an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

Now you can get your doctorate at the opera house

I can’t quite figure this out. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has commissioned composer Philip Venables ‘to research and write’ an opera for the small Linbury Theatre. The work will gain him a doctorate from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Excuse me? It has to be one thing or the other. An opera is written for the enlightenment and entertainment of the paying public, not for securing academic honours. Someone’s got their wires crossed here. Read the press release below.



Philip Venables is announced as the first Doctoral Composer-in-Residence by Guildhall School and Royal Opera House



22 AUGUST 2013

Composer Philip Venables to research and write major work for performance at the Linbury Studio Theatre in 2016

The Guildhall School of Music & Drama in association with the Royal Opera House today announces composer Philip Venables as the first Doctoral Composer-in-Residence starting in September 2013.

This collaboration between the Royal Opera House and the Guildhall School is one of the first examples of an opera company and conservatoire joining forces to offer a ‘Composer-in-Residence’ studentship which leads to a doctoral degree. The notion of ‘Composer-in-Residence’ has long been established as a successful model for the development of orchestral music, but this model has been far less explored in opera. It was first tested by Glyndebourne Festival Opera, where Julian Philips was Composer-in-Residence from 2006-2009, and together they established an AHRC funded doctorate with Sussex University. Philips has further developed this model for the School’s new doctoral studentship.

The Doctoral Composer-in-Residence studentship is part of the Guildhall School’s existing doctoral programme (validated by City University London). Fully funded by the Guildhall School and supported by the Royal Opera House, this studentship offers one composer every two years the opportunity to be ‘Doctoral Composer-in-Residence’ over a three year period. During this time, the composer will research and write a major work for the Linbury Studio Theatre which will be staged in the final term of Year 3.

The studentship aims to offer an enriching model of opera development that allows a composer substantial creative research experience in the development of operatic practice, within the setting of a unique collaboration between an opera company and conservatoire. It allows for both critical reflection and creative research, in both professional and academic contexts.

Philip Venables previously studied at Cambridge University and at the Royal Academy of Music with Philip Cashian and David Sawer. He is the Artistic Director of Endymion and founded/directs the Fourfortytwo agency. He holds a London Symphony Orchestra Soundhub residency at LSO St Luke’s and made his first solo disc in 2013. Venables’ music is often concerned with violence, politics and speech within concert music and opera. His work has been recently described as “brutally effective” (The Times), “brutally exhilarating” (Seen & Heard), “duly playful and occasionally disturbing” (The Guardian), “a dark and violent portrait of sexual desire” ( and “original and intelligent in both form and content… reminiscent of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle; dripping in inexplicable meaning” (Exeunt Magazine). Major previous works include Arc for the BBC Philharmonic, String Quartet which was premiered at the Wigmore Hall by the Duke Quartet and Hyaline for the LSO. He has also written for the London Sinfonietta, EXAUDI, Bregenz Festival for Ensemble LUX and the BBC Singers, amongst others. His work as part of the composer-in-residence scheme will be premiered in 2016 at the Royal Opera House.

Current opera projects include workshops for his first full-length opera The Schmürz with librettist Michael Brett and London Contemporary Opera in November 2013 at the Barbican, directed by Nicholas Broadhurst and conducted by Andrew Watts with the full production taking place throughout Europe and the UK in 2014 and a music-theatre project in planning with Turner Prize-winner Douglas Gordon, singer Ruth Rosenfeld and producer/dramaturg Laura Berman for 2015.

The principal supervisor of the studentship is the Guildhall School’s Head of Composition, Dr Julian Philips, who was the first ever Composer-in-Residence at Glyndebourne. Philips’ new opera, an adaptation of Ted Hughes’ How the Whale Became, receives its world premiere at the Royal Opera House in December 2013. The rehearsal period for this work will offer the opportunity for Venables to shadow Philips in the process of staging his new opera. Philip Venables will be supported in his research by a distinguished team, drawn jointly from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the Royal Opera House.
Philip Venables said of his appointment, “I’m really excited about starting work on this opera with the Royal Opera House and the Guildhall School – it’s a potential game changer for me, and a chance, in a structured and supported way, to really explore what opera means to me, to be completely inventive, bold and daring and to present the results of that on a high-profile stage… I know there’s going to be a lot of collaboration with writers and hopefully some exciting and diverse cameo performers. It’ll be great to be able to try everything out over the next three years at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Bring it on!”

