BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
Lotte Betts-Dean’s journey into singing started when she was 7 years old. Growing up in Berlin, she joined a chorus performing Hans Krasa’s 20th Century opera Brundibár – and her curiosity for exploring the new has only grown stronger in the years since.
This month, the mezzo-soprano will sing Harawi: Songs of Love and Death (she dubs it one of Messiaen’s ‘most challenging works’). The song cycle was written in 1945 and fulfils Lotte’s interest in new music, which she will perform with fellow musician Joseph Havlat (piano, and Ensemble x.y founder).
Lotte moved to Australia when she was 10 and joined Gondwana Voices. She went on to gain a degree in voice from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music/Victorian College of the Arts, moved to London in 2014 and was offered a full scholarship to complete a Master of Arts in voice at the Royal Academy of Music. Ahead of her gigs in Melbourne and Hobart, she tells CutCommon readers why she feels it is important to perform challenging music, and how she feels about the way we interact with music of this era.
You met Joseph at your studies in London. How did you start working together and why do you ‘click’?
I had heard Joseph in a concert at the academy when I first moved to London – Joseph had been there for a few years already completing an undergraduate degree. I was immediately impressed with his playing; he is not only remarkably gifted – and a fellow Australian! – but it was also apparent that he was very passionate about contemporary and 20th Century music. I have always felt at home in this repertoire, and am always on the look-out for like-minded musicians to collaborate with.
We ‘clicked’ straight away and I joined the contemporary music ensemble that Joseph had co-founded the year before [Ensemble x.y]. When I was offered the chance to present a solo recital at the academy in February 2015, I knew I wanted to work with Joseph. It was during the planning for this recital that we decided on Messiaen’s Harawi as the central focus of a program based on the idea of exotic songs. We performed the first half of the Harawi alongside works by British composer Judith Weir and Swedish composer Sigurd von Koch.
You and Joseph will perform in Australia for the first time together. You’ve picked one of Messiaen’s ‘most challenging works’ – why did you decide to make it a challenge for yourselves?
To put it simply, because we love the piece! It’s incredibly beautiful, but also full of humour and wit – it’s a very entertaining hour of music for performers and audience alike. It certainly is challenging, but we both actually really get a kick out of working on repertoire that is technically difficult.
I think when you spend a lot of time working on new music, your perception of what is ‘challenging’ starts to change as your skill set and confidence in that area develops. Rhythmically and vocally, the work may be more difficult than other kinds of repertoire, but there are also sections that are melodically remarkably simple, as it’s not entirely atonal. It does take more time to learn, but it’s so rewarding to perform.
There’s also something so alluring and exciting about getting a piece like this under your belt and putting it on the stage – the idea of pushing oneself to achieve something you didn’t know you were capable of before. A large multi-movement piece allows the emotional journey to be greater. It’s a leap of faith I’m all too thrilled to make, especially with an artist like Joseph by my side.
So why is it so difficult a piece, and how do you overcome this?
Well, first of all, it is quite long. Clocking in at just over 50 minutes, it’s definitely one of the longest song cycles in existence, and certainly the longest cycle I’ve ever performed. It is broken into 12 movements, but nevertheless there is a relentlessness to it which is daunting. Pacing oneself is incredibly important in a work like this – for both vocalist and pianist. It’s an ongoing process to learn this and as a young singer I’m not ashamed to say that it’s not something I have mastered yet, but working on something with the kind of duration of Harawi is very useful for me.
Melodically, there are some very hard passages, which required thoughtful and slow practice and a lot of repetition with Joseph at the helm. The piece does thankfully repeat a lot of material, as is common of Messiaen’s compositional style. For a piece like this, especially in its first complete outing for me, it is necessary to use the score, so memorising isn’t as much of an issue. The text is very unusual and highly surrealist – Messiaen himself wrote it, and it’s made up of fragments of imagery rather than complete phrases. I’m certainly glad that I speak French – it’s so important to know where the emphasis of a word or phrase falls, especially in a piece like this, where the text is a lot more abstract and you don’t have grammar on your side.
