Polisi at SXSWedu
Two things that started in the mid-1980s and would have a huge impact on the arts—the Juilliard presidency of Joseph W. Polisi and the beginning of the South by Southwest festival—converged last month. SXSW began as an indie music festival in 1987 and has burgeoned into a new ideas behemoth that helped launch startups such as Twitter, a family of related festivals, and more. Just three years earlier, fresh-faced bassoonist who'd studied international relations as well as music, left Yale to become Juilliard's president. And in early March, Polisi traveled to Austin, Tex., to be a featured speaker at the festival.
Polisi was speaking at the seventh annual SXSWedu, a conference and festival for education stakeholders. This year's focus was innovation and learning with a particular emphasis on equitable access to education and learning and leadership. In Juilliard's case, those themes led to discussion about maintaining and enhancing a century-plus history as a cream-of-the-crop conservatory while harnessing technology and globalization to bring the arts to an ever broader audience.
Polisi chose the conference to announce Juilliard Open Classroom, a series of new online courses that allow a worldwide audience of amateurs and professionals alike to take advantage of the school's expertise.
There was also a great deal of emphasis at the conference on Polisi's concept of the artist as citizen and making the arts meaningful in the 21st century. The bottom line, he noted in interviews earlier that day, is that “the arts really do matter.” They matter in that artists have a responsibility to present human values through art. They matter in that they present values like empathy and nuance that are often in short supply. And they matter in that artists are there “to get to you, to make a difference, and to trouble you for good reason.”
It's fitting that the Opera-Composer Collaborative Project—casually known as OperaComp—started with a collaboration between its founders, master's composers Aaron Severini and Chason Goldschmitz. In the fall, they had similar ideas and jointly pitched a project in which student composers, playwrights, singers, directors, and instrumentalists would develop new opera projects and workshop them at Juilliard, which they did in March.
Bolstered by online polls demonstrating student interest, Severini and Goldschmitz received a $500 Marks Center for Career Services and Entrepreneurship Project Grant and then launched an Indiegogo fund-raising campaign for $3,000 and ended up getting more than $4,000. They used the funds to pay the cast and creative staff nominal fees; the funding also allowed a bit more creativity in the conception and staging of each scene.
To start the project, Severini and Goldschmitz asked Juilliard and other playwrights for writing samples and let composers choose among them. “Allowing the composers to choose their librettist gave them the freedom to pick writers whose texts spoke to them,” Severini said. On the administrative end, third-year singer Thomas West was director of vocal operations and voice alum and current acting student Philip Stoddard was director of production.
Having composers in the rehearsals with the singers allowed for a dynamic process, Severini said. “They were asking the singers, ‘How are the ranges? Starting pitches? Is there anything you feel is harmful?'” Severini also appreciated the “mutual respect for each person's contribution—your art as a singer, as a director. This is showing Juilliard at its best—and this is what it means to be really collaborative.”
— Joshua Simka (BM '14, voice) is the assistant editor of The Journal