Dr Julian Philips, Head of Composition, Guildhall School commented, “I am really delighted to welcome the original and provocative composer Philip Venables as our first Doctoral Composer-in-Residence with the Royal Opera House. We received a strong field of applications for this new opportunity, both from home and abroad, but Philip Venables stood out for his uncompromising individuality and strong collaborative approach. His work has been attracting wide interest in the recent past and with the support of both the Guildhall School’s dynamic doctoral degree programme and the sparky creative environment of the Royal Opera House, I feel sure that he will develop significant and substantial creative research in the field of contemporary opera.”

John Fulljames, Associate Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House said “We’re delighted that Philip Venables is joining the Royal Opera and Guildhall School on our first joint composer residency. Philip’s work has increasingly embraced collaborative and multimedia practice and so it is a natural step for him to now research and write music theatre with us. We are looking forward to developing and making work with him. “

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


  1. Not really that strange, if you accept the premise that one can obtain a research-based degree from a University (or other degree-awarding body such as GSMD) in music, specialising in composition.

    It’s always been the case that you submit a portfolio of works when studying as a composer. When I did my DPhil, part of that was a porfolio (although, Oxford being a serious place, I did have to submit an inch-thick thesis too), and one piece in my portfolio was indeed a chamber opera.

    I don’t really see too much problem with composition being considered as “original research” (which is of course what’s required to obtain a PhD / DPhil), but there does seem to be a steady sausage-stream of “composers-with-doctorates” being churned out these days, and academia in the UK has quite an icy grip on the composition profession (at least the non-commercial part of it), with an expensive PhD being seen as an essential qualification for being a composer in some circles.

    While I expect this collabration to produce something exciting, t does sound a little muddled to have a composer-in-residence and a doctoral student at the same time. If GSMD want to build links with ROH why not just have a plain old composer-in-residence at ROH who teaches a bit at GSMD? Or why not run a course at GSMD with hands-on experience at ROH? Is Mr Venables a student or an expert practitioner? Is it a PhD course that is offered, if so, why is there only one such student allowed and why is it presented as some kind of prize?

    And given this blog’s predeliction for money matters … one must ask, is Mr Venables paying tuition fees for his doctorate, or is he being paid for employment as a composer-in-residence? Or do they cancel each other out leaving the poor chap with nothing?

  2. George Kennaway says:

    Sorry Norman, but although this particular combo is a little exceptional, a phd earned by composition (with an extended commentary often self-reflexive) is entirely normal.

    • If it is, there’s a strong conflict of interest. Opera needs to be focused outward to the public, a doctorate inward to the academic community. It can’t face both ways at once.

      • Does only opera need to be focused outward to the public, not any other kind of music? I don’t really think any composers would agree with you there. Either you want to dismantle the entire apparatus of teaching composition at anything higher than undergraduate level, or accept this as a framework that gives a composer an opportunity to spend the large amount of time you need to get something like an opera right– making music that ‘the opera-going public’ wants to hear doesn’t just happen by magic. This opportunity seems to come with plenty of time and opportunity to develop its ideas, and they’re getting the funding for it from the AHRC rather than a traditional arts organisation, which is very enterprising.

      • Jane Ginsborg says:

        All UK research is currently being assessed on its “impact” for the purposes of the Research Excellence Framework exercise, however, and funding determined accordingly. So doctorates do have to face both ways at once, by definition!

      • Are we sure that he doesn’t also have to write a commentary element on his work? That’s how composition PhDs normally work, and while I think it’s a problematic model in some ways, I think it does address the issue you raise.

        • nomenlos is right. You seem strangely unaware of how all postgrad composition work functions in the UK, and has done for well over a decade. You may disagree with it, but picking this out as an isolated instance is unfair and inaccurate.

      • I don’t see that academic research needs to be inwardly focused necessarily – it just needs to be rigorous, fully documented, demonstrating a proper critical sensibility, and make an original contribution to knowledge in a way which has applications for others as well.

        Framing composition (and sometimes performance) as research can be problematic; in principle it sounds fine, when the compositional and performance work constitutes an important form of output arising from research and the research itself is sufficiently well documented and presented for others to make use of it. In practice, though, there are plenty of composition doctorates or performance doctorates which consist mostly of an extended programme note and performance diary, with a few token references to theorists thrown in. Fine for becoming a composer or composition teacher (similarly with performance), but I’m not sure those particular manifestations of practice-as-research necessarily qualify people to supervise other types of academic research (as many of them then do).

