Aren't given the opportunity to conduct? Create your own orchestra
Photos provided by Leo Geyer
Unlike many musicians, Leo Geyer started his music career because his name was pulled out of a hat — during his childhood, too many people wanted to take flute lessons, and he was one of the lucky students whose name was called out. Although he soon realized that it wasn't his cup of tea and migrated to learn the bassoon instead, that introduction to flute also allowed him to explore composing, which soon became his main passion.

For his undergraduate studies, Leo decided to do the Joint Course at Manchester University and the Royal Northern College of Music. "It was very unusual because you do two simultaneous degrees: the idea is that you get the best of both worlds," he says, describing how he experienced a rich academic environment while being exposed to practice-based conservatoire education at the same time. It was at Manchester where the young composer was finally offered the opportunity to hone the craft of conducting — Leo did conduct some of his work before, but being self-taught there was much to learn!

When graduating from MU, he still had a year to pass at the Royal Northern College of Music. Leo wished to further enhance his conducting skills, choosing to travel to the universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst in Vienna as part of his Erasmus exchange to do so. "It was, and still remains, one of the best places in the world [for conducting] and has about 50 conductors studying at once, which [makes it] the biggest department," the young musician explains.
Although this diversity of educational environments offered a plethora of possibilities, Geyer always reminded himself that they would disappear as soon as he graduates. "It can be a bit too easy for it to become your world … and be stuck within the walls of the university," Leo adds. "Conducting is a difficult thing to get into: normally, you can't stand in front of an orchestra unless you've conducted before, but it's a vicious cycle of how to get the experience in the first place?" For him, it was a question of utilizing his time at university and making opportunities outside of it too.

This led him to found what has grown to become the Constella OperaBallet. It started quite humbly when he, along with a couple of friends, wanted to do something for the holidays. "We decided to do a production of Soldier's Tale, which sits somewhere between a ballet, theater piece and a concert work," he shares. There were a few young orchestras, but collaborating with dance put his company in a different sphere.

The students didn't stop there, and continued to put on a series of concerts. That didn't go unnoticed: the music director of the Royal Ballet came to watch one of Constella's performances and was so impressed he offered Leo a cover conductor position at the Royal Opera House. The music entrepreneur tells me his answer was quick, and landed him a job upon graduation.
"I enjoyed working with the Royal Opera House, [but] sometimes with the Royal Ballet production the music and the dance [weren't] always on the same level in terms of the collaborative approach," Leo tells me about how the dance always got to decide everything from the tempo to articulation. Wanting to primarily focus on ensuring both art forms were equally presented, he rebranded Constella Orchestra and added ballet into the equation.

The more the team experimented with the medium and performance, the more interdisciplinary approach and cross collaboration was involved. Suddenly, the artists found themselves in opera ballet… and another rebrand, becoming Constella OperaBallet, the world's only company dedicated to this particular fusion. "Those two forms in combination allow for a really interactive performance — if you find the music difficult, you have dance to look at, which is another way into the work," Geyer says.

Immersed in this new specialization, Leo realized he wanted to pursue a doctorate degree. "Through Constella, [we were] certainly claiming that we know what we're doing in terms of this form," the musician elaborates. "It is basically a continuation of my professional compositional work and part of my portfolio, and I'm actually submitting work that I'm writing for Constella and other companies."
He was relatively familiar with Oxford since his brother did his undergraduate degree there, but made the decision to go there because of his supervisor Prof. Robert Saxton, who actually examined Leo's compositions during his final viva. After that, the two have stayed in touch and it felt like the perfect match.

With the start of the pandemic, Constella — as well as all of the other orchestras — was forced to postpone its concerts. Brainstorming how to still reach out to its audience, the team began performing for care homes over Zoom, and has given 200 performances since March. At the same time, the conductor has been working on a virtual opera-ballet festival for the Derwent Valley World Heritage Site.

Looking back on his journey of launching a company during college, Leo advises to not do it alone. "It can be a hard slog on your own, and the best ways forward come as a consequence of talking with and being in a team," he concludes. "Constella would be … just a concept in the back of my mind if it wasn't for the people I've worked with to make it a possibility."
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