You’re currently working with Rubiks, who are well-known and well-loved for their innovative and engaging programming. You have experience performing a diverse range of music, from early music and oratorio to opera and non-classical. What draws you in particular to contemporary art music?
Contemporary art music has always been a big part of my life - growing up with a composer father meant it was part of my upbringing, and I have always felt comfortable with that kind of music, and those sort of sounds. I was also part of the Gondwana Choirs as a kid, who often commissioned Australian composers, so I guess I came to it at a really young age, and have felt at home there ever since. It is one of my absolute favourite areas of perfomance now! I think people often feel put off by "new music" because it feels foreign compared to the other things you hear in concert halls - classical, romantic music. As a listener, it might be a totally different sound world, but by approaching contemporary classical music as a performer I can see all the parallels between it and all other forms of music. Like improvisation, which is a huge part of new music - there are clear ties with Baroque performance practice, so it isn't actually as far removed from "classical" music as we might initially think. There's just not a huge distinction for me. There's also something really refreshing about performing a new commission, because there's nothing to compare yourself to, no performer to try and emulate. When you're working on something that hasn't been heard before you have the opportunity to leave your mark on something brand new, and all the artistic choices about interpretation and characterisation are up to you. You get to be at the forefront and make the piece what it is.
What is the process of putting together a new work like? Are there differences between how you would prepare for a commissioned work and, for example, a role in an opera?
It's actually really similar, perhaps more so than one might think, especially in a program like this one. Rubiks' program for tomorrow's concert Second Self is incredibly dramatic and theatrical, playing on ideas of identity and understanding oneself. Because of these thematic ideas, the music is really dramatic, almost operatic, and I can approach it artistically in that way. Obviously it's a concert setting, so rather than portraying the character operatically and dramatizing it on stage, it's more intimate and there is space to explore things more in-depth musically. We'll be performing a work by Jacob TV, which involves large sections of interviews with Marilyn Monroe, where I lipsync along with her. It's a lot like being an actor in a play! In terms of process, it's different for each new piece I might come across. It's always helpful to discuss it with the composer and librettist, and of course with the other performers, to see how each musician is wanting to approach it. Then, vocally, it's a matter of experimenting with the material to see what techniques might be most appropriate for the work in question.
You perform around the world, but reside predominantly in London now, where you perform often. Can you tell me a little about being a performing internationally, and about the differences you've noticed in contemporary music between London and Melbourne?
I'm based in London, so a lot of my performances happen there, but it's so fantastic to come back to Melbourne and be able to do my own thing, and put on a recital of music that I'm interested in. In terms of contemporary classical music, London has a bigger scene, but it's a bigger city with a larger population. I don't think there's much of a difference in appetite for new music in London than in Melbourne. Having moved away from Melbourne, it's become clear how incredibly vibrant and exciting the culture is here, and how much is happening and developing. I think there are fantastic things occuring in Melbourne, especially to do with repertoire choices and programming across the board - there's lots of things bordering on being non-classical, which absolutely opens up the accessibility of not only contemporary art music specifically, but classical music overall. This repertoire includes so many sounds from other genres, from electronic to rock and pop, and it's bridging the gap between two soundworlds. I hope this brings in more young people and introduces new audiences to diverse composers, both new and old. In London, I sing with Ensemble x.y, who I approached to join after hearing a fantastic concert, where they performed David Bird's 'Series imposture', which Rubik's will actually be playing tomorrow as an Australian premiere.
As a vocalist, what does performing in several different genres mean for your voice? Do you have to approach works differently depending on techniques?
There are slight differences in technique between the different genres, and I get a real kick out of that challenge, to flip between styles. I've really been able to explore the limits of the voice, and that's something you can't play with as much if you are only singing in only one way. I personally enjoy exploring different styles as part of my performative experience, not only because I think it stretches me a performer, but also helps grow the voice. Sometimes people don't realize how flexible and versatile the voice can be if you are singing with good technique. Of course, things can go wrong, and you need to know your instrument and its limits well- but good singing is good singing across all genres. There is a common misconception that one can mistreat your voice in order to perform contemporary music, but that's not the case at all - if you are singing well, keeping things in check, and warming up and down properly, there is a lot of freedom in what you can do with the voice. I really believe that performing in different styles helps keep the voice alive and fresh and flexible, and for me, it's part of maintaining a vibrant and varied practice.
From your experience so far, what skills outside of technical proficiency and stage presence do young singers need to develop to succeed?
Language is really important for singers, and it's imperative to be as proficient as possible in as many languages as you can. French and German and Italian are crucial for singers, and you absolutely need the basics at the minimum as a foundation. Even if you can't hold a conversation, if you get an ear for listening to other languages and mimicking the sounds, you'll be less afraid of trying a song in Swedish, because you can make good estimations of how things will sound. People will notice a willingness to throw yourself into the unknown as well. I'd also like to stress musicianship. It's often overlooked, which is surprising because it's so necessary. It's really left up to the singer, so you have to take it upon yourself to learn to sight read and understand complex rhythms. Once you're across this, nothing is not an option. I think you have to equip yourself with the skills that mean everything becomes a possibility. Also I think right now you have to become proficient in marketing and social media. That is a product of the time we live in, but I can't see it changing anytime soon. If you want to sell tickets to your concerts, you need to be able to market yourself in an attractive way to get people interested. That's crucial for all young musicians. You also have to employ a lot of courage to break boundaries and step outside of your comfort zone. In this day and age versatility is really crucial, so you have to have the guts to give things a go, and keep trying.
You are often putting on performances of your own volition - can you tell us a little about how this works, and if you have any advice for young musicians hoping to do the same?
People take for granted the connections that are forged when you perform with other people. It really is the easiest way to make things happen. If you take the time and chat with people as you go, it's amazing the things you might find you have in common that you didn't know before. You might find someone with the exact same recital idea, which will turn into an amazing concert. Nourish those connections and that network, because it will be fundamental for developing your own platform. Personally, I am still performing with people that I met in my first year at university! I competed in the National Liederfest in my first two years of undergraduate study, and got to know Ian Lowe who runs the program who has helped me set up several recitals in Melbourne since. It's also really important to be open about what you would like to achieve, and what your ideas are, because nothing is impossible and if you are upfront with people, they will be more willing to help see through your idea. There is a lot of support out there, but it's up to you to seek it out.
Catch Lotte Betts-Dean with Rubiks on Sunday 4th February 2017 at the Carlton Church of All Nations at 5pm. More information available here.