Q&A: Leo Geyer9:00, 11th August 2016
The Constella OperaBallet founder and joint artistic director talks to Katy Wright
Where did the concept of opera-ballet come from?
It was quite an organic development. The company was initially called the Constella Orchestra, then we began to do staged performances. Fuelled by good reviews and by the process of creating, we put on a production of Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale and loved the collaboration with dance. That’s when we realised this was something we really wanted to do.
The aim was for the company to ensure that music and dance were on completely level footing, which rarely happens. In ballet, music is often considered less important than dance. We did a few projects where there was particularly interesting programming, the musicians were sharing the stage with the dancers, or were in character and costume performing alongside the dancers, and from there we began to do opera-ballet without realising. We felt that we’d found what we wanted to do, and no one else was doing it!
How have audiences reacted?
We really feel that the collaboration of opera and ballet offers the audience two planes to engage with, making it much more accessible and engaging than either in isolation. By adding choreography and making it a staged performance, it gave people much more angles from which they could engage with the piece. That was how we thought we could get opera and ballet to reach the masses – to offer a much more engaging performance.
What projects have you got coming up?
The first is The Canary Boys, which is a national celebration of coal mining. We have commissioned a new touring installation pod, in which we’ll be offering a free ten-minute experience, and we’re also going to stage a full scale opera-ballet, which we’ll perform underground or in industrial spaces. We’re also putting on cross-generational workshops for young people and miners. Having heard the miners talk about their experiences, young people will make pieces inspired by coal mining; we’ll take these as stimuli and work them into the main piece.
Another project is The Orchestras of Auschwitz. I was commissioned to write a piece in memory of Martin Gilbert, who was an expert on modern Jewish history, and as part of the research and development I went to Auschwitz. I met the deputy head of archives, who told me that a lot of music was written and arranged for the orchestras. Staggeringly, quite a lot of it is still in the archives in Auschwitz and has been neither looked at nor performed since the war. I’m creating a piece that uses some of this music and presenting it to the public as a means of engaging with the Holocaust and a new way of remembrance.
We’re also creating a garden for the Chelsea Flower Show inspired by Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture garden. Our version includes a performance space where we’ll be performing a new piece of mine, which will be accompanied by dance.
Finally, we’ll be doing a double-bill about the Brontës at the very end of next year as part of the 200th anniversary celebrations. The first piece is called Shattered Love, which is based on the letters between Charlotte Brontë and her professor, and the second piece is a new one of mine called Glasstown, which is based on the collective fantasy world which all of the Brontë siblings occupied. The piece really pushes the boundaries between musician, dancer and singer – for example, all of the instrumentalists and singers perform off-copy as characters.
Has working on opera-ballet changed how you think about the creative process?
I think the piece that’s made me really think about the collaboration is Glasstown. I wanted to break down the barriers between instrumentalists, dancers and singers. The dancers contribute to the music-making and the instrumentalists can also be involved in the choreography. When I was writing that piece, I was imagining what it would look like as well as what it would sound like.
What do you hope the company will achieve over the next five years?
We’re very ambitious and driven, and we really feel that what we’re doing can open up the classical performing arts to the public. We want to become an organisation that has a national reach and we’re already starting to develop international touring. We’re hoping to make a big splash.