BY ELEANOR WOOD, SERIES COORDINATOR
Moving to another country as an artist is a bit like performance itself: exciting, terrifying, exhausting, and hopefully beautiful.
As a musician who jumped from sunny Sydney to less-sunny south London, I’m fascinated by artists who’ve changed their lives in this way – why they left, how they made it work, and how they feel about what they’ve left behind.
In this series of interviews, I’ve set out to speak some of my favourite musicians about the moves they’ve made, and how it’s affected them as artists.
Our interview series documents the way artists are forging their lives and careers across the world. CutCommon acknowledges the challenges of musicians all over the world during COVID-19, and the adaptability of artists who have shifted into digital and alternative methods of pursuing their careers in music.
Lotte Betts-Dean has flipped the script
Our first interview in Make your move features Lotte Betts-Dean – a sought-after mezzo-soprano, whose work spans opera, chamber music, recitals, and non-classical collaborations. In our Zoom chat in London during COVID-19, we talk about baking, the joys of finding repertoire that speaks to you, and singing on your own terms.
Hi Lotte. Firstly, I’d like to talk about your baking – because you’ve got skills!
I’ve had a few projects through the last few months, which has kind of kept me going mentally and kept me focused on more musical and creative ideas. But there’s a lot of energy that needs to be spent somehow, and there’s something about baking specifically that’s so therapeutic. It’s creating something out of ingredients that can’t be eaten without the process.
Yes, there’s an alchemy to it, right?
Yes! The alchemy, exactly! Sure, you can glug a raw egg if you feel like it. But it’s creating something out of nothing, and it’s satisfying because at the end you have this delicious thing!
So, apart from baking, what else has been going on?
There have been a few little projects which have kept me focused. But it is really challenging, especially at the start: this overwhelming sense of heartbreak when all of this huge amount of work went up in a puff of smoke; so many contracts and recitals that we’d spent so long planning. Dealing with that initial emotional reaction was tough in the first few weeks, and I was feeling quite forlorn.
I think the biggest challenge was that I felt like I sort of lost my voice in that process. There’s something about singing especially which is so internal, it’s part of us and so directly connected to emotion. Which is part of why it’s amazing – voices are so unique because they carry an emotional state in them. And the state we’re in now makes singing very difficult.
I’ve been grateful for small projects that have allowed me to find my voice again on my own terms
I’ve been grateful for small projects that have allowed me to find my voice again on my own terms. Like, the Tait Memorial Trust runs a concert series, which is great. It was really great to have that opportunity to put a recital together and pull myself together, get back on the horse. It was challenging but it was really fun.
Since then, there have been some other little projects, a few other non-vocal projects as well. But the heartbreak is still there, that loss is still there.
In the first few weeks, I couldn’t watch anything online, couldn’t listen to anything vocal, I could only listen to instrumental music. It was really striking, It felt like an emotional shutting down, sort of grief thing. But then, a few weeks later, it’s like OK, got that out of my system. And once you do – psyche yourself up, get back on the horse – you realise that you missed it.
I remember seeing you in one of the major singing competitions quite a few years ago, and something that struck me is that you seem to have a really broad and expansive view of repertoire: 20th-Century, modern, non-vocal projects, lesser-performed works. I know classical music competitions and the music school environment generally can be quite prescriptive in some ways, and I really got the sense in that competition that you were thinking outside of it. I wondered what informed those choice for you in terms of the repertoire and projects you take on. Are you quite deliberate?
When I choose what repertoire I want to work on, or what path I want to take, the main guide for that is personal taste. I’m too interested in too many areas of classical and non-classical music to specialise in only one area.
I’ve always been so interested in song repertoire, and orchestral song repertoire. I remember spending hours and hours in the library looking for repertoire that maybe I hadn’t heard of or my colleagues weren’t performing so much. My wanting to focus on being a concert or recital singer, as opposed to only opera, is because of that. I want to incorporate as many different types of repertoire into my career and in my practice as I can.
