Emily Cabaniss, 26, is Seattle Opera’s first company librarian. “I think working for Seattle Opera ties into kind of my interest in keeping the gate open, preserving access. Because I think that it’s really an essential part of our local history,” she says.
In a world in which millennials are blamed for “killing” just about everything — from the wine cork to light yogurt — Emily Cabaniss stands out. Cabaniss, who turned 26 in July, has dedicated herself to safeguarding two institutions that some her age might regard as outmoded: libraries and the opera.
As the first company librarian at the Seattle Opera, Cabaniss, who earned her master’s degree at the University of Washington’s Information School, catalogs and cares for mountains of media: books, DVDs, librettos, scores, Betamax tapes and more.
“I catalog. I answer reference questions. I get people what they need,” Cabaniss says. “I also do stuff like I preserve and digitize our videos, and I scan our photographs and embed metadata into them so we know who’s in the pictures.”
That description, however, only speaks to a small fraction of Cabaniss’ duties.
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During a tour of the music library at the Seattle Opera’s South Lake Union offices, Cabaniss opens the case of one of the company’s four Wagner tubas to check whether it has been appropriately oiled. Care for these instruments, she says, also falls within her jurisdiction. With the tuba in her lap, she inspects its parts like a mechanic until something breaks off in her hand.
“That’s OK; that’s supposed to come off,” she laughs.
The tubas are relics of a time before Cabaniss, a time when the library was an unofficial dumping ground for whatever someone once decided ought to be kept. Since arriving at the opera, Cabaniss has set to work remedying that disorder.
The opera’s library consists of a room the size of a large garage, a storage vault and a virtual database. Among the three, the Seattle Opera has approximately 12,000 scores, 1,100 VHS tapes and 7 terabytes of digital videos. All of it is neatly maintained by Cabaniss.
“The stuff has always been there,” Cabaniss says. “There’s just never been anyone there to take care of it.”
Even years after what might seem like tedious labor for anyone but Cabaniss (if she could have a sabbatical, she opines, “I’d like to make a reference book of music publishers. That would be a fun project for me.”), the library remains a work in progress.
“There’s still plenty to keep me entertained,” Cabaniss says.
In September 2018, the library will relocate to the opera’s new $60 million facility, the Seattle Opera at the Center, at Fourth Avenue and Mercer Street.
If Cabaniss were a superhero, her origins would likely be traced back to fifth grade when, during a lesson about the history of Mexico, she asked her teacher about the people who occupied Mexico before the Spaniards.
“And she [Cabaniss’ teacher] — probably because I was exhausting but also because she didn’t realize the implications of what she was saying — responded that there were no people in Mexico before,” Cabaniss says.
Unsatisfied, Cabaniss visited the library after school and checked out a book on Mexican history. In its pages, she read about the Aztecs and the Mayans and the civilizations they built.
“For me that was a really memorable moment because it made me realize how the channels that we get information through are not inherently trustworthy, that we need to be empowered to check what we’re told and that public libraries are a place to do that,” she says.
Cabaniss doesn’t hold a grudge against her teacher for her mistake, but she did learn from it. “She kind of prioritized her own convenience over what is true, and that is something I will not ever do,” Cabaniss says.
As for how Cabaniss became interested in opera, that happened later, when she was in high school. As part of a club, she got to attend the Seattle Opera’s dress rehearsals.
“ … It was like mythical to see opera,” she says, “because it was so big and it was so, like, incredible.”
Mostly, however, Cabaniss loves opera because it’s “extremely friggin’ weird.” “I feel like opera stories get away with stuff that television could never get away with — because all the fans would be on the internet like ‘That’s not logical!’ But instead opera is like ‘Yeah, this is ‘Tales of Hoffman.’ This is the robot girlfriend. What a bummer,’” Cabaniss says.
During graduate school, Cabaniss worked in the ticket office of the Seattle Opera. And, after earning her degree and spending about a half a year job hunting, she learned that an “opera librarian” position had just been created in Seattle.
“She was clearly someone who was interested in more than just the black-and-white job description,” says her supervisor, John Keene.
Cabaniss has served as the company librarian — and also the music assistant, a position in which she oversees the day-to-day functions of the orchestra and chorus — since 2014.
“I think working for Seattle Opera ties into kind of my interest in keeping the gate open, preserving access. Because I think that it’s really an essential part of our local history,” Cabaniss says. “It’s also, I mean, this collection feels to me like an essential part of my personal history because I grew up with Seattle Opera.”
For some, the word “opera” conjures up images of floor-length gowns and sharp tuxedos, but Cabaniss rejects that characterization. “It’s dark. No one’s looking at you,” she says. Raising a finger to her lips, she whispers, “Just shhhhh come to the opera.”
But even for an opera convert, the purpose of a meticulous record of the performance group’s history may not be immediately apparent. Does it really matter if no one can find the program from a 1981 production of Wagner’s “The Ring” cycle?
To Cabaniss, it does. First, there’s the matter of securing the opera’s future.
“I think people are always interested in how does this work affect ‘Madame Butterfly’?” Cabaniss says, using the opera’s latest show as an example. “But it’s not really about this ‘Madame Butterfly,’ it’s about the next one when all of the staff are gone. Like, they’ve retired or, you know, won the lottery or been hit by buses, and we’re doing ‘Madame Butterfly’ again and nobody knows what we did before.”
And it’s about guarding the past. “If you can’t find anything it doesn’t matter if it exists. If you can’t take care of something, it doesn’t matter that you made it,” she says. “If you can’t preserve what you’ve made, you can’t access it. If you can’t access it, it might as well not be there.”
Information in this article, originally published Sept. 6, 2017, was corrected Sept. 7, 2017. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Emily Cabaniss is Seattle Opera’s first librarian. Cabaniss is Seattle Opera’s first company librarian and the first with a degree in library and information science. Seattle Opera has for years also had, and continues to have, music librarians with varied academic backgrounds who organize and prepare music needed by the musicians.