By Gary W. Murphy
“LA Opera’s little known but vital music library recently reopened after a two-year renovation.
Music librarian Melisandra Dunker took some time out before the upcoming LA Opera rehearsals to give BRAVO a tour.
BRAVO: I would imagine that most folks don’t even know the LA Opera Music Library exists, as you are tucked away in a cozy little corner of the Music Center.
Melisandra Dunker: Yes, we’re located on the ground floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, behind the security desk and next to the Music Center’s electrical room, just inside the Artists Entrance [on Grand Avenue].
When the pandemic shut down operations, the Music Center took the opportunity to upgrade some of the building’s 60-year-old electrical structure and installed a rather large ATS [Automatic Transfer Switch] system that quickly transfers the power supply from its primary source to a backup during a power outage. That ATS machinery needed to go where we were located, so we now have a completely new music library complete with an 18-inch wall between the ATS system and us.
BRAVO: Well, I’m sure this was a great opportunity for LA Opera to make its own upgrades to the music library.
MD: We got a complete makeover for sure. The former music library was comprised of three different rooms: one room for storing large musical instruments, another was used as the production office’s design lab, and we had the third room towards the back of the building.
The renovation has allowed us to modernize the Music Library and create a more functional space.
We deal mostly with physical pieces of music but have been leaning more into technology to be more efficient and create less waste. One of our key tasks is to keep track of the various scores and parts that are provided to musicians, stage management, staff and chorus members as we prepare for a production. Principal singers will typically bring their own scores so we don’t always provide music for them.
Building scores and parts is an enjoyable task, and we have the tools to do that in house. We edit and adjust the scores and parts with any new or additional music, cuts that are made to a score or any word changes that may occur in the libretto that may occur during the rehearsal process.
BRAVO: That helps answer the basic question of why LA Opera would have a music library.
MD: We are responsible for all the music in the company. We also act as the company’s archive. If someone needs information about a production we did 20 years ago, they will come to us first, and we can provide them with information.
BRAVO: Did you go to school to be a music librarian?
MD: Actually, there is currently no degree available for a performance music librarian. You can get a degree as an academic music librarian, but that degree does not completely transfer into what is needed for this role. Many performance librarians actually have their degrees in performance, composition or musicology.
When I started at LA Opera, I was working on a double masters in horn performance and musicology from Cal State Long Beach. My horn teacher for my undergrad and some grad work is the fourth French horn player in the LA Opera Orchestra. He and his wife, who had also played bass with the opera, mentioned me to the former librarian, who needed a new assistant. After a test and interview, I was offered the job.
BRAVO: Does the music library have recordings on vinyl and CDs?
MD: Those recordings are an important component of the music library, and we are in the process of transferring them all to digital. The entire collection is offsite at the moment as we decide what gets moved into this new space and what stays in storage. We recently had a donation of a vinyl collection, which can be burdensome, as we simply don’t have the space to house it all. That said, I love vinyl recordings, and I value them as treasures because so many did not make it to a digital format. Additionally, vinyl recordings come with booklets that include essays, bios and artwork, so much information that is largely lost.
BRAVO: LA Opera also presents new work, such as the recent production of Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels’ opera, Omar, last October. Did you help build that score?
MD: Omar received its premiere at the Spoleto Festival [in May 2022], so we didn’t create the scores.
Moving to the much larger Dorothy Chandler Pavilion required a larger orchestra, particularly the string section. Music elements that may have been removed from the Spoleto performances were put back in for LA Opera. It was my job to figure what exactly what the composers wanted, what to leave in and what to take out before rehearsals began. Fine-tuning happened during rehearsals, and then afterwards the library staff met with the composer and his team to go over any possible issues or changes we, and our orchestra members, encountered.
Mr. Abels went through all of our notes and has just sent them to the publisher for the final edition.
I love working on new operas for this very reason as we get to actively help the composer, his publisher and ultimately our colleagues at other opera companies who will produce Omar in the future.
BRAVO: As I look around the room, there is one item that seems to be wildly out of place in any library, it’s a rather large ominous looking red cannister in the corner. Can you tell us what that might be?
MD: I like to think of it as a piece of art, but actually it is one of the great upgrades we’ve received in this space. It is an FM 200 System which is a waterless fire suppression system. Prior to this installation, had there been a fire in the library, the water sprinklers would go off, putting out the fire but destroying the collection with water. As I said, we still mostly with paper, so this gives us a great piece of mind knowing this will help preserve the library in case of fire.
BRAVO: Another major visual element in the library is a beautiful handcrafted work table that stands about four and a half feet off the ground that’s about a five-by-twelve-foot wood inlaid work table filled with opera scores neatly laid out. I imagine it also acts a musician town square for the staff, the conductors and artists who stop by the library.
MD: Absolutely. It has been part of the library for almost 14 years, having been created by the LA Opera crew. We’re forever grateful to them for building it as it’s where the music staff will meet during rehearsals to discuss any music updates that need to be passed along to the conductors, the musicians and singers. We really love those post performance and rehearsal moments with each other and with Maestro Conlon as it helps build our musical community.
Just a few weeks ago we had three music staff members here who never had a peanut butter & jelly sandwich, so we decided to have a party in between note sessions and serve PB&J sandwiches at this very long table. They loved that new experience. Moments like that are really important and sharing it around the table with our musical family help us work better together, especially in our new music library.