As Gears Are to a Clock, So Aspen Is to HGO

By Sarah Frumkin, HGO Communications Intern

It’s hot, it’s humid; it’s Houston in mid-July. Inside the walls of the Wortham Theater Center are air-conditioned offices filled with bustling staff members determined to make the upcoming season the best one yet. But their administrative efforts to prepare for the 2017–18 productions would amount to little without the musical materials to rehearse the singers and orchestra musicians. That’s why HGO needs 27-year-old Aspen McArthur. You can currently find her on the sixth floor, preparing Julius Caesar’s orchestral materials, which includes marking bowings, cuts, and transpositions into each part.

Aspen McArthur, HGO Music LibrarianUnless you’re a music librarian, Aspen wouldn’t expect you to know what that means, but she wouldn’t expect you to know what a music librarian is, either. “It’s a question that comes up often, but I don’t mind it,” she says. Music librarians make up only a small percentage of the 159,000 librarians currently employed in the United States, according to CareerResearch.com. Landing the HGO position in 2015 was, for Aspen, an unplanned blessing.

During that summer, she came to Houston to visit her boyfriend (now fiancé), while volunteering at Houston Symphony’s music library. There, she met Tim Tull, HGO’s former music librarian. “We talked about me volunteering [at HGO] if I ever came back to Houston,” she recalls. In the aftermath of Tim’s tragic death a month later, Aspen was contacted about applying for the music librarian position at HGO. Although she knew she “could never fill Tim’s shoes” and hesitated at the thought of such a huge job, she gratefully accepted the offer.

What Aspen did not realize is that she had been preparing to reach this point in her career for several years. As a music performance major at Indiana University, she says, “I was broke and needed a job, any job.” By the luckiest chance, the school’s music library needed someone to immediately replace an employee who left to play for a Broadway show. She applied and was quickly offered the position. “I was actually surprised at how much I enjoyed the work; I never anticipated it being my favorite part of my day,” she notes. “At a school as large as IU, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. Having a job that I was happy to do and had lot of talent for was vital to my success at IU, and ultimately my life. 

Can you imagine La traviata, The Barber of Seville, or any other opera without its enchanting music? Aspen’s job is to ensure that the right music goes in the right place at the right time in the show. Paying critical attention to detail within the language of music is essential. Thanks to her training in the viola and her education in musical repertoire at IU, these duties are second nature to Aspen. She explains, “Using music theory and knowing an instrument’s transpositions allow me to identify and correct mistakes in parts.”

Each opera’s composer, the types of instruments used, and the duration and style of the opera are all variables that determine her workload. Wagner operas are extremely laborious productions because they usually include musical parts written for a vast number of instruments, some of which are obsolete. In order for the modern versions of these obsolete instruments to play in the correct key, Aspen needs to transpose the parts for the musicians. “You have to be able to take a 1,000-page score like Götterdämmerung and sort through all the individual measures for each instrument so that each part is accounted for,” she explains. She must also guarantee that there aren’t errors in the string players’ parts or in the bowing markings, which ensure that the players’ bows are all going in the same direction. For a Wagner opera, there can be around 30 string books, which will be used by about 55 players. “I calculated about 350–400 hours of work for the Wagner parts,” she says.

Preparing for world premieres is an especially suspenseful undertaking. “Since the work has never been performed before, changes and additions are made throughout the preparatory process and rehearsal process,” Aspen says. It’s her job to ensure that these corrections and additions are conveyed accurately so that the musicians can read them. “I act like a publisher, working with the orchestrator and composer to fully prepare the parts from scratch. [World premieres] are usually the only time when I’ve found myself making massive alterations within 48–24 hours of opening night.”

On the other hand, productions like La traviata—continually performed, standard operas—may be pulled right off the shelf without the need to make changes. “Such luck is a rarity, though,” she points out.

As the clock ticks, the season approaches, and the summer will soon be wrapping up. When asked to reflect on her work during the season versus the summer, she says she feels it’s a good balance. “If we had a summer season, it would be overwhelming. I appreciate the summer because the work I do is demanding in a different way. But I like being busy. I like being pushed. During the season, my best work comes from being a bit under stress,” she says. “There are a million tiny details as important as the big picture; without all those tiny gears, the clock won’t work.”