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It’s now or never

Lotte Verstaen and Margaux de Valensart take their chances at the Queen Elisabeth competition

Eline Hadermann
Reading time
5 min.

21 May is the moment: that is when mezzo soprano Lotte Verstaen and soprano Margaux de Valensart will join 53 other young singers from around the world, in the first round of the prestigious Queen Elisabeth competition. Since 2015, Belgium’s hopefuls for this edition have been connected to La Monnaie, as members of the MM Academy. When I ask about their current stress levels, I hear a big sigh, and then “okay” with a smile. It is soon clear that they are more than ready for the ultimate singing contest.

How are you doing, right now?

Lotte: Quite alright, I think. Two weeks ago, we had a try-out concert, and it went really well. Although it was pretty intensive: we each sang for about an hour without a break, because we wanted to share as much of our repertoire as possible with the audience.

Margaux: Then you soon realise what you still need to work on. However, we knew all the pieces by heart, and made no big mistakes. Also, it’s comforting to know that we have such stamina, because at the actual competition we’ll never need to sing for so long in one go.

How are you preparing yourselves in this final fortnight before the first round?

Lotte: Thanks to the try-out I have the feeling that I have my repertoire under control. Now, I’m trying to perfect the details and, above all, keep my voice in shape.

Margaux: What it boils downs to is letting go a little. That’s also what our coaches say: ‘Stop thinking so hard, and just do what comes naturally’. We have the ingredients to work on the texts, to study the characters and to check what we feel and want to communicate with this music.

You are making me curious. Can you give us a sneak preview of your programmes already?

Lotte: In the previous singing editions of the Queen Elisabeth competition there was a strict repertoire list. From this list, candidates had to choose their programme for the entire competition. Now, for the first time ever, this repertoire list has been abandoned, giving me the freedom to choose music that I really adore. My programme is also very diverse: for example, it contains some songs from Les nuits d’été by Berlioz, the lullaby from Mussorgsky’s Songs and dances of death and Sur la grève, a mélodie by Joseph Jongen. I also chose Olga’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin, which I have already been fortunate enough to perform this season at La Monnaie. So I’ve selected a familiar repertoire – which gives me a sense of security.

Margaux: The situation is a little different in my case, I’m afraid (laughs). I’ve actually assembled an entirely new programme, and some of the pieces I didn’t even know before participating. That means I’m taking a big risk, however, I was keen to give myself a bit of a challenge.
In the semi-final, you need to submit two programmes, and you only know the day before which of the two you’ll actually be expected to perform. I gave each programme a theme, namely ‘day’ and ‘night’ and have also included some music from female composers, as they are almost never included in repertoire lists. Perhaps we can make that a new rule for a future edition?

Putting yourself to the test – that is actually the aim of such a contest. Why have you both decided to participate at this specific point in your career?

Lotte: I have cherished the idea of participating right from the start of my singing education at the conservatorium – along with other competitions. As an artist, you are always evolving: both in voice technique and your voice maturity. During the last edition I was 23 years old, and I didn’t feel ready. Now, four years later, armed with more experience and a wider repertoire, it feels right.

Margaux: For me, it was ‘now or never’. I will be 32 later this year, and then I’m officially too old to participate. Furthermore: it’s such a prestigious competition that, as a Belgian, it’s extra special to participate.

Two of the few Belgian candidates, an (almost) last chance: how much pressure are you feeling at this moment?

Lotte: It’s true that more eyes are focused on you, as a Belgian participant. The media attention is building, and that adds more stress. But it’s lovely to feel your family close to you during this experience! Where, in competitions abroad, you perform your programme without familiar faces in the audience, here you feel the constant support of your loved ones. That’s really nice.

Margaux: Indeed. On top of that, I’m doing this for me, most of all. Just the fact we have already been selected is an achievement. With the pandemic, this edition is a year later than planned, which means that the pool of talent is even bigger than usual. The level is really high – so we can be proud even to have reached the first round.

Not only are you proud Queen Elisabeth competition candidates, you are also MM Laureates. How has this experience prepared you for your participation in competitions?

Margaux: In innumerable ways. To start with, we have received enormous practical support. Throughout the journey, from the MM Choral Academy to MM Soloist and MM Laureate, each coaching session is tailored to suit you, and takes account of your personal schedule. Getting the opportunity to plan language lessons and different singing coaching at your own tempo, and on top of that, gaining loads of experience on stage: that really helps you develop, as an artist.

Lotte: That’s true. At La Monnaie, my eyes were really opened. I was still very young when I began my trajectory at this house, and I immediately learned how the opera world works. I picked up an awful lot from the star soloists with whom I was lucky enough to perform. Furthermore, it’s here that we did our first auditions, where we received professional support to make recordings for all kinds of castings: all with the unconditional support from everyone here.

How do you expect to benefit from the competition?

Lotte: In any case, the competition makes your name better known in your own country. You also learn to handle pressure, and that’s a useful skill throughout your career. But the most important is to be able to perform this wonderful music to a large audience.

Margaux: For me, I believe it’s already a personal accomplishment just to participate in this competition. One member of the jury may love my voice, while another may not. A competition is so subjective, so for me it’s most of all about enjoying a wonderful experience.