      • And whilst the REF conception of ‘impact’ is poorly framed, I would not reject it as a fundamental concept. Academic research carried on with absolutely no interest in having impact outside of a small group of like-minded peers is very problematic, to say the least.

      • You confusion, Norman, is unmatched to mine over this article.
        A piece of music isn’t a contract, it’s a work of art that can have multiple intentions. Just about every recipient of a graduate degree in composition has composed a piece as part of their fulfillment to receive the degree. It doesn’t make sense to not allow one to appreciate the work outside of the academic setting because “it wasn’t meant for them.”
        So silly…

  3. Heavens, I want to hear opera that comes as the result of inspiration, not some contrived academic claptrap that is foisted upon us purely for someone’s self advancement and to make the ROH feel “right on”!

  4. mathias clason says:

    a bit odd but very good, bearing in mind the obstacles to write new opera works. let it spread!

  5. Gary Carpenter says:

    “Opera needs to be focused outward to the public, a doctorate inward to the academic community. It can’t face both ways at once.”
    Yes it can. Maybe not in the good old days though (like the 1890s)…

    • It can, maybe even with some occasional success, but it’s not necessarily a good thing and I think definitely not the best way to produce good new music. Rather than one ivory tower (opera) we now have two ( + academia) and you now need to climb both to get anywhere.

      How do you think it looks, from the outside, when all the Establishment-accepted composers have PhDs? I’m sure Sarah Montague would have a thing or two to say about that.

      • “How do you think it looks, from the outside, when all the Establishment-accepted composers have PhDs?”

        In any other country, it would be celebrated as an apt signifier of the high standing of the composition profession in society, and a fitting tribute to the erudition and the considerable hard work over many years. Alas that we live in anti-intellectual Blighty, where postnominals become a liability.

        Of course, we should raise the question as to whether a substantial composition with a reflective essay really counts as “original research” befitting of a doctoral qualification. We should also be wary of treating a doctorate in composition as a prerequisite, when there are many other legitimate paths to attaining a comparable level of compositional intellect.

  6. Nigel Curtos says:

    Thomas Ades and George Benjamin both did spectacularly well at Cambridge in their Bachelors degress, but then got out. Both have had operas done at ROH without needing an umbilical cord to academia.

  7. I`m shocked to read the words, “Opera needs to be focused outward to the public, a doctorate inward to the academic community. It can’t face both ways at once.“ The idea that a composition written to fulfill the requirements for a PhD could not possibly also appeal to a ticket-buying audience seems, to say the least, prejudicial.

  8. How do you KNOW it comes from ‘some contrived academic claptrap’……that’s a very sweeping statement!! It may very well come from inspiration, and as someone else has already pointed out, a Ph.D needs to be ‘an ‘original’ work……is composing an opera not a ‘original piece of work’?

  9. John Nash eventually received the Nobel Prize in Economics for the PhD thesis he wrote in Princeton over 30 years before. Its not that unusual for an academic thesis to have some relevance to the real world.

  10. To Mr. Norman Lebrecht,

    This is in response to your complaint today (which happens, under the circumstances amusingly, to be the birthday of the philosopher Hegel) of the Covent Garden’s commission of the composer Philip Venables to research and write an opera, which will be submitted for a doctorate from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

    Creative work is research, and whenever an academic degree is for creative work, it is appropriate that a new piece of work, being research, should satisfy a degree’s requirements. On that topic, as all academics already know, that is all there is to that. It is regrettable if you believe that a musical composition submitted for a degree ought to have one set of characteristics, while a musical composition “focused outward to the public” should have another set of characteristics. Worthwhile academics would not want such a thing, and academics do not believe that they are creating research in a social vacuum. Academia might protect them from abject economic failure in the event their research is, say, attacked by such as yourself, to shield their careers from politicians like yourself, but few academics believe that their work ought primarily to be directed only to other academics. You have assumed a quite “common” error about academic motivation and purposes.

    Your insistence on a double standard is curious, but there is a simple explanation. I don’t find it any coincidence that a policy based on your preferences would insure that Modernism, which you conspicuously inadequately support, would remain forever classified as academic, as anti-Modernists have wanted it classified since the 1930s (when they were not killing people for creating it and burning whole exhibits of it), while populist idioms (which you enforce as style as well as you enforce the notion that they are by definition in opposition to one another) would continue to rule the public mind – as they were intended to do by their propagandist creators. It is no difficult inference to conclude that what really bothers you is that a piece you are concerned might be “academic” might actually become “popular,” which is always a dangerous possibility with an opera.

