You’re known as a highly distinguished recitalist, so it’s perfect that you’ll be exploring such a wide song repertoire at this year’s Australian Festival of Chamber Music. You actually have the honour of opening the Festival with Eric Coates’ Bird Songs at Eventide.  

To be included in the opening concert of a festival is an honour in itself so it’s really wonderful to be at the top of the show, kicking the festivities off with such a beautiful song! It’s also so exciting to be part of so many of the concerts at the festival rather than just presenting one recital. Involving many artists in each concert is such a great approach to programming. Lotte Betts-Dean. Photo © Ben Ealovega

Was the Coates your choice or was that suggested to you?

I believe that was Kathy’s [Artistic Director Kathryn Stott] choice, I’ve not performed it before. That being said, when she initially approached me to be part of the festival, she had a list of vocal chamber pieces that she wanted to include in the festival program, and it was funny how many of them were pieces that I love. Some of them were works that I have not sung but know and have been wanting to sing, but most were works I’m very familiar with and have performed a number of times. It was like a collection of some of my favourite repertoire was being handed to me in one perfect performance opportunity.

The following night you’ll be performing some of Copland’s Old American Songs, which are real audience favourites. When did you first come across those and which song most speaks to you?

They are all wonderful and so varied, but the one that speaks to me the most is At the River. I think the first time I heard it was a recording with Marilyn Horne, and the simplicity and stunning beauty of the melody and the arrangement absolutely floored me. It’s incredibly moving to hear and also to perform. I think that’s what’s so effective about that collection of songs; Copland has maintained the simplicity of the folk song repertoire and then written these incredibly effective arrangements around them. It reminds me a lot of the way Britten arranged folk songs as well. The arrangements don’t compromise the clarity and the emotion of the original folk material. When Kathy suggested Copland songs and gave me the choice as to which ones, I knew At the River had to be one of them. The others are lots of fun too – very entertaining and quintessentially American in style.

You’ll also be singing Bernstein with Kathryn Stott at the piano, who has some of those same qualities as a composer of song.

Yes, we will be performing his wonderful cycle La Bonne Cuisine, which is an imaginative and funny cycle containing four recipes, as well as a few songs from his stage shows. Repertoire that has that directness, where there’s a clarity of text and that clarity is matched by how the composer has treated the words, it makes for incredibly potent song writing. I think that audiences are fundamentally drawn to music that has that clarity. Perhaps accessible is the wrong word, but it’s entertaining and enjoyable and beautifully written. There’s an emotional response that is elicited when you have repertoire that is matched in words and music so well. To work with Kathy on these songs is an honour, she’s such a wonderfully accomplished musician so I’m really looking forward to it.

Do you find it difficult to sing in English, or is that always a question of whether the composer is skilled at setting the language?

People say that it’s a difficult language to sing in because it’s a more complicated language to set than perhaps some of the European Romantic languages. We have so many nuances and odd vowels in English, it’s not as pure as say French or German. But it’s not necessarily a more difficult one to sing in if the composer knows what they’re doing! In Bernstein and Coates and Copland, you have composers that are either dealing with well-known folk tunes, or they know how to handle English and set it in a way that best complements the music and that shows the language off in the best possible way. It really comes down to the repertoire, I think. That being said, if you are fluent in a language, sometimes you do need to work a little harder at the pronunciation. I grew up speaking German as well and I do have to be more careful when singing German as a result of that. Of course, it’s a real privilege to have been raised bilingual, and it’s a huge help as a lieder singer to have the language already – but I do need to make sure that fluency or local accent is not then compromising the clarity of the text as it sometimes can. In the case of English, it really comes down to excellent composition with smart setting of the text, and very clear, clean pronunciation, even if the audience is English speaking.

You’ll be able to flex your language skills in the Festival, because you’re also doing Brahms’ 2 Songs for Alto.

They’re so beloved, so many wonderful singers have recorded these songs. They’re very special to me, as they are to many musicians I’m sure – they make up two of Brahms’ most beautiful compositions, in my opinion. I’ve only performed them once – last year was the first time I felt ready to go for them. It’s not so much about vocal readiness, it’s more about emotional readiness and maturity. They’re not small; they’re soaring, emotional songs and I wanted to be in a certain space in terms of age, vocal maturity and general maturity before performing them. The circumstances in which I performed them were also quite special: it was at the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival in Hertfordshire, which is run by cellist Guy Johnston, who has been a guest artist at AFCM as well. I performed them alongside my father, who is a viola player (Brett Dean); it was our first official father-daughter performance, which was a very emotional, special moment. I’m really looking forward to revisiting those pieces, especially alongside the brilliant violist Chris Moore and pianist Aura Go who I’m sure will play them beautifully!

