As organised as sheet music

An interview with the copy department

By Marion Mirande 17 October 2018
As organised as sheet music

At the Opera, it is the conductor’s responsibility to coordinate between the performers and the orchestra. But what happens if the singers and musicians are working on different scores? In the background, behind this apparent harmony is the Copy Department whose work is as indiscernible as it is important for the Opera House. Department head Francis Raynal and copyist Fabrice Larrère, explain to us the fundamentals of a profession that is also one of the keys to a successful production.

Even though essential to the Opera, the role of your department remains all but unknown. What exactly does it do?

Francis Raynal : We’re in charge of all the musical material. We prepare the scores for all the people associated with the productions, be it the soloists, the artists of the Chorus, or the directors in charge of the production. 

Fabrice Larrere Our primary concern is to provide the Orchestra with clear, concise scores. Our musicians are outstanding readers, but those scores need to be easily interpreted. Every now and again, we receive material for the orchestra from publishing houses that prove difficult to read. So we try to clarify things by using, for example, for the strings, different colours to indicate what needs to be played arco or pizzicato1. We are constantly looking for solutions to improve their working environment.

FR:  Since the Opera was founded, its copyists have always been looked upon as among the best. And thanks to the total commitment of those here today—all of whom are highly accomplished musicians—that tradition of excellence can endure. Because, unlike more modest opera houses where the orchestral management, co-ordination services and copy department may be fused into a single entity, ours is entirely focused on its mission.

What technologies do you use to guarantee such professionalism?

F.R.: The profession has developed in tandem with technology. When I first joined the Opera fifteen years ago, we used to work in pencil. That’s hardly ever the case anymore. Back in the day when there were no photocopies, the only way to duplicate a score was to rewrite it. If there were nine violins, the copyists wrote nine scores. The advent of photocopying machines and then scanners, musical engraving software and image processing software that enable us to modify a score have revolutionised the profession. The risk of misprints inherent in hand reproduction diminished in a stroke. All the scores we work on are digitized; which allows us to keep track of our work. For that reason, we have an integrated production section in the department with a true reprographic function. 

There is one detail that few in the audience realise when they attend a performance: the score played by the Orchestra is actually rented by the Opera.

F.L.: Yes, the use of materials for the orchestra is subject to a certain number of rules. Once the conductor lets us know which version of the work he wants to conduct, the first step is to make sure that we have the right to play it on French territory. Then, we look to see if more than one exists. A traditional version doesn’t require the payment of royalties—on condition of course that it is in the public domain—unlike a revised version or a critical edition. A revised version is the result of work undertaken by a musicologist which can sometimes be used as a clever way for publishers to extend the copyright. But it can also prove to be significant and thus become a reference that cannot be ignored. Then, we look to see if we possess our own material—in which case, we are exempt from paying royalties. By “our material” I mean the adjustments made to frequently-played opera scores from the repertoire such as Tosca or La Traviata. Two of the largest library collections—located in Milan and London—rent their material to different opera houses, and it’s more than likely, when we get a score back X years after we first rented it, that it has been annotated and modified by other people. Primarily, for the convenience of the musicians, we needed to establish techniques to preserve their hard work and ours by digitizing all our annotations on the scores to allow us to create our own material.

F.R.: Obviously, when we have our own material, we propose it to the conductor first, however certain conductors may ask for a specific version or require that they use their own material which we then need to obtain. In other cases, we can either ask for a new copy from the publisher reflecting their wishes or we can adapt ours to match theirs.    

Fabrice Larrère, bibliothécaire-copiste à l’Opéra
Fabrice Larrère, bibliothécaire-copiste à l’Opéra © Elena Bauer / OnP

Once you have the material in your possession, how do you work on them?

F.R.: First, we work on the structure. That’s to say, the list of bars that have been cut and the inserts wanted by the conductor and the director. As soon as the structure has been defined, we can create the vocal and piano score. This is the score that we give to a singer when they have been offered a role and, if they accept that role, it becomes their workbook. For the soloists, it’s a long learning process. So the vocal and piano score is the first material we need to provide. We then prepare the scores for the artists of the Chorus. They can study for as long as a year before a production opens. Then comes the work on the conductor’s score. The definitive adjustments for the Orchestra have little impact before the first reading since their materials are prepared last. For the strings, it is crucial to mention whether the bow strokes, are up-bow or down-bow2. These directions are given by the conductor who can either impose his preferences or decide them with the solo violinist. Philippe Jordan, for example, often proposes bow strokes specifically related to work he has already undertaken with other orchestras.

