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PDX OPERAbeat | A Company Blog is the blog for all things Portland Opera, featuring a variety of guest contributors who will provide insider's tidbits on all we do to celebrate the beauty and breadth of opera.

Introducing Portland Opera's New Blogger!

Welcome to Portland Opera's new blog! I'm excited to be here. My name is Jess, and I'll be your blogger. Today, in order to dive right in, I'm going to tell you all about librarians.


Let me explain. I'm Portland Opera's music librarian. Didn't know we had a librarian? I know. Most people don't. It's okay. Actually, if I do my job right, nobody should notice me at all. (Except the people I share an office with. I haven't perfected my invisibility trick yet.)

What does a music librarian do? I do a lot of the standard librarian things, only with music: I order scores, keep an inventory of Portland Opera's holdings, and help staff or artists when they need a piece of music for an event. (Sometimes this can be tricky: people will ask for a piece of music by the first sung line of the piece, which isn't actually the title; or the piece will be out of print or hard to find; or the piece will be in the wrong key and will require transposition, and so forth).

However, the main part of my job isn't anything you think of when you hear "music librarian." Ever thought about how every violinist in an orchestra moves their bow in the same direction as they play? A librarian helped make it happen. Ever hear an opera and think, "This is a different version than the one I know"? A librarian found that performance edition. Have you ever wondered who that mysterious person is at the symphony who brings out the score for Carlos Kalmar? It's the librarian!

In a sentence, the music librarian -- at the opera, and at the symphony, and the ballet, and many other places -- is responsible for every step the sheet music takes, from post office to podium.

As an opera librarian, the process for me, from start to finish, looks something like this:

-- When we have decided to program a piece for a future season, I research the piece. Who publishes it? Is there more than one edition? What are the differences between the editions? (Sometimes these differences can be ENORMOUS; if the orchestra had one edition and the singers another, it would be calamitous). What instrumentation is necessary in the orchestra? Are there any weird instruments (like tuned gongs, synthesizer, wind machine)?

-- I consult with our production department. Where is the production coming from? Very often, productions are rented from other opera companies -- the reasons for this are the subject of an upcoming series of posts. A production often has specific musical requirements: it may use a particular musical score, or maybe there is an instrument that's played on stage by a singer, rather than by a musician in the pit. Does it have an offstage band? (Note to the audience: if an opera has an offstage band, you can bet the librarian has spent many exhausting weeks fixing those parts. And she probably needs a drink.)

-- I consult with the conductor. If the production doesn't call for a particular score, I ask him/her which score is best. A score can present a librarian with many unanswered questions: How many strings should we use? Do you really want a cimbasso or can this part be played on a tuba? Who will play the harpsichord during, say, the recit sections of Cosi fan tutte?

-- I order music. Portland Opera has a solid collection of vocal scores -- these are the scores used by singers, accompanists, and stage managers during rehearsals. We have fewer full orchestra sets, in large part because unless it's a piece we do frequently (like Carmen, La Boheme, Marriage of Figaro, etc), it's more cost-effective to rent orchestra parts than to purchase them. Also, many orchestra parts are still under copyright and are therefore not available for purchase. These parts must always be rented.

-- When vocal scores come in, I distribute them to stage managers, accompanists, and various staff members. I keep a copy for my own use, along with a copy for the library. If there are cuts to be made to the music, all singers are notified. Singers are almost always responsible for acquiring their own scores; the exception to this is the rare occasion when we do a piece whose vocal scores are also not avaiable for purchase. In that instance, the opera rents enough scores for all singers and staff and I send them out. (And then keep track of them so I can hunt down the appropriate person if not all scores are promptly returned. Ahem.)

-- When orchestra parts come in, the heavy-labor part of my job begins. Principal string parts are sent out, and those musicians mark in their parts exactly where they want the musicians' bows to go up and down. (Yes, really!). They also mark any other musical directions they think their section will find useful. Those parts are returned to me, and I hand-copy every marking from the principal part to each other string player's book. With a pencil and an eraser. This process takes me several weeks.

-- If there is time, I often will also proofread each part. I'm lucky to have a great pool of colleagues available to me; collectively, the librarians of MOLA (Major Orchestra Librarians' Association) have created an extensive database of what we call 'errata' -- mistakes in printed parts that need correcting. The database ensures that we don't have to reinvent the wheel every time we need to correct parts. Without the database, the only way to proofread is to compare every single note of every single part against the score. Very time-consuming. For those of us who are the sole librarians of our organizations, this process can sometimes be TOO time-consuming and has to be forsaken.

-- Once parts are proofed and bowed, and any relevant cuts, transpositions, or other changes are marked in, the parts are distributed to the orchestra. On average, the orchestra has three weeks with the music prior to their first rehearsal.

-- After that, it's (relatively) smooth sailing. I attend every orchestra rehearsal, and perform "music triage" whenever necessary -- which is hopefully never! Things do come up from time to time: sometimes musicians decide they want their parts blown up bigger, or they want their pages to turn in a different place, or they've discovered a weird-sounding note in their score. I'm on hand to deal with those problems so that the conductor doesn't have to. If I've done my job well, I save the orchestra a great deal of rehearsal time by troubleshooting problems in advance. And time = money.

-- After the performances are over, the music comes back to me and I either clean it up and reshelve it (if it's ours) or I clean it up and send it back to the publisher (if it's a rental).

And then I do it again for the next show. Phew.

Readers, I have tons of things I want to tell you, but I need help. I don't know who my audience is. What do you want to know about us? I want to write about the things that interest you -- and above all, I don't want to be BORING. Leave me a note in the comments and tell me what you'd like to hear! I'll tell you everything you ever wanted to know about us. Or almost everything.