“Many performers leave with tears in their eyes”: An interview with Leo Geyer, Constella founder and creator of Connecting Stars
Constella, the world’s only dedicated opera-ballet company, has launched Connecting Stars, an initiative to tackle two urgent problems created as a result of the coronavirus lockdown: loneliness among isolated care home residents, and the financial strain on artists under lockdown. Connecting Stars connects residents with creatives, who will be paid for offering the former free one-to-one virtual performances. Leo Geyer, Constella’s founder, has offered us an exclusive interview.
Hi, thank you for your time. What is Connecting Stars about?
Connecting Stars is a Constella OperaBallet initiative which aims to solve two problems presented by the Covid-19 pandemic. The first is that many vulnerable people in society are alone, isolated and in need of activities to support health and wellbeing. Secondly, the performing arts industry has been decimated, and musicians, actors, and dancers, who are mostly freelance, are out of work and facing financial hardship.
How and when did you get the idea for Connecting Stars?
When lockdown began, I was worried about how my grandma would cope in her care home. To cheer her up, I decided to do a virtual performance. I work professionally as a composer and conductor, but neither discipline is particularly useful for Zoom performances, so I brushed off the dust on my bassoon and just about remembered how to put it together. We both laughed and giggled as I fumbled my way through the solo bassoon repertoire, finishing up with the last movement of Mozart’s joyous bassoon concerto. My gran shared some very touching words about how much better she felt, and I found that my mood had turned around too! In the otherwise deafening silence, it was heartwarming to use my art for good. And at that moment, the light bulb flickered into action above my head… What if performing artists could give virtual performances to support vulnerable people?
Who will be participating in Connecting Stars?
We started the programme with a small group of Constella musicians – all of whom work freelance by regularly collaborating with organisations such as the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne, the National Theatre, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Unsurprisingly, the freelance scene has come to a complete standstill, so huge swathes of performing artists are now at home twiddling their thumbs. We are now opening the programme up to dancers and actors.
Are there any guidelines regarding the repertoire the performers should choose?
The idea is that the performances are interactive. So, the audience can request what they would like to hear. This is a somewhat open-ended prospect – there is a lot of music out there. So, we suggest that artists propose questions like something slow or fast, or folky or classical, etc. We want to provide the audience with choice, but obviously don’t want to put the artist too far out of their comfort zone.
Is Constella currently planning any other Covid-19-related projects?
We are of course scheming away and looking at creating a new video-dance project. More on that soon… watch this space!
How did you become a composer and conductor?
I started creating and writing music as soon as I started learning an instrument. I used to get some friends together at the Lewisham Schools Music Service to play through some of my music. We realised that someone needed to conduct – so I had a crack. I had no idea what I was doing and beat time the wrong way round! Despite this, I remember the thrill in my heart hearing my music played and being the one flapping my arms around to make it happen. And I have the great pleasure of chasing that thrill my whole life.
How will the musicians participating in the project be paid?
With the help of Sir Willard White, we have launched a fundraising campaign so that artists can be paid a professional rate for their work. The project is as much about supporting professional performers as it is care home residents.
Do you have a favourite composer?
This is a tricky one. There are a huge number of artists that inspire, intrigue and surprise me. If forced, I think I would have to say Stravinsky for innovation in the opera-ballet art form, which is now central to my practice as a composer and conductor.
How does performing on the internet – especially in a one to one situation – differ from performing in a conventional concert hall?
Performing virtually couldn’t be more different to live concerts. Usually, we go on stage knowing exactly what we are going to perform, and we bow formally to graciously accept the applause. In these one-to-one virtual performances, we respond to the audience and invite them to choose what we play and receive very touching personal feedback. In fact, it is such a moving experience that many performers finish their sessions with tears in their eyes!
What impact do you think the performances have on the lives of the elderly who are to benefit from Connecting Stars?
Loneliness and mental wellbeing have always been major issues in care homes and have been exacerbated by Covid-19. Residents have not had visits from friends of family for over three months. To protect residents, some care homes have kept everyone in their rooms to avoid human contact. It is, in equal measure, a distressing and monotonous time for many residents. Our project can bring residents entertaining performances and friendly conversation to brighten the day and raise morale. The feedback we have had from residents and carers has been heartwarming to hear, and we are resolved to continue the programme for as long as funds allow.
What does Connecting Stars teach us about how to respond to the virus?
My feeling from the very beginning was this – no virus can kill art. The pandemic meant that we could create and share in the way we used to, so we had better do what we do best – be creative!
Do you think the virus will have a lasting impact on the way we perceive and engage with music?
I think that there are many unknowns about what the future will hold. This pandemic has caused some trends to accelerate, such as embracing the possibilities of technology. However, many people will miss the live concert experience, so I hope there will be an enthusiastic return when we are able.
Thank you so much for your time!
Photo: Geyer (top R) and other participants in Connecting Stars / Image: Constella
Connecting Stars is currently booking upon request. For further information or to arrange a performance visit the Connecting Stars website here.
Watch the call for donations for Connecting Stars here: