Below is an article from Classical Music Magazine (January 2007) about the Genesis Foundation.
In the beginning
When banking supremo John Studzinski turned his hand to helping develop young opera talent he was initially met with some harsh criticism. However he determined not to give up, and is now about to present a new selection of works from his transformed OperaGenesis programme. Andrew Stewart reports.
In the world of international finance, investment banker John Studzinski stands out among A-list dealmakers. Studs, as he is universally known, is a celebrated master of mergers and acquisitions, refining the art during 22 years at Morgan Stanley and with a recent burst of activity in building HSBC’s investment banking division. He also knows how to throw a party.
Stereotypical corporate fat cat attributes are heavily overlaid in Studzinski’s case with an old-fashioned sense of social responsibility and abiding commitment to Christian philanthropy. As chairman of Business Action on Homeless and founder member of the Passage Day Centre in London’s Victoria, Studzinski has backed his social conscience with cash and practical ideas. Likewise, he is on track to make a difference at an international level through his work as vice-chair of Human Rights Watch. Small wonder that cynics have questioned the motives of a multi-millionaire working for social change.
His support for the work of young opera composers, theatre directors and actors inevitably drew unfriendly fire, much of it directed at Studzinki’s Genesis Foundation. The latter, founded in 2001, was criticised before it had funded an operatic bar for being worthy but irrelevant. Even open-minded reviewers were tested by the low quality of operas delivered by the charitable foundation’s initial international competition for new work.
Although Studzinski agrees that the first Genesis project had its problems, he remains convinced of the need for developing fresh creative opportunities for emerging opera composers and librettists. He recalls taking Financial Times critic Andrew Clark to task over a particularly hostile assessment of two Genesis Foundation-supported works, Sirius on Earth and Thwaite. ‘He understood that these were first pieces by the composers. I asked him what he felt his review had done for the dignity of those people. “Why don’t you put yourself in their position? How dare you do be so insensitive?” He said that we shouldn’t have structured the project as we did, and he was right. The mistake we made was to place the focus on the final production.’
The initial Genesis commissioning process clearly favoured those with a gift for pitching a strong proposal rather than those whose apparently scattered ideas required carefully managed development. OperaGenesis emerged to redress the balance in 2005, establishing a formal collaboration between the Genesis Foundation and ROH2 at the Royal Opera House. The revised programme concentrates on the creative process rather than finished productions, allowing writing teams to test ideas in workshops and in company with seasoned opera directors, dramaturges, conductors and singers.
John Lloyd Davies, ROH2’s head of opera development, has helped structure a five-year rolling programme for OperaGenesis. The new Genesis deal is broadly informed by an equally broad question: what will the opera of the 21st century be like? ‘By shifting the project’s base to a theatre, it became much easier to have a continuous programme,’ he says. ‘There are no fixed deadlines, apart from when we work with composers who need them. Each project can develop in its own unique way. It also means that, to a certain extent, we’re able to involve composers in the life of a theatre.’ He recalls a bygone age in which musicians and their audiences would have known the conventions of opera and where, consequently, theatres were hungry for new work. ‘What was once a living and accessible art form, reflecting the time and world in which it was created, has become a narrow, academic field, rarely reaching a wider audience.’
The two Johns, Studzinksi and Lloyd Davies, are quick to challenge critics to step beyond the bounds of proscenium arch grand opera and develop fresh aesthetic values against which to judge opera written by ‘outsiders’. ‘One of the problems is that operas that do not break the rules too much are better received than ones that do,’ says Lloyd Davies. ‘Clearly, there are so many possibilities beyond proscenium stage opera in terms of live performance, film and the internet, and none of us know where they are leading.’ He cites the experience of early filmmakers, who collectively created new conventions that soon became sacrosanct only to be overturned with the introduction of sound and colour films.
The internet’s role in spreading new thinking about opera and connecting creative artists, says Lloyd Davies, stands high on the list of OperaGenesis aspirations. ‘There are still huge artistic consequences from new technologies, which have yet to shake down. I have some confidence that the liveness of the performance will remain special in opera, but new distribution systems, such as the internet, will crucially alter the kind of music written for them.’
‘It’s possible that audiences will want to access contemporary opera either via the internet or as a ten- or 20-minute podcast. One of our big challenges is that people like a lot of music, including opera, but are reluctant to come through the doors of a building that looks like the Royal Opera House. We do stuff in the Linbury and Clore studios, and bring people into the building to help break down barriers. We’re also committed to taking work to other spaces and distributing it globally through our dedicated website. The net is inherently democratic and doesn’t intimidate people in the way that some grand theatres appear to do.’
Shifting paradigms and making the very best of existing ones have certainly served John Studzinski in his business career. He remains unmoved by those who argue that the Genesis Foundation is unlikely to supersede established methods of commissioning opera for proscenium theatres or make audiences more excited about the prospect of attending works by unknowns. ‘You only have to look to the Bible to the story of the stone the builders rejected that became the cornerstone. My Christianity tells me that if people attack what you do, then perhaps that means it’s strong enough. If you believe in something, you just keep going.’
Viewed from such a perspective, the Genesis title must have been an easy choice. We know that in opera’s beginning was the word, and that it received musical flesh thanks to a line of composers from Monteverdi to Britten. The genealogy has run a bit thin in recent times. Where is the next wave of opera composers? English National Opera’s studio tried to bridge the gap between expectation and realisation, and came reasonably close in the case of Turnage’s The Silver Tassie. Other artistic successes, Adès’s The Tempest and Adams’s Dr Atomic among them, soar above a mound of contemporary opera flops. Can OperaGenesis spot talent that opera companies might otherwise miss?
‘My original purpose with the Genesis Foundation was to try to develop networks and nurture young artists, not just financially but in terms of wider support,’ Studzinski says. ‘It seems to me, in terms of the arts world, that the most fragile moment, where the dignity of the young creative talent is challenged, comes that first time when someone tries to create but doesn’t have sufficient money or mentoring, or simply isn’t given a break. I don’t want the future opera composers, playwrights and musicians of the world all to come from the upper middle class. The upper middle class affords you access not only to money but also to a network. But you don’t want the arts to be driven by a subset of the population.’
The inclusive approach fits squarely with Studzinski’s philanthropic work elsewhere. Our conversation touches on his support for Future Talent, the Duchess of Kent’s initiative to reach potential young musicians in the 92% of UK state schools that operate without music as part of the core curriculum. He returns to the theme of human dignity, using it to link Katherine Kent’s schools project with the Genesis Foundation’s inclusive brief. ‘I wanted young artists who were thinking about going into opera not to give up,’ says Studzinski. ‘Not everyone’s a Thomas Adès. Look at his background. His mother is Dawn Adès, a professor of art history and Tate trustee. The family is not enormously wealthy, but it’s part of the art world. Thomas was born into a network, with people who spoke the same language. But what happens if you’re a talented young composer who is not born into that network? The Genesis Foundation was aimed at nurturing the dignity of young, frail talent.’
In its first full year of operation, several reviewers have pronounced on the frailty of OperaGenesis talent. Times critic Richard Morrison demolished Dominque Le Gendre’s Bird of Night, describing the revised score as ‘a waste of time, talent and taxpayers’ money’ and classifying the Trinidadian composer’s score as ‘a lumbering turkey’. One cast member, favouring anonymity, told me that the experience of presenting Le Gendre’s work had been deeply depressing. John Lloyd Davies admits that Bird of Night was a ‘flawed piece, no question’. Although the score was explored in workshop sessions, he adds that ‘much of the piece was already fully written by then. There was not time to make as much of a difference as I would ideally have liked. It was unfortunate that some of the reviews suggested that it was not as good as Janačék, for example. If you look at early Janačék operas, those pieces were not so good, too! Osud is deeply flawed and very difficult to stage.’
OperaGenesis, says Lloyd Davies, can help level the vertiginous learning curve routinely faced by composers commissioned to write for an opera company. It is, he explains, all too easy to forget that Verdi, Wagner and Richard Strauss would scarcely be remembered today for their first or even second operas. And would Tristan und Isolde or Pelléas et Mélisande, wanting in ‘big tunes’, have made it to the stage without enlightened patronage?
‘The idea of the OperaGenesis programme is not solely to turn out brilliant finished pieces,’ Lloyd Davies says. ‘It’s completely valid for someone to spend six months or a year workshopping an act or two scenes and then, having learned important lessons, setting the piece to one side and realising that the next one they write will be better.’ He cites the model of film development, where screenplays undergo multiple drafts and directors experiment on set. In short, OperaGenesis is looking to establish momentum by exploring a large number of works at a relatively low-level of development. The strategy, says Lloyd Davies, represents good use of the Genesis Foundation’s money.
‘We have around 20 pieces in the works. It’s so hard to know which of those are going to gel. That’s why we have expanded the number of operas being workshopped. The approach allows people, such as Tim Hopkins and Elena Langer, for example, to explore genuinely unusual ideas; it also offers room for pieces that are recognisably “proper” operas.’ Ongoing OperaGenesis projects include everything from James Barrett and Selima Hill’s multimedia dance opera, Beekeeper, and Hopkins and Langer’s Stravinsky-inspired Towards Les Noces to Jean Philippe Calvin’s ‘electro-acoustic surreal comedy’, The Bald Soprano, and Eleanor Alberga and Donald Sturrock’s Letters of a Love Betrayed.
The wide mix of OperaGenesis works, says John Studzinski, is likely to buttress the Genesis Foundation’s remit of reaching new audiences. Surely, public prejudices against the Royal Opera House and what it stands for will get in the way? ‘We haven’t done that well there yet, in terms of new audiences. But I hope OperaGenesis will bring new people into Covent Garden’s rehearsal space and the Linbury.’ He points to a recent OperaGenesis innovation, which included a 40-minute workshop performance, an audience discussion of the piece with composer and singers, followed by a repeat performance.
‘I know the arts don’t like spoon feeding, but I think people want to be educated in music,’ says Studzinski. ‘Workshops can really make a difference in that respect. I’m trying to get the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to stop seeing culture as entertainment and realise that it is education.’ Overseeing the merger and acquisition business of a global corporation might prove child’s play by comparison. ‘Contemporary opera, contemporary drama, contemporary literature … these are more about education than entertainment, because they challenge people to be critical about contemporary society. OperaGenesis is about new creators and new audiences and, ultimately, about being confident that opera is worth supporting for the future.’
By permission of the Editor of Classical Music Magazine
All pictures are © John Lloyd Davies
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