Backstage at an Opera Library | Music Matters

Although in opera they say “it ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings,” the opera library performs long before the season starts and continues after the final curtain.

In 2010, when I first came on board at the Metropolitan Opera Music Library (MOML), I realized that its amazing collection was virtually uncataloged. I researched other opera libraries and found similar conditions, so I have developed an organizing system that relies on detailed metadata. Much of the orchestral and vocal sheet music in MOML’s collections has undergone manual editing, cutting and pasting, and the use of digital engraving software. The printed music becomes a tapestry of ideas and traditions based on the composer’s alternate versions of the same work and historical performances or to incorporate obscure traditions from hundreds of years ago. I have cataloged more than 170 pieces of sheet music and songbooks, 200 manuscripts (scores and parts), and 1,000 rare piano-vocal scores and full scores.

Unique materials, unique needs

Music that is used in productions needs to be carefully recorded with specialized detail. Without a performance library, a production such as an opera couldn’t be performed cohesively. While other online catalog records typically contain standard data, it would be highly unusual to find notes about how a previous patron used the item, yet such information is essential, especially where artists may want to implement past traditions.

The solution is to combine archival descriptions with basic cataloging information in order to serve the organization. This data will assist performers in comparing notes and articulations for a current performance of an opera, which is why this type of library accumulates myriad musical and archival information.

For example, take a timpani section from Richard Strauss’s 1910 comic opera Der Rosenkavalier that has been on the shelf for more than 50 years. It was reengraved and edited by a retired timpanist who played for the Met for 66 years. In a typical library, this item’s catalog entry might contain basic data describing the title and composer and perhaps notes about the year it was published. By contrast, in the music library, helpful additional information would include the timpanist’s name, the year the part was first created, and the inclusion of the timpanist’s markings. That the timpani part was played during the first Metropolitan Opera performance of Der Rosenkavalier and the date of the performance (December 1913) are also useful archival details.

Operas are constantly reworked between initial discussions and rehearsals, creating a variation on the original composition. The performance librarian plays a pivotal role in recording such details since he or she is usually the first person to prepare the materials and the last person to put them away.

Know the score

MOML’s shelves are stocked with music in different formats. The full score contains the orchestral lines of every instrument, the vocal line, and musical articulations by the composer or editor. This score is used by the conductor, who directs all performers during the production. The chorus score is created by extracting the chorus material from the piano-vocal score. An orchestra part only contains the music for one or two instruments. Since a standard orchestra consists of anywhere from ten to 100 or more players, there generally is a large number of orchestra parts.

The piano-vocal score contains only vocal and piano accompaniment and is the central point of reference, with most of the people involved with the opera production accessing it over the rehearsal period. A master piano-vocal score with a list of changes—such as pitch changes, stage blocking, and dialect or pronunciation notes—is kept to reflect all of the alterations during the production process. The librarian inserts the changes on all corresponding scores.

Fine-tuning the process

It is vital to keep track of all scores owing to the specialized preparation for any specific production. A significant structural change, such as a transposition, rearrangement of sequence, or an insert in most of the parts, requires close monitoring that all changes are made in the score and are up-to-date. This daunting task can take many hours and is performed under a strict deadline.

When librarians check out scores to musicians or singers, they must be certain that the copy contains all the latest notations. Although the library may have other scores for the same work, they may not be the version needed for a specific performance. To ensure that rehearsals run smoothly, all musical and stage-appropriate markings must connect in each type of score. If there is an articulation in the first measure of the full score, that same marking must be in the first measure of any corresponding music that applies, whether it is in the piano-vocal score or the orchestral part. The musicians must be aware of and understand what is happening in all facets of the production, from the singers onstage to the instrumentalists in the pit to the maestro at the ­podium.