Interview with Jim O'Toole, Orchestra Manager of the Old Street Band

Friday 19 July 2013

ETO Intern Hannah Leddy interviewed Jim O’Toole, Violist and Orchestra Manager of ETO’s period orchestra the Old Street Band ahead of the Autumn 2013 season of Baroque Opera from Venice .

What does an orchestra manager actually do?

My job starts with liaising with the conductor, director and financial manager of the proposed productions. We have to decide which instruments to use for which productions. There is often a tension between what instruments are needed to produce the most dramatic opera and staying within budget. Balancing the budget can sometimes be challenging. It isn’t usually possible to have all the instruments you want in every production so compromises have to be made. When all the instruments for every production are decided it is my job to book the players for the operas. This too is about compromising; I have to get the balance right between the best people for the job and the people who are available for the most rehearsals and performances.

So once you have booked musicians for rehearsals and performance dates is that your job done?

No. When I book the musicians I only give them a rough schedule because the performance dates and locations are not always confirmed. I give them regular updates every month marking any new confirmations or changes to the schedule. I sort out the parts and distribute them to the players. I also deal with any questions or gripes from the musicians throughout the rehearsal and touring period. Basically, I am the point of contact between conductors, players and managers.

As time goes on we have to refine the budget and produce documents that cover all the specific expenditure. I have to calculate the travel expenses, pay and porterage for all the musicians and confirm this with Alex, the finance manager. As English Touring Opera is a touring company things like travel expenses, accommodation and porterage (musicians with large instruments like double basses get given a certain amount of money per mile so they can transport their instrument) can be expensive!

When the orchestra is on tour I make sure that I get to the pit two hours before everyone else. I want to make sure that there is enough space for all the musicians and workout a practical layout. The space for the orchestra changes with every venue we go to so it is important to have a flexible approach.

The Old Street Band during an ETO production of Handel’s Tolomeo.

So does the schedule change during the rehearsal and touring process?

Once schedules are fixed they don’t often change. ETO run a tight ship, it is important that we stick to the hours we have agreed so ETO can stay within budget. Operas never run over three hours for instance because the musicians would need to be paid overtime.

On average how long is the rehearsal period before your first performance of an opera?

It is usually a couple of weeks for three operas. It is quite full on.

So the libretto has been translated and the new edition of the score put together. What is left to do to the score?

Well, I give the parts to the musicians so they can mark up their own parts. The leader and string section communicate with each other to put in bowing marks and the rest of the orchestra will put in markings throughout the rehearsal process to remind them how to play certain sections.

The Old Street Band is a period instrument orchestra. Can you tell us a bit about what this means and how this affects the performance of the opera?

We are attempting to recreate the soundworld of the composer by using the type of instruments that would have been used at the time. We use historical evidence about how musicians played to inform our playing style. Hopefully this creates an exciting atmosphere for the audience and one that is similar to what the composer intended.

You’ve worked for ETO before. Is there anything particularly challenging about the Autumn ’13 season compared to previous seasons you have done?

Well, it is completely baroque. The workload is a lot in a short amount of time but we get to play beautiful music so it is worth it. There is always the issue for freelance musicians of juggling the demands of touring with their regular commitments. The intensity of this tour means everybody has a very full schedule. ETO are good at getting a lot out of very little. For example, they produce great dramatic effects out of inexpensive scenery and utilise their cast brilliantly to cover roles in different productions. Their operas are really good value for money!

Finally, what do you enjoy most about your job?

The nice warm fuzzy feeling you get from the clapping of a gig well done. It makes all the slog worth it.

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