Another emotional piece you’ll be performing is Respighi’s Il Tramonto. How do you find that?

It’s a very operatic, virtuosic piece for string quartet and singer. It’s very balanced in that way – it’s a whopping 15 minutes long, and there is a lot happening in all parts, in Respighi’s typically Italianate yet modern musical language. It’s set to an incredible poem by Shelley – a wonderful if devastating story about love and death. It’s more or less a narrated monodrama, which creates in a concert setting an opportunity to present an almost-operatic style moment. For someone who is quite interested in the performance/dramatic element of concert singing, it’s a really rewarding work to perform, and it’s a great challenge ensemble-wise. It’s not an easy piece, with many shifts of style and phrasing and pacing, almost like it’s several songs in one – but it’s incredibly exciting to perform and hear.

You’ll also be doing Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne, which is quite a change of pace. Have you sung them before?  

I have performed a few of them before, but not the ones that were suggested for the program. I was all too happy to sing them, as I’ve been wanting to explore more of this collection for a long time. Having listened to many of the songs a lot over the years and admired so many singers’ interpretations, I’m so looking forward to it. They also present an unusual task in that they are in the Auvergnat dialect of French, which has Spanish influences, so it’s an odd blend of language and accent. I’m really interested in language, and I really enjoy the challenge of throwing myself into repertoire in a language or dialect I have absolutely no familiarity with at all, then working out how to make it sound as convincing as possible. It’s like an aural work out! I do speak French, which is helpful, but this dialect is very different – you have to find a halfway point between two languages and sort of forget everything you know about how to pronounce French. Not to mention the music is just beautiful – they are all folk songs from the Auvergne region, with stunning arrangements, which will be played by pianist Charles Owen. The folk music-inspired element seems to be running through the festival program.

Is there a recording of them you particularly cherish?

There are several great ones; because they are folk songs, every singer has a different approach. I really like Sara Macliver’s recording with the QSO, and two other favorites are the recordings by the great Frederica von Stade who is a real idol of mine, and Véronique Gens’ is also stunning. There’s also some great footage of Anne Sofie von Otter’s interpretation. She’s a huge inspiration in general and it’s her recording of the Respighi that I first came across and fell in love with; as well as the Brahms, I love her recording of that too. If I come across concert and chamber music I want to perform, there are a few artists I will always go to to see how they have approached the piece; Anne Sofie tops that list. I really admire her artistry, the way she performs, her connection to the text. The way you can hear her musicianship and communication with the other musicians, even on record, is incredibly inspiring.

Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle is another interesting piece that you’ll get to perform in the Festival. What was your first encounter with it?

I think Chausson is quite underrated and not really performed very often, so I was very happy to see that this was another piece Kathy was interested in programming. It’s for piano quintet and voice, and I first performed it while I was doing my fellowship at ANAM in 2014, which was also the first time I performed the Respighi. Most of that concert was with a quartet and then I had a piano join for the Chausson. I’ve been wanting to do it ever since, and that was five years ago now. The challenge with programming some chamber repertoire is that you’re often limited to voice and quartet or voice and piano, so it’s not often that you are able to combine the two and have a piano quintet at your disposal, it’s quite a luxury. And it’s a stunning song, very delicately written and typically French in style – I’m looking forward to revisiting it!

You’re also doing Dowland’s Flow my tears. Has early music played a significant part in your career?

Yes, I love early music and I have performed a lot of Dowland in the last few years with an Australian guitarist I work with a lot in the UK, Andrey Lebedev. At the AFCM, I’ll be performing this song with British harpist Ruth Wall, which I think will suit the repertoire very well. Early music has definitely been a huge part of my career so far – a lot of my early professional work was in baroque oratorio and Renaissance music, and I still love performing early music so much. Lately in Australia I’ve been performing a lot with Tasmanian baroque ensemble Van Diemen’s Band and there is a great Italian ensemble I work with regularly in Europe as well called La Vaghezza – it’s very special to be able to develop relationships with groups who specialise in historical performance practice. I’m drawn to early music because I have loved listening to it since childhood (cue vivid memories of dancing to Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium every Christmas!) but also because there is a certain freedom of expression and vocal style inherent in early music which I really relish. There is a lot of similarity to 20th century and contemporary music, which I also love; a similar sense of freedom that allows the singer to explore the voice and its textures. It’s such a treat to be able to combine folk, classical and early music within one festival – and who knows, there may even be a little late-night jazz as well.

This interview has been updated since publication

The Australian Festival of Chamber Music takes place in Townsville from July 26 – August 4

Lotte Betts-Dean also gives the world premiere of Dmitri Tymoczko’s song cycle Ghosts with Rubiks Collective at the Melbourne Recital Centre, July 3