Go Deeper

Other Blogs: The Met Opera’s Music Library

Posted April 10th, 2014


The Metropolitan Opera in New York has got to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, performing arts organizations in the country. Each season they perform 25 to 29 operas, and each opera is a HUGE production, with the orchestra, chorus, singers, conductors, stage hands, and the all important sets and occasional gratuitous live animals (why not have real horses on stage for thirty seconds?). And they may play one opera one night, another the next afternoon and yet another that evening. It is a crazy operation, and it makes the challenges the rest of us face look quite modest by comparison. But one attractor of such an enormous institution is what goes on behind the scenes: the deep, dark layers of machinery that are in constant operation to keep the shows going up.

A Visit to the Music Library, a recent article by violinist Sarah Vonsattel on, takes a look at one such aspect of the Met. Yes, they have their own music library. Well, of course they have they have their own music library, but it’s the kind of thing you don’t think of until someone tells you about it, and you tend not to understand the scale of the operation until you dig a little deeper.

metopera 3For each opera, “there may be anywhere from 37 to 98 players in the orchestra pit, as well as the conductor, the chorus onstage, and the principals and soloists.  Add to that an army of music staff who assist in preparing each production – rehearsal pianists, assistant conductors, and prompters – and you can imagine the enormous number of musical scores and parts that are in use at any given moment.”

Preparing, restoring, remaking, and finding these scores are the responsibility of four full time librarians. “On a daily basis, the librarians prepare and distribute orchestral parts for each rehearsal and performance, collect and count parts after every service, distribute stage band parts, mark changes such as cuts and transpositions, and prepare chorus parts.  In addition, they must also repair damaged parts, produce new parts, graph the orchestral setup of the rehearsal room and pit for each production, coordinate with conductors and directors to determine which editions will be used for future productions, and prepare orchestral audition material.”

Indeed, throw in multiple rehearsals happening on any given day, you might describe their jobs as action packed. Chief librarian Robert Sutherland is quoted as saying, “The only thing that’s typical about any given day is that usually the day is clobbered by about 9:45am.  Then we are just simply trying to stay alive and cover all the bases until about 3, at which point we tend to focus on what we really need to do, which is getting things ready for tonight, tomorrow, next week, next month, next season, the season after.” And, ““It’s like trying to run on loose gravel . . . you can’t trust where you’re going to land, and you might have to shift very quickly.”

Storm chasers can relate, but they don’t need to be exacting at the same time that they are dodging a twister. This combination of pressure and care–and ability to read and write scores and know your operas–makes it one the most unique  positions around. Read more about their highly specialized work here; it’s an interesting look at what such a mammoth performing arts organization needs to create art at the highest–and biggest–levels.

–Leo Krass

Photos: Daniel Khalikov