4 March 2024

"It helped me get on track to become the artist I wanted to be, rather than what I thought was expected of me." - A conversation with RPS Young Artist Award Nominee Lotte Betts-Dean

By Lark Music

We are fast approaching one of the biggest nights of the year in classical music, the Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS) Awards, where we celebrate the inspirational role that classical music plays in our lives! This year’s nominees embody the wide breadth of musicians we are fortunate to have in this day and age.

It is a privilege for us at Lark Music to continue to support the RPS Awards as part of our dedication to music and the arts. Through a programme of grants, commissions, professional development and performance opportunities, the RPS helps many performers and composers overcome barriers to progress and fulfil their potential.

We spoke to Lotte Betts-Dean, an Australian mezzo-soprano and nominee for the RPS Young Artist Award, to learn what makes a musician.

How did you get into music?

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t into music, to be honest! I grew up in a music-filled home with musician parents and remember listening to a big range of music from the beginning. Lots of classical, but also lots of old jazz and bossa from legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Chet Baker and Joyce, and all sorts of other artists like Massive Attack, REM, Bjork and Sinead O’Connor. Our parents were also very encouraging and supportive of our own musical explorations and let us blast whatever we wanted on the sound system (think Vengaboys and Whitney Houston on repeat). In terms of playing music, I started off on the violin and then played cello for a long time, but singing was always my first love.

What is your favourite genre to listen to or perform?

In terms of my listening habits, I tend to mostly listen to a non-classical repertoire in my free time. I’ve been listening to a lot of Shoegaze recently, rediscovering bands I remember hearing as a kid like Cocteau Twins and Slowdive. I’ve also been enjoying recent alt-pop artists like Caroline Polachek, Weyes Blood and Jockstrap, and more folky artists like Adrienne Lenker and Sam Amidon. There’s always some jazz and electronic music in the mix there too, and I’m hoping to collaborate with some electronic/EDM producers in the near future.

To perform, I couldn’t really pick a favourite genre of classical music to be honest, but I do really love performing contemporary music and collaborating with composers. That is always very exciting and rewarding. I also love singing European music of the 20th century, as there is a wonderful and varied repertoire. And I have a soft spot for Renaissance and early baroque music as well.

What is your least favourite genre to perform?

There is really hardly anything I won’t consider, but I must admit there is one area of vocal music I am musically less drawn to, which is Italian opera of the 19th century – ‘bel canto’ opera, as it’s known. I have a lot of respect for the bel canto singing tradition and it taught me a huge amount when I was studying, but ultimately I prefer music where the harmony is more colourful and adventurous and the vocal line is more enmeshed in the rest of the ensemble, rather than being the star of the show as it were. I think perhaps that comes from being a cellist for so long – harmony and the bassline is usually far more important to me than melody.

How did you find your style?

I do feel like I have lots of different styles, and perhaps that is my style! I like to incorporate all kinds of classical music, and increasingly also some non-classical music, into my artistic practice. I am in a constant state of being thrilled by the variety and range of music we have at our disposal that already exists from several centuries, let alone everything that has not yet been written, so my goal for my career so far has basically been to not set any boundaries and do all sorts of things. So far, I am having a very fun time with that and I intend to carry on performing everything from early music to song to contemporary to jazz to opera, and anything in between.

Why did you become a vocalist?

I became a vocalist because I truly love to sing. It sounds cheesy but it’s true! It’s an exhilarating feeling in itself, and even when things can be frustrating or you have an off day vocally, overall it is an enormous pleasure and a privilege to be able to communicate music and text with the voice.

I sang in children’s choirs and school choirs from the age of seven, and feeling others sing around you is also a wonderful thing. I think those early experiences embedded a real love of singing from a young age and I just could never let it go. When it came time to decide in what direction to go after school, it was a no-brainer. I had to sing, because I couldn’t not, and by this time I had set my cello aside already anyway. I’m continuously delighted and grateful that I’m still going with it!

On your journey to becoming the vocalist you are today, what were some things that affected or helped define you?

It is often the most challenging moments that can help you clarify what direction you are meant to be going in. I once had quite a profound realisation, mid-audition, that I actually didn’t want to be considered for the thing I was auditioning for. It completely took me by surprise and I had a memory lapse, which was of course humiliating and frustrating, but afterwards I realised it was an important lesson for me, and although that moment was painful, I am grateful for it, because it helped me get on track to become the artist I wanted to be, rather than what I thought was expected of me.

There have also been lots of very positive moments that have helped define me as a musician – performances and projects that have felt incredibly fulfilling and have confirmed that I am on the right path for me, that feel like I am truly living my dream. Those experiences often come when I am surrounded by exceptional musicians, who are often also friends, that inspire and challenge me.

Two other very recent experiences have felt very validating – this nomination from the RPS, for which I am so grateful and which means so much to me, and the project I am currently working on, which is my debut at the Bayerische Staatsoper in an opera by Weinberg. Having spent so long focusing on repertoire outside of opera, it feels really special to come back to it now, on my own terms, and at such a legendary German opera house, with a world-class team. I am pinching myself every day.

How has social media changed being a musician for you?

This is a complicated topic, but one worthy of discussion. I personally feel like social media has been a very useful tool for me to share what I do, and I know that it has led to concrete work opportunities for me in the past. Promoters or composers might think of me for a project, having come across something I’ve posted. It is essentially a marketing and promotion tool, but it’s brutal out there and it makes sense to maximise work opportunities for ourselves.

