Lotte Bovi is a Dutch mezzo-soprano that sometimes ventures into performance art. In opera she often plays dramatic roles. As a performance artist she explores poetic visions.

Singing among the debrees

You are a classically trained mezzo-soprano. How does this affect you?

When you practice classical singing people see you as a conservative woman which is of course nonsense. Maria Callas for example was an extremely wild woman. She said that she’s an animal “Inside I’m calm but outside I’m a predator.” Good opera singers have this kind of quality. It’s called grinta in Italian. I can relate to that.

How is femininity constructed in classic opera?

Most of the times the sopranos are very modest girls and the mezzo soprano, that’s my voice, are the dangerous women because they have lower voices. The very high voices are most of the times innocent girls or women with a tragedy. I think you can compare the soprano to the Catholic Maria and mezzo soprano would be Maria Magdalena. The mezzo soprano most of the time takes the tenor, the man, away from the soprano. She’s a femme fatale.

In your classical repertoire you often perform hyper feminine roles such as Carmen, Lola and Mercedes. How do you experience them?

I think everything that Carmen says is about freedom and being free. She wants Don Hosé to be free as well. She pays the price for freedom with her life. Lola is the lover of a guy who cheats his boring girlfriend so for me she’s not that interesting as Carmen. Carmen really says “I’m free. I’m born free and I will die. No one will take my freedom from me. I do what I want. I take the man that I want. I make the choice.” I like that, and I very much agree with her.

Is this also the way these characters are usually perceived?

When I talk about them with guys the always say that Carmen wants to die. She asks for Don Hosé to kill her. It is a preconceived idea that she wants to commit suicide and she chooses the lover who does it to her. So, she is destructive in a way. I thought about it and I don’t agree. Perhaps she wants to pay the price for being free. For her it’s freedom or death. It’s a very dramatic role.

Why do you think it is this way?

Recently I had a discussion of Facebook with Stella Bergsma and she said “Why are women always the victims in movies? Why are women always so easily victimized? Why don’t they get to win? They always die or lose.” Of course, these are movies made by men who give their vision on being a woman and femininity. Sometimes also in my everyday life I notice that men like sadism. This fight between the sexes is still going on. It never stops. It’s very hard to understand each other in this scenario.

Performing a dramatic role

How do you approach playing these roles?

I look for situations in my life to which Carmen would react in a manner typical to her. I search for appropriate behaviours and ways of walking. I imagine how someone like Carmen moves. Is she an animal? What kind of animal would she be? I think she is a predator, but other people say she is a young girl. She betrays, she steals, she does everything that a decent woman would never do, and she’s a Gypsy. She goes for the things that she likes. She enjoys life, and living, to celebrate, to dance and to sing.

In one of your performances you float on water in a white gown. What is it about?

Doing things on the water has something to do with the source. Water is the source of life. Woman is also a source of life and inspiration. Inspiration emerges from within like water. Water flows where it wants to go, and I think that as woman you always must keep connected to that source. I also think that men are looking for that in women. They want to have a connection with that mysterious depth. But you can also drown depth. Like Rusalka for example, the Russian mermaid, she pulls her lover into the water and he drowns. Deep water is also very mysterious. In the mountains you have these very deep lakes that are incredibly scary. It’s fascinating what is beneath, what is down there in the lake. With the dress on the water I wanted to channel this depth. I do it through my voice and the choice of the aria.

What do you sing in this performance?

Most of the time I did Rusalka and in Morocco I sang Scheherazade. Maurice Ravel wrote Scheherazade in 1912 which was the year Morocco was divided into French and Spanish protectorates. I wanted to reflect on the Western way of looking at the East, at the Arabic world. I wanted to show two worlds. The world of the Western woman who looks isolated on the water with oriental images of the Arabic world projected on her. Oriental is when you have a fairytale perception of the Arabic world which is not very realistic because it’s a fantasy. On the shore, there was a young girl of 18 years old who represented the real Scheherazade. I wanted to combine the worldviews of the young girl on the shore, the real Scheherazade, with the imagination of the Western Scheherazade represented by me. I was singing that “I want to see the Arab world. I want to see how beautiful it is. I want to see a fairytale world.” My counterpart was singing in Arab. At a certain moment we were singing together to merge these worlds in music and in voice. This young girl was also a symbol of innocence that is lacking from the current perception of the Arab world as violent.   

Sheherazade on water

Do you think the classical performance of femininity is still relevant?

In classical music the portrayal of femininity is archetypical. I explore these archetypes because it’s my profession. I must imagine how it is to be that person. They all deal with very big tragedies. It’s a very dramatic confrontation with life. I think it has influenced me. For example, in my relationships I did some method acting to see how my partner would react if I would act a bit like Carmen. Is he a Don Hosé? But I am getting off that road because I am bored with these archetypes. I am looking for new ways to express femininity. I want to investigate these archetypes. I would like to have much more freedom that is why I am going into the direction of performance.

What attracts you to performance art?

I think it gives me the opportunity to express other emotions than just the formality of the discipline of classical singing. There are many rules. In classical opera you have to do a piece in a certain way, restricted to this core and to the way you must perform it. I want to give another dimension, another meaning and context to performance through experiment. I want to make it much more surrealist than it is in classic discipline and break it out of conservatism. I get the inspiration to create performances via the music, not the other way around. I start with the music and than come up with an idea to present it.

How do you want to reflect on the classical genre through performance?

It’s very intuitive. I don’t think about it too much, I just choose a certain are and create a performance around it. I reflect on traditional archetypes by looking for original role models which are still connected to the classical but in a non-conservative form. I’m looking for a controversial form. I want to be more confronting. Not because I want to be feminist but because I just cherish my freedom. I don’t want to conform to rules that are forced on me. I want to stay wild.

What is femininity for you?

It’s a power of women to be in contact with that constant source of inspiration and freedom.

How do you perform femininity in your everyday life?

With ups and downs. You must have a good relationship with your body. When you are a young girl you have a strange connection with your body and insecurities like you are too fat. You are not connected to yourself. For me it was an eye opener when I was studying classical music, by training my muscles, there was a moment when the voice grounded in my body and I felt good. I realised that this flesh is also my instrument and I love it. I think it’s incredibly important not to disconnect your body from your being. You have to love it and forgive your insecurities. Loving yourself in the way that you are is extremely important. I am getting older and my body changes. My interest and approach to sexuality changes. It’s all connected. This biological connection between your mind and your body is very important.

Performance at Extrapool

At Extrapool you performed nude with only bits of you covered up by long hair. Why did you choose to perform this way?

I performed the poem of Jan Fabre about sleep. It’s about sleep that consumes you and I related this to long hair. Someone I met in India once told me “My wife has hair until her ankles” and the first thing I thought is “Oh, you can really sleep well in that hair” because it’s a kind of blanket. It’s protective in a way. When I want to involve people, I use my hair because I think it’s a very seductive tool. I chose to cover my nudity because when you are close to people in this way they feel uncomfortable and the hair makes it innocent. I also like the minimalistic form of being naked because you don’t present a choice in fashion. It’s very simple and I like that very much. I’m just a pure person.

What are you singing about in the performance?

It was an aria from Sapho and she sings about this lover who left her. She sings “I’m standing on a rock and I play my lira and I’m going to throw myself into the abyss.” It was a collage of poems and the area. I invented it on the spot. I did not see the space before and developed this performance while being there.

You carefully orchestrated suspense in that performance by lying on the floor in a room from the start of the exhibition. What effect did you want to achieve?

Estrangement. What is that? Why is she laying there? What is she going to do? And then surprise, every time doing something that people don’t expect. I never saw a classical singer before performing naked. The hair also contributes a lot to achieve a weird image. I like weirdness.

Do you use your body as a site of provocation more often?

I don’t see it as provocation. Being naked is a natural way of being. I don’t feel my body as being naked at all. I experience it as a suit. I feel very comfortable in myself and am not limited by feeling ashamed. The naked body is just a beautiful image. I have performed naked before in an installation that involved water. It was very dark but there was a light aimed at the water. You saw the water dripping on my body, so my body was a canvas, and the drops created ripples in the water like what Olafur Eliasson did at the Boijmans Museum.

How do you want to develop your performances?

By letting go of the conventional idea of being a classical singer. I want to still use my voice but do much more experimental things as a performer focusing on endurance art because I found out that I’m good at that. I have a strong stamina. I want to focus more on performance art because I find that limiting myself to doing only classical music is not interesting enough. Classical music is extremely beautiful, but I want to have this freedom to express other things, to be more creative.

Would you call yourself a feminist?

I think I am but in a seductive way. It’s a strategy and a way for me to stay in control of my own life. Sometimes it’s like walking on a thin cord that involves a lot of risks. I really like taking risks and play with fire. I would rather go have an adventure than stay inside and being content with safety. I like to do what I want.