What role do you play during rehearsals?

F.L.: We must be able to take account of all the changes the conductor requires. When Philippe Jordan is conducting, he asks that we be present during the entire working session until he has played the complete score. Depending on the length of the work, this can equate to three or four readings. By following a score identical to his, or one that includes the entire orchestra, I note down his directions. At the end of the session, I collect all the scores from the musicians so that I can add in any specific annotations made during the rehearsal. On some productions where there are a lot of cuts, our presence is indispensable. However, we are never immune to a musician overlooking or misinterpreting one of our annotations.

F.R.: The presence of a librarian in the Orchestra during rehearsals guarantees a degree of security. They know exactly where any changes are and what will need to be altered. Often, when the conductor rehearses with the Orchestra, his assistant works with the singers and is unable to note his corrections. In the event that there is a change of conductor, the copyist is then able to provide the replacement conductor with the necessary material containing all the modifications desired by his colleague.    

© Elena Bauer / OnP

You are also responsible for ensuring that all the materials are the same for everyone involved in a production.

F.R.: Structural consistency is essential. We have to ensure that the Chorus, the Orchestra, and the stage managers have the same modifications on their scores. During rehearsals, everyone needs to be able to pick up at the same place when the conductor indicates a number.

F.L.: The conductor’s score may have different cue numbers than those on the bars in the vocal and piano score. As a result, we need to standardise the materials, either by indicating both sets of cue numbers on all the documents, or—the simplest option—by making the changes on the maestro’s score alone. It’s a time-consuming job that is important to get right before the rehearsals.

What exactly is your role in a first production?

F.R.: The trickiest thing about a first production is that we never know when the composer is going to finish his work and the publisher be in a position to pass on the printed score. In the present case of Bérénice3, the timing is relatively relaxed, which is not always the case. The score was received five months before the orchestra’s first reading; which will enable the musicians to work on it during the summer recess. From our point of view, no work has been done on it. We have merely received it. It is ready for use.

F.L.: Then, it may turn out that it does not totally correspond to what the composer wanted and it will be tweaked during rehearsals. Or, he may realise that there are printing errors. In either case, it is not sent back to the publisher. We will work directly on it and make the necessary changes. Furthermore, the delivered scores are, at that point, free of all notation—as for the bow strokes. Those may be determined at the rostrum during a run through with the conductor. Here again, it will be our job to record the changes in the score.

What latitude do you have to rewrite a published score?

F.L.: For Boris Godunov, conductor Vladimir Jurowski, had insisted on a critical edition of the 1869 version which he had already conducted in concert. On his arrival at Bastille, after having identified countless errors in the material, and given that he had a highly personal conception of the work, he decided to rework the orchestration. It was not just a question of making subtle changes but of rewriting the score according to his wishes: for example, having the part of the fourth horn in a particular place played by the third trombone, reintroducing the tuba in the passages where it was absent… Here, our involvement greatly surpassed our primary role, and the changes kept coming until the actual performances began. Throughout the entire production, day in and day out, we were involved in a long editorial process that was largely influenced by what the conductor heard during rehearsals.

What other types of unexpected events do you have to respond to?

F.L.: Recently, during Il Trovatore, the aria Di quella pira was sung either in the original tone or in a tone transposed according to the wishes of the tenors who had been cast. That transposition4 does not appear in the original score. I had to write it in. To avoid having to make the musicians juggle with several scores, I noted the two versions on the same one, and on the frontispiece I marked down the dates with the names of the corresponding performers. Thus, when the musicians arrived at their music stands in the evening, they knew which sections to refer to. It is up to us to find practical solutions like this. It means finding out about any last-minute changes in the cast that may have an impact on the Orchestra. Anticipation is an essential quality when it comes to exercising this profession.

1.  Arco means that the notes are played with the bow, pizzicato mans that they are plucked with the fingers.   
2. This is to indicate the direction of the bow stroke. When the bow is drawn from the frog to the tip it is called a “down stroke”. When it is drawn from the tip to the frog it is called an “up stroke”.    
3. The interview was conducted in July.    
4. Transposition consists of raising or lowering the pitch of a note. 

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