36 similar operations and was surprised at the development of a chest infection afterwards. ''It surprised everybody because at that stage she was getting better. This came out of the blue.''

Recording a verdict of death by natural causes, South Glamorgan coroner Dr Lawrence Addicott said: ''On the evidence we have heard, there is no distinct and definite connection with the operation. She died of bronchial pneumonia.''

Outside the inquest, 20 protesters demonstrated against the use of pyschosurgery. Ms Margaret McNair, director of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, part of the Church of Scientology, said: ''Pyschosurgery by any name is medieval, barbaric and inhumane.''

A University of Wales Hospital statement said: ''The operation was not a lobotomy, neither was it experimental. Physically, it was a relatively minor procedure and Miss Zavaroni came through it without difficulty.

''There were already signs that it may have been successful when, more than three weeks later, she developed a chest infection which tragically overwhelmed her despite intense treatment.''