Numbers game

Is opera a numbers game?  It depends who you ask.

Statistics can describe aspects of any art form.  For example:

  • Guernica is 3.49 meters by 7.76 meters (more than 11 feet by over 25 feet)
  • Syberberg’s film Our Hitler is over 7 hours long.
  • Georgia O’Keefe lived close to 100 years

I picked examples of numbers that probably have been noticed before.  The arts are sometimes uncomfortable about being measured.  Some movements such as the Symbolists objected to science & positivism, fearing numbers and reductive thinking.

Opera is both an art form and a big business.  The interface between creativity and the search for profit is sometimes a very troubled place, where ideals collide with harsh realities.  For this reason artists hire specialists to promote their careers.  Or perhaps it’s the other way around, as astute entrepreneurs spot the artists who can make them a buck, and then put them onstage.

I think the creation of opera may or may not benefit from the study of numbers; but the business of promoting and producing opera can’t ignore the evidence found in numbers.

With that in mind, I’m sharing the url for Operabase:  They are an organization who have gathered fascinating statistics about opera production in several countries over the past decade and a half:

Some countries clearly produce more opera than others.  If you drill down (click on highlighted topics) you can, for example, see which cities produce the most operas.  Toronto for instance is tied with Chicago (the second most prolific city in the USA) at 87 operas, based on the 2009-10 season.

I find these stats fascinating.  For instance (quoting from operabase):

Of the top 100 most operatic cities [and one can click on this to see the list that showed Toronto & Chicago],

  • no fewer than 47(!) are in Germany
  • 7 in Austria
  • 5 each in Switzerland and in Poland
  • 4 in Italy
  • 3 in the US, in the Czech Republic and in Russia
  • 2 in France, in Spain, in the UK and in Australia

While I am a bit sad to see that Canada only has the one entry, it dawns on me that at least based on numbers, Toronto is arguably the next most important opera city in North America after New York. Of course Chicagoans might want to dispute that.  But that’s one of the enjoyable side-effects of statistics, that they provoke discussion & argument.


Giuseppe Verdi

And then there are the stats about composers & popular operas.  Mozart’s The Magic Flute is #1, followed by Verdi’s La Traviata.  I feel some of the same pleasure reading these lists of composers & operas, as I do poring over box scores & batting averages on the sports pages.  While one can’t capture the magic of baseball in those numbers, there’s much to be learned, even as each set of statistics raises a host of additional questions.

Popularity can’t be ignored in opera, given the expense of the form.  When operas continue to draw audiences year after year, one has to consider the possibility that there’s a correlation between that popularity and something meaningful about the works themselves.  Scholars share the symbolists’ fear of reductivism addressed above.  Numbers seem too easy, and don’t reflect the subtlety of the works being studied.

Must it always be subtle, intangible, and irreducible?  I don’t know.  I would never mistake a box score for a ballgame.  I simply find it a great way to read about the games I’ve missed and to ponder the ones I’ve seen.

A plot synopsis would never be mistaken for an opera, although curiously, operatic scores are sometimes treated as though they’re sacred even though they’re just part of the recipe (but instead of “just add water” the missing ingredient is the performer).

Go read the operabase stats.  Drill down.  You won’t have all the answers, just a series of new questions.

And hopefully, fun.

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