There are lots of negatives to it too and of course the image we present online is not real life – but as a career-development tool and communication channel within the industry, it can be very beneficial. I do post regularly about what performances or recording releases are coming up, and sometimes share videos of my work, but I certainly don’t take myself too seriously on those platforms. For every work post on my stories, there is usually a stupid meme or photo of a dog I saw on the tube.

What is your favourite ever performance?

This is such a difficult question, and is truly impossible to answer as performances have become important to me for different reasons. One that stands out is actually one of my first ever performances. When I was 10, I was in the children’s choir (Australia’s amazing Gondwana Voices, to whom I owe so much!) for a performance of Mahler’s 8th Symphony at the Sydney Opera House, and that was a really pivotal moment for me. It’s an enormous and almost unbearably exciting piece, and to be a tiny part of that, to feel the weight of close to 1,000 performers together in this giant work, at such a young age, was utterly mind-blowing and has been a cherished memory ever since. (If you want to hear more about that, I chatted about it on an episode of BBC Radio 3’s This Classical Life.)

In more recent years, I have adored all four performances (so far) of a work that my father Brett wrote for me a few years ago – a large-scale cycle with string quartet, most recently performed at London’s Wigmore Hall. It’s an incredibly virtuosic and both musically and emotionally challenging piece, setting increasingly anguished letters sent by Mary Queen of Scots to Queen Elizabeth I. Being ‘inside’ it for a performance always feels like a thrilling out-of-body experience, like I am suddenly possessed by Mary herself. Enjoying the innate drama of this work in recent years is one of the reasons I am keen to explore more stage work and opera in the coming years.

What is the most interesting venue you’ve performed at?

I have a penchant for unusual or repurposed performance venues. One of my favourites so far has been a disused carpark in Melbourne. The acoustics were beautiful. One of my more unusual gigs was singing Orbital’s iconic track ‘Belfast’ with Pete Tong when he toured in Australia… singing to a packed stadium of 20,000 was pretty unforgettable.

Are there any venues you dream of playing in?

There are many, ranging from nightclubs to opera houses, but I won’t mention them here lest I jinx the dreams.

Tell us a horror story you want to get off your chest

There was one very exciting day when I arrived at a rehearsal, the day before a gig, and the wrong (fairly complicated, 20th century) song cycle had been arranged for the ensemble – a piece I’d never seen. I’m not sure where the communication error happened, but I’ve never learnt a piece so quickly.

Who inspires you?

Honestly, my colleagues. I’ve been so lucky to work with some astonishingly talented and driven artists, ensembles and composers, and I feel like they truly make me a better musician. I’m so grateful to them all, especially those I’ve worked with in recent years.

If I may shout out a few excellent and inspiring collaborators: Explore Ensemble, Joseph Havlat, Dimitris Soukaras, Armida Quartett, Stuart MacRae, EXAUDI, London Voices, Arthur Keegan, Michael Finnissy, Christian Mason, Marsyas Trio, Ligeti Quartet, James Girling, and my fellow RPS nominee Ryan Corbett. Also, my fantastic manager Megan Steller, who dreams of projects for me that I couldn’t even imagine.

What would winning this award mean to you?

Winning this award would be hugely validating and meaningful for me. Even being nominated is an enormous privilege and feels like a lovely boost of encouragement from the industry, especially as the voting panel is made up of peers and fellow musicians. It further reminds me that the difficult decisions, the sacrifices and challenges, the internal and external arguments, the hustling and emails and stress has been worth it so far.

I felt like a bit of a black sheep while I was studying my Masters at the Royal Academy of Music, as I felt myself going down a less usual path, and perhaps even felt like I would never be considered for an award like this. So it is very special, and I think says a lot about how the industry is changing for the better in terms of what kind of artists might be deserving of recognition. Perhaps the same can be said of my fellow nominees as well, but I think if I won, it would feel like a celebration of any artist who refuses to be pigeonholed or categorised.

Whether you win or not, what can we look forward to seeing from you? Is there anything you are working on which you are particularly excited about?

There are some more recording plans in the works, which I am hugely looking forward to, including the premiere recording of the piece Brett wrote for me, which I mentioned earlier. I also have a disc being released very soon on March 15, a portrait album of Michael Finnissy’s vocal chamber music on the Divine Art Metier label, and my second album with Delphian Records is coming in the summer, which is a collection of settings of Thomas Hardy.

Performances coming up in the UK include Kings Place on April 12 and St George’s Bristol on June 13, and gigs abroad in Switzerland, Australia, Greece, Holland, and some returns to the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, where I am currently.

Do you have many interests outside of music?

I love exploring galleries and museums and new cities and new cuisines, so I feel lucky that I get to travel quite a bit! During time off I do like to go for the odd dance, but equally love just wandering around absorbing places or reading or taking myself to the cinema. I’m also a bit of a language nerd, which comes in handy when travelling as well as for singing in lots of different languages.

I feel like my non-musical interests all somehow connect to my life as a musician which is very ‘holistic’ of me. Or maybe music really is my entire life…? Let’s not go there. I also am totally obsessed with my one-year-old nephew, Hugo, who has stolen my entire heart and I wish I could see him every day.

It was a pleasure to speak to Lotte! She is an inspirational young artist, and we can’t wait to see where she goes in the future. If you would like to hear more from Lotte, connect with her below: