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What does a Music Librarian do at the Opera House?

As a Music Librarian, I’m responsible for sourcing all the necessary music material and preparing it for performances. My colleague and I are involved in practically every performance that has live music.

Nuotistonhoitaja Mari Rautio
“My colleague and I are involved in practically every performance that has live music.”

What kind of people do you meet in your daily work?

Our customers include virtually everyone who works at the Opera House. The music library is kind of a meeting place for the entire staff – it’s even located at the centre of the house. Besides the singers and the orchestra players, the music library is needed by the directors, prompters, orchestral managers, stage directors, rehearsal pianists, as well as set and lighting designers. Once even the extra playing the dragon in Wagner’s Siegfried asked for the score to know when to enter the stage.

How did you end up in this profession?

It was a sum of bizarre coincidences! It’s not like there’s an education for this profession. You need certain basic skills, but mostly you’ll learn on the job. Years ago, on my way to a clarinet lesson, I noticed that the Espoo City Orchestra was looking for a music librarian. I thought I might have what it takes – and I was right. I really enjoy my profession. After Espoo, I worked as a stand-in at the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra before ending up at the Finnish National Opera. While working, I also graduated from university with a degree in the Czech language.

How do you get the music ready for a performance?

Once a certain opera or ballet has been chosen for the repertoire, we first find out where we can get a hold of the material. We always aim to buy our music, as productions stay in the repertoire for long periods of time. Initially we order a bundle of piano scores, so that the soloists and the creative team can start preparing. Working on the orchestral material is the most time-consuming part. We actually write the bowings and the conductor’s markings on the music by hand. Ballets also include a lot of cutting and gluing, because the score may be a collection of several compositions. For classics, like Swan Lake, even the order of the sequences can vary according to the choreography.

What makes a good music librarian?

This is both a customer service and an artisan profession, but sometimes tracking down the music can require detective skills, too. It’s important to read music fluently and have a good basic knowledge of music. The role requires persistence and attention to detail, and sometimes you must be able to think on your feet. Once, for example, the lead couple of Swan Lake got sick on the day of performance, and we found a stand-in couple from abroad. I had four hours to change the entire orchestral material to match the version they knew!

This is both a customer service and an artisan profession, but sometimes tracking down the music can require detective skills, too.

How has technology affected your work?

The pencil and the eraser are still important tools for me, but of course the evolution of computers and photocopiers has been a huge help; it’s incredible how people found the time to write so much music by hand for orchestras in the 70s. These days you can even write and send music electronically, or if need be, scan and edit it easily with a computer.

What is the Opera House like as a workplace?

It’s both wonderful and inspiring. The people I work with are just terrific, and it’s great to see the performances, too. When watching a good performance, I do feel proud of having contributed to the work of art. Without the music librarians, there would be no music played in this house.

How do you relax?

I enjoy reading and exercise. I’ve also always studied a language: Russian, Swedish and Italian as well as Czech. This year I’m studying French for the first time after leaving school.

Do you have any favourite operas or ballets?

Der Rosenkavalier was absolutely amazing. Of the ballets, The Seagull was particularly brilliant, so wonderfully Chekhovian. in some works, the music is so touching it goes right under your skin – like La Traviata. I want to see it time and time again.


First published in Oopperasanomat 1/2010