    I would like to give you credit for perhaps being a Puckish “devil’s advocate,” but after reading this blog for some months I cannot be sure this is appropriate. Still, I truly believe your words are so off center that they are almost humorously disingenuous. I hope you soon simply say to yourself, “What was I thinking?” Maybe we will all look the other way for you. Are you really that sure you think Venables can’t do it?

    We should have been able to believe that you knew that opera was in fact created by academics, in the Camerate of Italy, and that its chief reformers, such as Gluck and Wagner, have tended, relative to the academic standards of their times, to be up to the task of recovering and using the academic apparatus. Wagner in particular, being up until now the only fully successful reformer of opera, wrote, as you know, articles and books that were often and explicitly about the intellectual concerns of opera, putting these in essentially the same light that the Florentines and other Italians put it: the consolidation of the highest philosophical thought with the community actions of public celebration, etc. The origins of opera belie your concern.

    Which is to say, that you could not have chosen a worse example of when to be concerned about an alleged distinction between supposedly academic and supposedly non-academic creativity. Opera was created as the meeting ground of the intellectuals and the everyday people. It is only an elementary understanding of the art form to know that it was created to help the people understand the new art, conceived as literary but which turned out to be musical, by combining many arts together – as you must know, not one art or opus, but a plurality of arts, an “Opera,” an event of plurality, an event, to say it in one word, of erudition. Opera – which equates to the “Works” – went public from a research project of the likes of Pico della Mirandola and Andrea Galileo – heavy duty academics by anyone’s lights – where it was used for private events, which the everyday folks in the audience clamored to be made public; this was eventually done in the first public theaters on the European continent. All this, surely, you must know. Theater as we know it arose from the public interest in the art of multiple arts, and even Shakespeare is only another category of that same movement, with that same breadth of intellectual involvement. All because the everyday people “got it” and wanted that “academic” stuff. The people on the fringes of the nobility’s guest lists at the coronations and weddings where the first operas were staged actually LIKED the new art form, with all its erudite combinations of arts and philosophies and ancient literature and philosophy.

    The European theatrical movement of the time included Shakespeare, and I think you well know that his work is both erudite and shrewdly aimed at the groundlings as well. The circumstances of Shakespeare’s career toward popularity were essentially the same as those of opera. The Tempest was performed for a royal wedding at about the same time the Italians were using opera for this purpose, among others. But you knew that.

    It is only intellectuals such as yourself who are over-committed to more recent, pre-existing, and I hazard to say pre-digested neo-Socialist ideas about what is or is not socially proper in music who ever think there is by definition a sharp distinction, that can also by definition never be breached, between what is academic and what is popular. It is for positions such as you seem to be taking that you are identifiable as an enforcer of that pre-existing agenda of populism, which, someone ought to point out, was created by philosophizing politicians around a meeting table, just as opera was created by intellectuals around a seminar table. In reality there are no non-intellectuals in this discussion, and you are disingenuous to pretend the “masses” are even part of the scenario. When they want something that speaks directly to them, they don’t go to Classical music, of any stripe.

    Other than to take a shallow anti-intellectual posture, you have failed to make any point with anyone who knows what is going on. In the War of the Wizards, your only recourse is to pretend that you are not the Socialist enforcer that you are. You do not wait for the court of public opinion to perhaps congeal in an informed public. You attack the very idea that an erudite art might successfully address the public at large. But you can only do this in an environment of too great a presumption of ignorance on the part of those who know the history of the art. You don’t allow that the public might rise to the work. And for that you can be said to be participating in the very most narrow-minded type of politicized music criticism that exists.

    Christopher Fulkerson, Ph.D.
    August 27, 2013

  11. The letter by Christopher Fulkerson, Ph.D., goes to bizarre lengths in order defend an erroneous premise: that writing an opera can count as research. In a phenomenological, if somewhat childish sense, some will inevitably claim that such composers are researching the sounds of the future. Hardly empirical.

    • Granted, that letter could qualify for a PhD thesis all by itself, but seriously: let’s attempt this from another starting point. In what way Graham would you say that writing new compositions does *not* count as original research, and that therefore compositions themselves do not count as a body of research, upon which future composers (and others, including musicologists, sociologists, historians, performers, etc) can base further original research?
      Or do you think that research is purely that which produces secondary sources (in this historical sense), and not that which produces primary sources?

      Anyway, I think everyone has missed Norman’s point. I don’t think he was surprised that one submits compositions of an opera in exchange for a PhD, which everyone knows has been going on for decades, I think his point (correct me if I’m wrong Norman!) was that this is being done in quite a peculiar, unusual way, a structure that invites difficult questions and perhaps puts the composer in an invidious position.

      • Well, I’m purporting that composition does not count as research because there is no object of desire, i.e. an observable entity being scrutinized, writing music being a speculative undertaking. Furthermore, I’m not claiming that compositions can not count as a body of research for others to examine. A new work by its very nature will be a primary source for a future researcher. As for the passus “and that therefore compositions do not count”, firstly it is a non sequitur, and secondly it is not what I was claiming.

    • Creative work has counted as research for many decades. Painters paint, sculptors sculpt, poets write poetry, novelists write novels, playwrights write plays, composers write music. Comments based on contrary assumptions are anti-intellectual wish-fulfillment, and prove you are not even remotely up to speed. And oh by the way, empiricism has been philosophically discredited by philosophers who write philosophy as their research. Your remarks assume too much corn, not enough Popper, Mr. Osborne.

      Thank you for your wry humor, Mr. Benjamin.

      • Graham Lack says:

        A glaring example of petitio principii if anyone is still bothering to read such syllogistic fallacies penned by C. Fulkerson, PhD. I preferred his argumentum verbosium mode to the current ad hominem one…

  12. Reearch: The systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.

    I don’t know if that definition applies, but many of the great opera composers learned their craft actually working in opera houses. From a current perspective, I think one of the reasons that Jake Heggie has been so successful is that he worked at the San Francisco opera which gave him a deep knowledge of opera, opera houses, and singers. I like the idea of music schools orienting themselves toward practical apprenticeships.

  13. I’m not an academic, all I have to say is well done Phil Venables! Your work will prove all your critics wrong!

  14. The merits of practise-based PhDs in the arts (including novel writing – which can also gain you a PhD) are of course debatable, personally I am not in favour. But, given that they are being awarded, why not award them to a ‘composer in residence’. Seems to make little difference to me, if the ‘practioner’ is ‘practionning’ in the comfort of his bed-room, or at the ROH.

  15. Goodness, I simply love opinions. Wonderful things, just wonderful…

  16. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica Robert Fayrfax received a doctorate from Cambridge for his mass O Quam Glorifica in 1504 – does this count as a historical precedent?

  17. Four things occurred to me, one, that this is just an Esteemed and Venerable establishment getting ROH to link a project to a PhD, and that if Lebrecht has a problem with it then he presumably has a problem with composition-as-research per se, and it’s a bit weird that this has only come out, in all his many Esteemed Columns, when a venue he’s bothered about has got involved.

    Secondly, that composers these days should be meeting briefs whilst writing pieces that stand up to scrutiny even when you forget all about the brief. A piece with a brief should do its job (e.g. research, being the soundtrack to a film) and still stand up when the brief is forgotten about (a la film music in the tradition that died out finally in the 80′s, ballet scores that are entertaining without the dancing, music written for PhDs that is also good music); instead many are queuing up to write music that *at best* fulfills its brief (film music in the tradition since c. 1990), and does not stand up on its own, indeed at Venerable institutions. Venables may manage one or the other, or both, or neither, and Lebrecht should wait and see, although part of me sympathises with the cynicism.

    Thirdly, Venables is a CV builder, milking his time at Venerable Institutions for all the associated opportunites. With a CV like that, he could have finished a PhD by now – but if you’re shrewd, you leave “I am studying at [any of those places]” at the top of your covering letter for as long as you possibly can.

    4. In scientific and economic “research”, the fallacy that is finally being debunked (e.g. in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ‘Antifragile’), is that the research leads to the practical use, when the reality is that non-academic tinkering leads to discoveries, then an academic writes a research paper retrospectively as if the tinkerer was somehow aware of the resultant “theory”. Venables might do well to write a crowd-pleaser first, then Procrustean-Bed it in to a research format later. In any case, the press release already reads like Guildhall will judge him on box office. NB Christopher Fulkerson has interestingly fallen for the same fallacy in ascribing the birth of opera to academics rather than amateurs (look how busy Monteverdi was with his non-musical careers), and in referring to Wagner and Gluck as “academics” rather than just, say, practical musicians. Musicians make music, academics are those in the privileged position to be able to “write it up” as research. Occaisionally someone comes along who is both (Schoenberg, say), I suspect with a brief like this, Venables will only need to manage one.

an ArtsJournal blog