Journey of an Opera (12): Engraving 1001 Pages of Music

The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Creation Series

After all is done, “The Tale of Lady Thị Kính” is a bundle of a thousand plus pages of sweat and joy. They are sized 11×17, and every note is composed and written down by pencil, for a large force. The time-consuming and expensive processes of engraving begin.

Different kinds of scores

To help execute the plan, Phan hired a copyist to copy every single note and turn the pencil score into a computerized notation score. Their job after that is to go back and forth to proof read and make sure all the notes are correct, all the details are in line, and there is no mistake. It is estimated that a minute in an opera rehearsal costs thousands of dollars. Imagine during rehearsal, if someone has a question about the score, the whole orchestra has to stop. Together with the conductor and their assistant, everybody has to check and double check. That is time and money of everybody. That said, this engraving task appears to be simple but turns out to be a tremendous one, especially with a score of more than a thousand pages.

When Phan and his copyist are sure that the computerized notation score matched the original completely, they have a complete full score from which the piano vocal score is produced. This means going back a thousand pages and choosing which is crucial and suitable to put in the reduction score, and adding the texts in – it is almost like composing a new piece. This score is important because the instrumental part of the full score is reduced to be playable by one piano, or two – most practical and common is one. This way the singers can find their own pianist to practice with.

From the full score, the copyist also starts to extract parts. Each instrument will finally have a book, for example book part for flute one, book part for flute two, and so on.

Who needs what

The conductor, assistant conductor, choir master, and the producer definitely need the full score. Sometimes singers also want to take a look at the full score to see how they should project their voice.

The designer usually doesn’t need the score. Yet, some with musical background may need one because it gives them some sense of color and atmosphere and space of the opera.

For the stage director, it depends. Those who know music well want the full score so they have more details of what is going on. Those who don’t, a piano vocal score will do.

Role singers are fine with the piano vocal score that they will use to practice.

Choir members need piano vocal scores.

Last but not least, instrumentalists receive their own book part.

In the old days, the copyist would have to get the pencil score and copy everything in ink, and then extract the parts to make into instrumental parts. A team of people would be needed to do this, and it could take months. Nowadays, all this can be done with support from a computerized notation software which is very helpful. Still, it is months of labor in the making. Needless to say, an opera is indeed a gigantic and expensive project.


The Vietnamese version of this article has been published by the Vien Dong Daily News, also available online here.

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