The piece requires a lot of trust – there are no time signatures, so a confident shared pulse is vital, even when that itself is changing throughout as well. I’m very lucky to be working with such a wonderful pianist and we have built up a strong sense of trust over the two years we’ve been working together.
Pianistically, the work is full of technical difficulties. It’s a very lush, thick score with a lot of notes to fit under the fingers, and Joseph spent a long time working on the piano part alone before we brought it together with voice. It’s very orchestrally written, and in learning it Joseph isolated sections or motifs that would echo a certain instrument or bird-call, and colour it in a certain way. Breaking the piano part down into smaller parts and different voices made the task of mastering the work easier – and at the same time, brought out Joseph’s unique interpretation of the writing. Joseph says he enjoys the process, because it’s ‘like putting together a difficult jigsaw puzzle’.
Why do you enjoy performing music from the 20th Century onward?
I was raised on a diet of bizarre music from all times and places by my amazing parents. I owe them everything! My father played in an orchestra when I was little and I was constantly being dragged to concerts that often featured large scale 20th Century works.
When I was 10, my father began to focus on composition, and he had my sister and me record voice-overs for a number of electronic pieces he was working on. Contemporary music therefore always felt comfortable and ‘normal’ to me. This developed when I was in Gondwana Voices, where we sang a lot of new and difficult music. Everything is easier when you’re a kid – you just learn it! The sound world of 20th Century and new music has always felt familiar to me.
When I started to take singing seriously as a career choice, my love for music from the 20th Century and beyond only blossomed. I do love singing early and classical music – I am a very keen singer of works by Schubert and the like – but there is so much incredible and harmonically rich music from the 20th Century that is so often overlooked. It’s become a bit of an obsession of mine to uncover works – especially art songs – that have been lost and forgotten or are rarely performed. Messiaen’s Harawi certainly falls into this category, as it is very rarely heard. I can’t actually find any record of it being performed in Australia before.
It’s hard to say why I’m so drawn to performing music from the last 100-odd years. I’m just a sucker for thick, unusual harmonies and tonal plurality. As a singer, I love the freedom that is given to the voice, especially in very new music. The ‘rules’ don’t exist. You are given the responsibility to create your own framework of vocal artistry. Of course, this shouldn’t be at the expense of healthy singing, but I do love to play with the voice to see what sounds I can make. There’s more room for that in newer music, I find. I also love the feeling of being part of something new, commissioning works and supporting the composers of today.
Do you feel there are any misconceptions about 20th Century music?
Twentieth and 21st Century music can be alienating due to its frequent subversiveness of 400 years of tradition before it. Audiences often have little to grasp onto without prior knowledge of what they’re walking into, and when you combine this with how much we automatically ‘passively listen’ at a classical music concert, it’s pretty obvious why more recent repertoire gets a bad reputation. Musicians themselves are partly to blame, as well – there’s a tradition of performing modern works quite impassively. This can apply to the entire classical performance tradition, but I feel it is the most prominent practice when it comes to contemporary works. I think the remedy to this is discussion, explanation and thoughtful programming.
What are you most looking forward to in your performance?
It’s very exciting to be performing in Melbourne and Hobart – it’s my first recital in Melbourne since 2014, and my first ever recital in Hobart. For Joseph, it’s his debut in both cities! It’s a really big event for both of us and the largest recital we have done together as a duo. I’m of course looking forward to being able to sing for my friends and colleagues here again, but most of all I’m so excited to share this extraordinary music with an audience of people that have probably only heard it on recording, if ever. I just love introducing people to music they might not know yet! There’s so much incredible repertoire out there that has been largely ignored – I just want to shine a light on as much of it as I can with the voice I’ve been given. It’s a huge, huge honour.
How can audiences prepare for your gigs?
If readers are interested in attending either the Melbourne or the Hobart recital and would like to familiarise themselves with Messiaen’s repertoire, I would recommend listening to some of his piano music. I particularly love his Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jesus. I would also recommend listening to the Turangalîla-Symphonie, which shares a connection thematically to Harawi, or some of his other vocal works, such as the Poèmes Pour Mi. Come with open ears and minds, and we’ll have a great time!