I caught up with Lotte Betts-Dean really early in the morning at the start of the week, following her whirlwind tour of Tasmania. I’ve known Lotte for a number of years now, and whenever we speak I’m super compelled by her sense of fun and her innate musicality. It’s in everything she does – on and off stage. Here, over flat whites, we talk about programming, hustling overseas and the people that make this crazy freelance music life possible. This chat started with a very lengthy analysis of dietary requirements (we have none) and where I got my very-uncool-but-very-cool music related pencils (buy them here!) which say “don’t take that tone with me” – a must for all teachers/parents/generally grumpy people. We’ve spared you that chat, and saved you all the good bits. Enjoy!
MS: Let’s talk about your recital!
LBD: Yes, the recital! It’s being presented by the Lieder Society of Victoria, who I’ve been working with for years now. I’ve done so many different projects with them, and they’ve been incredibly supportive. The venue, which is the Camberwell Uniting Church, is the space they’re affiliated with at the moment. We’ve called the recital “Fantaisies françaises” - it’s a celebration of French song, including music by Poulenc, Messiaen, Honegger, Debussy, Satie and Ravel. I knew I wanted to do a recital with Konrad Olszewski while I was here, because we have been working together for so long. Before I moved to London, we played really frequently together, he was my go-to guy! And he’s a close friend as well; someone that I see every time I come back to Australia, but since I left, we haven’t had a chance to collaborate musically. So, part of the reason we’re doing this is because I wanted to find a way to collaborate with him again! We’re going to hang out and play some beautiful music and it’ll be like it was in undergrad. Hang on, I’m going to just pause and have a little more coffee.
MS: Is coffee something you miss when you’re travelling heaps? Like, good Melbourne café coffee? Or is London just as good now?
LBD: Actually, a bunch of London cafes are owned by Australians, which is hilarious, because maybe we do actually make coffee better? There’s something very reliable about a Melbourne brew; everywhere else in the world it’s a bit up in the air, could be great, could be terrible. It’s always nice walking into a London coffee shop and hearing an Australian accent though.
MS: You worked in a coffee shop in London, right? When you first got there?
LBD: I did! I pulled pints in a pub for a bit, then I worked part-time in a cute coffee shop in Wapping for a few years. I wasn’t the world’s best barista or anything, I couldn’t do latte art, but the coffee was super good. That’s how I paid the rent while I was doing my Masters at the Royal Academy of Music - working these kinds of jobs. I think you have to do a few random odd jobs to find your feet when you get to a new place. You land and kind of think, okay, I need to pay rent and get my shit together, and you hustle a bit.
MS: So you moved there to study, and that was all sorted, but everything else still needed to fall into place?
LBD: Exactly – I was going to music college and that was sorted, and I had somewhere to stay, which was awesome, but there are lots of other things that you take for granted a bit when you’re home. As I said, I worked at a pub and that was fun for a few months until I realised I definitely needed to be in bed earlier so I could get up and go to school! The coffee shop gig suited me better while I was studying and not able to sing for work due to student visa requirements. I also had a little stint working at the Museum at the Royal Academy, which was interesting.
MS: Was it full of musical paraphernalia?
LBD: Yes, and all these amazing old pianos! It was my job to wrap them up in their blankets and send them off to sleep at the end of the day. It was pretty cute!
MS: I didn’t know that job existed!
LBD: It was a pretty great one, actually. A lot of international students at the Academy end up working there as a side gig, the school prioritises them getting jobs because of the visa limitations on performance work.
MS: But, while you weren’t performing for money, I imagine it was still pretty crazy, with classes and performance projects at school?
LBD: It was SO busy. There wouldn’t actually have been time to think about my career outside of all that, honestly. But all of these projects helped establish my London network. I think I knew that as soon as my Masters ended I had to be able to hustle and develop my career. I’m a born hustler, I’ve always been like this! I had worked really hard at my freelance career in Australia before moving over to the UK, so I knew what had to be done, and I was prepared for the ups and downs that get thrown at you. It wasn’t easy, and I suppose in some ways it’s still not easy, you just get used to it. I still occasionally do non-musical work and honestly, many musicians do. For the past two summers, I’ve worked at Opera Holland Park in London, working for the administrative/event side of things and it’s really fun. It’s nice to get to know an arts organisation away from the stage.
MS: Do you think it helps with your on-stage work, understanding what goes on behind-the-scenes?
LBD: Absolutely, it’s important to see that side of operations and communicate with the audience and supporters that make these shows possible. It also allows me to observe and enjoy a summer opera festival while still being able to hang onto my concert commitments. For concert singers, which is what I’m focussing my time on at the moment, you can’t really commit to losing your entire season working in an opera, so working in an administrative way allows me to engage in both the opera and concert worlds. I think it’s about where I’m at in my career, where my interests lie and what kinds of music I want to be performing - for me, concert work is the priority at the moment.
MS: I’d love to know about the concert work priority, and why you love performing in this way so much.
LBD: I’m obsessed with it – the opportunity to work on lots of different kinds of music all the time. Working on a bunch of different repertoire is the best; I think variety is the most important thing for me as an artist right now. It allows my voice to adapt and change, and I love the challenge that comes along with that. I’m getting a real kick out of working on things that challenge and extend me and my instrument. I’m also really into lots of different styles - early music, new music, art song, opera, 20th Century, Jazz, Bossa nova... being a concert singer allows me to engage in all of these styles, all the time. The repertoire turnover is extremely high but I love it!
MS: So, when you’re into new work and old work and stuff that extends you and you’ve got an hour to fill with literally anything, where do you even start?
LBD: There are a few ways I go about programming a concert. You can pick a thematic link, or program based on a common thread like a particular language or country. A recent recital I gave was based around the idea of death, and the celebration that the event could be. It included Purcell, Bach, Kurtág, David Lang, Radiohead and Death Cab for Cutie - it was a real mixed bag, but it made total sense. The audience got to experience that one heavy concept in several ways, which deepened the experience, but also made it more relatable. I really like to include different styles within one program - for example, right now I’m working on a program that combines the music of John Dowland and Nick Drake. Another programme I have coming up in the UK is connected by the texts- it’s all about the fairytales and poems of Hans Christian Andersen. For this recital in Camberwell, Konrad and I have built the programme around French song. There will be some rarely performed cycles and some beloved cycles as well. Because there’s no a thematic link, we’ve worked on building an emotional journey for the audience to follow. There’s enough space for the people listening to come up with their own narrative too, which I think is important. We’ll pop the poetry in the program, and then based on those words, everyone can come up with their own conclusions.
MS: Why is chamber music so important? Is the chamber music emotional journey more potent, do you think?
LBD: Ah, I think my answer to this question will change a million times throughout my life. A constant factor is the immediacy of it all – the treatment of poetry and music, the intimacy between the instrumentalists and then with their audience. It hits you straight away. I saw the Doric String Quartet the other day and watching them communicate between each other and then to us - it just totally bowled me over, it was so moving. There’s something stripped back about chamber music: it has the core of what you’ll get in an orchestral setting, but without the excess. It feels to me like the most potent form of music. Maybe that’ll change, but right now, it’s the peak for me. It’s all the best bits of everything distilled, and communication between every ensemble member, the poet, the composer, the musicians and the audience, is so important.
MS: It’s about relationships.
LBD: Yes, there are so many relationships active in chamber music. There’s the relationship of the text to the music, of the composer to the poet, the composer to the musicians - and then that gets delivered to the audience and it has come full circle. I’m going to cry! Also, kind of non-philosophically, it just has an incredible, varied repertoire. There are so many treasures, many of which are not heard nearly enough.
MS: So, speaking of relationships, tell me about working with different associate artists.
LBD: That’s the most important connection. Sometimes you’re in a situation where you’re performing this amazing, intimate music with someone you’ve known for literally five minutes, right? And that’s cool and it brings its own kind of magic and energy. But when you’re working with someone you know and someone who knows you, something really special happens. It’s such a blessing to be able to work with the same people often, and keep coming back again and again to repertoire you know, but also to new repertoire, because you have this innate understanding of that person’s musicality. You know what they’ll do with certain phrasing, articulation. You’re also able to be way more efficient with your rehearsals this way.
MS: So, Konrad?
LBD: Yes! He’s a great mate, we’ve been friends for a long time. I think working on this recital will be like going back to the beginning, when we were undergrads discovering music for the first time together. We were obsessed with just getting through new repertoire - I would spend HOURS at the Melbourne Uni music library hunting for things we could tackle together. I’m pretty sure there’s a photo of us at a party reading through Rachmaninoff from that time – we just wanted to learn and learn. It’ll be exciting to revisit that feeling!
MS: On the topic of mates and relationships, and making music work, I’d like to ask who makes this wacky freelance life in the arts possible for you?
LBD: I think I have to start with my friends, in the UK and Australia, who have turned into my colleagues. I think the musicians with whom you work (that want to keep working with you), are the ones that make things happen and believe in you and make you hustle. They keep you hungry. The musicians in my life, my friends and colleagues from around the world, they’re the ones that make it possible for me. They give me energy and drive, and we fire each other up, we get each other gigs. My family too, they’ve been such a driving force. I really look up to my parents. I bounce my ideas off them all the time, they have a lot of artistic input. I think artistic support is so important, like, an understanding of what I’m trying to do and the path I’m on. I’m really lucky to have that in my family. And my boyfriend is an enormous support. He used to be a cellist and works in orchestral management, so he really just gets what being a musician is all about. I think watching the relationship my parents have has really made me understand how important it is to have support from a partner. They are super encouraging of each other – they support and challenge one another, and egg each other on and they believe in each other. I really feel that at home, from my boyfriend, and I’m so grateful. Does that answer the question? I’m really lucky, I think, to have all this emotional support.
Quick culture rundown with LBD:
Podcast? My Favorite Murder (True crime AND comedy!) Dirty John, S-Town, Invisibilia
TV? The American Office (recently binged it for the first time!), Norsemen (hilarious Swedish comedy), and of course, London’s own Fleabag.
Lotte joins long-time musical collaborator Konrad Olszewski, piano, for a recital of favourite French chanson, presented by the Lieder Society of Victoria at Camberwell Uniting Church on Sunday, June 16, 2019 at 7pm. Then catch her at Dots+Loops Conviction, June 28 at Newstead Brewing Co Milton in Brisban