Versatility and openness have been constants for me
I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about that: What kind of music makes me tick? What do I really want to be doing on stage? I keep checking in with myself: Do I like this? If I don’t like it, I’m not doing it.
I find being versatile opens you up to more opportunities. It keeps you from being pigeonholed in any way. I like to give my voice lots of different kinds of challenges, so I want to keep all those doors open. Versatility and openness have been constants for me.
I wanted to talk about what it was like for you when you moved over here, to London. That can be quite daunting for young musicians and music students. How did you prepare for that? How did you find studying?
It came partly from family. My sister was here, and we’re very close. I wanted to be closer to her. And my parents had moved to Berlin: I grew up in Berlin and moved to Australia when I was 10, so 10 years later – in my first year of undergrad – my folks moved back to Berlin.
Germany always felt like home to me, so moving there or moving to the United Kingdom generally didn’t really feel like a massive transition, because it was going back to where I’d grown up. But it was a huge change and took a lot of preparation.
I’d done an audition tour in America, and was seriously considering some American schools until I won a scholarship with the Royal Academy of Music, which suddenly made London possible. The academy has an amazing reputation, and I knew it had a really good vocal department. And I’m also a bit of a born traveller – the pull to go on an adventure was strong!
In Australia, we have a really rich landscape of culture and art and talent. Despite that, I think a lot of the current attitudes around classical music training and opportunities encourage students to travel overseas – particularly to the U.K. and Europe. In the current climate, with a government that’s gutting arts policy, and as someone who’s got a real connection to Australia, do you feel any sense of responsibility to the arts scene back home?
That’s such a good question, but also a tricky one, because you have to look at yourself and say: Should I be supporting the scene at home more, should I be doing more, should I go back? It’s only been since leaving Australia that I’ve spent time thinking about the Australian arts scene and why I want to contribute to that – and being so impressed by it.
There are so many extraordinary ensembles and some world class music-making. You look at a company like Pinchgut Opera, who are doing extraordinary things, being lauded internationally, and winning awards. We have titans like Nicole Car, Lauren Fagan, and Siobhan Stagg – we’ve produced some extraordinary voices, even just in the past decade. If you look at any major orchestra, there are always a few Australians in it – and that’s because the talent there is very high, perhaps unexpectedly so.
You don’t learn any other way than actually being on stage and being in the business
I do feel a sense of responsibility to contribute to the Australian music scene, and I want to stay connected to that. I love Australia. I feel like the least we can do is go back regularly and remain part of it. It has given me so much; I owe so much to so many people in Australia who gave me opportunities in those very important early years when you’re really cutting your teeth!
You don’t learn any other way than actually being on stage and being in the business, and working out how it all works. I’m just grateful for that, and I wish I could spend more time in Australia.
I wondered if you had any advice for young musicians who might be thinking about some of the steps you’ve taken – whether that’s moving abroad, studying, or not being confined by some of the rules you’re given by conservatories or competitions.
Check in with yourself as to what path you want to take, and don’t let external voices guide that too much. I think it’s important to have other sets of ears that can perhaps give you ideas on how to make your instrument the best it can be, but you also need to have a good dose of your own taste.
For me, the most important thing is to keep curious about music in general. Don’t limit yourself when it comes to having an area of expertise. It’s possible to do lots of different things at once.
With singing, language is so important. There’s nothing like knowing what you’re singing without having to go and look it up, to be able to pick up a Schubert or Schoenberg score and to understand what the words and the poetry are telling you.
There’s not enough [about musicianship] taught in institutions well. Get those skills up! It really opens so many doors if people can rely on you to be able to jump in the deep end and not need huge amounts of preparation time. Being able to learn something quickly has been so important for me.
It’s important to recognise those moments when something doesn’t feel right, or the glove doesn’t fit, and then to actually take a step back and acknowledge why and change it.
If something doesn’t feel good, then flip the script. It’s up to you.
Stay tuned for more interviews in Eleanor Wood’s new series Make your move. Follow Lotte’s career on her website.
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