RNCM Alumni: Composer/Conductor Leo Geyer

Leo Geyer is Founder and Artistic Director of Constella OperaBallet and Music Director for the Devon Philharmonic Orchestra . We chatted to him about his career and trajectory since graduating from the RNCM in 2014.

Did you always want to be a composer / conductor?

I started composing almost as soon as I started playing bassoon when I was eight or nine, so it was always something that was very important to me. I arrived on the Joint Course at the RNCM specifically as a composer, but I had to do an audition on the bassoon at the University of Manchester and I ended up playing in the University orchestra. I really enjoyed the experience, and it was through playing in the orchestra that I saw lots of student conductors – which was what aroused my interest in conducting.

What are your career highlights?

As soon as I finished at the RNCM I started working at the Royal Opera House – it was incredible to be part of this massive machine creating all this amazing work. When I was 11 I’d sung in a treble chorus at the ROH, so it was quite special that years later it was the place that offered me my first job. My work with the Royal Ballet also led me to establish my own company, the Constella Balletorchestra – the world’s only company dedicated to the fusion of opera and ballet. Sometimes I find that in ballet, dance can steal the spotlight away from the music. The idea behind Constella was to ensure that the collaboration between the art forms is completely equal. The company has gradually evolved to having singers on stage with ballet dancers and exploring that space together. And we discovered by accident that this was quite a revolutionary idea and so we branded the company to focus exclusively on that art form; that’s what we’ve been doing for the past five years or so. While I’m very proud of our all our projects, a particular highlight is a project we did at the Chelsea Flower Show in collaboration with the garden designer Stuart Towner. We created a multi-sensory garden which included ballet performance as well as music and actually the garden design was based on my music, so it was incredible to bring all these various people and ideas together. We reached four hundred thousand people who came to see the show, and it was broadcast on BBC2 and Radio 3 – so a massive moment!

What are your memories from the RNCM?

Wow, so many. I was there from 2011-2014 and began the Constella Orchestra during my time at the RNCM. I set it up with various fellow students and the purpose was for us to make music during our holidays. The ensemble of that time was half students from Manchester University and half from the RNCM. That really formed the foundations of the company. Also during my 4th year I went on Erasmus, which is fairly unusual for Joint Course students. I went to Vienna, which turned out to be a hugely significant period in my learning. I also slightly bent the rules because I was there at the RNCM as a composer but I managed to get permission to study conducting in my 4th year while continuing my composition lessons over Skype. And it meant because I’d already been doing two degrees at the same time, and on the Erasmus exchange I was doing conducting, I skipped the need to do a Masters because I kind of packed it all in. When I graduated I felt ready to take on the world, as it were. Another thing I remember really enjoying at the RNCM was the site-specific performances at the end of each year. For example we did one at the British Museum, at Victoria Baths and also the Imperial War Museum. I thought they were such amazing opportunities to explore a wide range of repertoire in a unique scenario and to engage audiences particularly with new music in a very different way. I took a lot of inspiration from this and it’s led me to do a huge number of collaborations at museums and arts spaces. So I owe the RNCM for that, certainly.

Constella OperaBallet ‘Sideshows’

Do you have any advice for fresh graduates?

My approach generally has been don’t wait for the phone to ring – make it ring. And particularly when you’re graduating everyone’s in the same position. Just get some stuff going. Put on a concert, apply for some funding; try and get out there and do it. Rejection is to be absolutely expected and no artist should be disheartened by it. I often say I can paint my wallpaper several times over with rejection letters, that’s just the way it is. So you just have to believe in your craft and go for it. And in relation to that – find your voice. Make sure it’s something unique. I think that’s the thing that’s helped to take Constella off, because it’s something new and people are interested and that has catapulted its success.

What are you working on currently?

I’ve started a Doctorate at Oxford University studying opera-ballet composition. So that’s quite exciting, particularly as the performing world is a bit unknowable at the minute with the pandemic – it’s nice to have this to be focussing on. Something else with Constella that we’ve been doing over lockdown has been a one-to-one virtual performance programme for care home residents. So we’ve been connecting artists including dancers with care homes across the country. This has all been generously funded by public donations and Arts Council England, and it’s going extremely well. We’re doing a huge number every week, from Inverness to Penzance. The important aspect is it’s not just a performance but also interacting with the residents. This is particularly rewarding as in the height of the pandemic these care home residents were not able to see friends and families but were kept inside their rooms to mitigate transmission. So the impact of these performances has been huge and it’s been so wonderful to bring happiness to people in these trying times.

To find out more about Leo and his musical projects click here.

28 September 2020