Out With the New, In With the Old

Friday, October 1, 2010
By Kelly Savage

When the avant-garde jazz group The Bad Plus first covered Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” almost ten years ago, they inspired heated controversy for their supposedly non-traditional approach to jazz. But when John Coltrane first recorded his now classic 1960 performance of the show tune “My Favorite Things,” he too was improvising on a pop-sensation, one in fact written only a year earlier. It is easy to forget that today’s jazz standards were once new music, and that the seemingly hard line between pop music and classics is remarkably fluid.

The Metropolitan Opera opens their new season this week with perennial favorites: The first opera of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold (1869), Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto (1851), and Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann (1881). These operas are all well over a hundred years old, a fact that may not come as a shock to opera-goers, who are used to a steady diet of Puccini and Verdi. When these operas were first premiered at the Met, however, they were all less than 35 years old. When did the Met operas get so old?

The Metropolitan Opera Association recently released a comprehensive online database of the Met’s performances, creating an unprecedented opportunity to systematically explore trends in opera performance and audience tastes. Sharad Goel and I looked at all 25,000-plus performances that span the 127-year history of the Met.

We found a striking trend when we plotted the average age of operas performed each season. During its approximately first forty years, from 1883 to 1920, the Met was performing relatively contemporary operas—works during these first decades were on average 40 years old. In the early 1920’s, however, the Met programming froze in time. Since then the Met has been performing operas that on average premiered around 1870. As a consequence, today’s operas are on average 140 years old.[1]

What happened in 1920, and why? Cultural historian Lawrence Levine argues convincingly in his book, Highbrow/Lowbrow, that in 19th century America, opera—along with Shakespeare and other classical music—was popular entertainment enjoyed by the masses. It was only around the turn of the 20th century that opera became the purview of the elite, a status that it retains today. By the 1920’s new art forms, like movies, radio, and jazz, had captured the public’s imagination and supplanted opera. Although there is no definitive answer, I suspect that the stagnation of the opera repertoire is directly linked to its leaving the realm of popular music earlier in the century. As opera became “elite” entertainment it lost the experimentation and vitality that comes from having a broad, engaged audience that drives the demand for new works. These cultural trends played out at the Met under the long tenure of Giulio Gotti-Casazza, who served as manager from 1908-1935. He found remarkable financial success beginning around 1915 by alternating large numbers of staple repertory fare with novelties, a formula that the Met has stuck with to the present day.

As the Met focuses on expanding its audience base today through its Live in HD broadcasts at movie theaters throughout the country, and as it updates its productions with new sets and costumes (like the new Ring Cycle this season), they should look for inspiration in their historical roots. Contemporary operas were, and can be again, a vital component of the popular music scene.

N.B. Thanks to Dan Reeves and Sharad Goel for comments. The graph above was generated with ggplot2.

Illustration by Sharad Goel. Each tile corresponds to approximately 250 performances of the opera at the Met.


[1] Starting around 1920, not only did the Met consistently program music from the late 1800s, but they also began to program a lot of the same old music, establishing an operatic canon. Nineteen operas written by eleven composers account for more than half of all Met performances since 1920. In particular, today’s number one opera, Puccini’s La Bohème, has been performed a record 1217 times since its 1900 debut.

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  • http://casualfactors.wordpress.com John

    It seems like there should be some sort of trickle-down elitism at play if the explanation is that in the 1920s opera became rigidly high-brow. It seems like to assume that the Met’s freezing in time in 1920 would require perfect unison among three key players involved:

    (1) The people viewing the operas.
    (2) The people running the Met.
    (3) The people composing operas.

    If opera rapidly became highbrow in the early 1920s, were Met planners immediately sensitive to the preferences of the market, and have composers of the last century simply acquiesced in their obsolescence? Or couldn’t this also be a story about talented composers themselves leaving for other new artistic fields, and skilled season planners leaving for other venues?

  • http://alltimecoloratura.com Cecily

    I would like to draw attention to a few more changes in the early 20th century that I believe have contributed to the fade-out of opera from the realm of popular music.

    1. The introduction of the microphone.

    Before microphones, singers needed a lot of training to be able to sing loudly enough for everyone in the theatre to hear them. Once the microphone came in, breathier, softer, smoother, and more “natural” and untrained (or differently-trained) voices could fill big halls with ease. Many people have come to find the operatic sound unpleasant and aggressive – especially compared to many of the ultra-wispy voices of some popular singers today.

    2. “Serious” composers started writing music that is much more difficult to immediately appreciate.

    Lots of operas got written in the 20th century, but it’s hard to sell tickets to people who aren’t “serious” opera buffs. Listen to ‘Lulu’ (which dates from the 1930’s) and you’ll quickly understand why. Opera composers didn’t stop experimenting – quite the opposite, actually. But the results of their experiments took them much further away from the popular taste than before.

    3. The rise of musical theater

    Opera is really just one form of musical theater, and musical theater as a genre is still going strong. Broadway composers took the popular parts of opera – stage drama with catchy tunes and dancing – and ditched the parts that were becoming dated – high-powered vocals and lengthy recitative. Old-style opera, and modern opera, for that matter, are now a niche interest. And sometimes, catering to a niche is an excellent business plan, as the Met has discovered!

  • http://krsavage.com Kelly Savage

    @ John: Thanks for the comments. It is hard to pinpoint causes for such a wide-spread cultural shift, but I believe a single factor can drive others: a broad shift in audience taste would in itself influence the managers running the opera houses and the composers writing for this audience.

    It is interesting that the manager at the Met, Giulio Gotti-Casazza remained the same for several years both before and after 1920 (from 1908-1935), and was considered very successful during his tenure. The Met was financially in very good shape from 1915 until the depression hit, even as their programming changed.

    I’m sure composers were affected by their shifting audiences, and some, as you suggest, chose to write in other genres. The Hammerstein family offers an anecdote of the shifting times: Oscar Hammerstein II, the famed musical librettist of the 1940’s and 50’s was the grandson of Oscar Hammerstein I, who successfully ran the Met’s rival opera company in the early 20th century. Many classical 20th century composers continued to compose and premiere operas—these works just didn’t make up the majority of the opera seasons.

  • http://krsavage.com Kelly Savage

    @ Cecily: Thanks for your interesting comments.
    1. I agree that the microphone dramatically affected music—but in the early part of the 20th century I think that this is because it was integral to the production of recordings. In the 1920’s electrical amplification in musical theater was still in its infancy. (Mark Grant in The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical places the introduction of microphone in musical theater around 1925.)

    2. Your comment relates well to Levine’s Highbrow/Lowbrow point. I believe a work’s difficultly does not necessarily limit its public appeal. While we see Shakespeare as a pinnacle of difficult and sublime literature, Levine shows in 19th century America it was pop culture. And while 20th century classical music isn’t easy listening, either is Wagner’s—but in the early 20th century his operas were the rage. It is possible that mondern composers were no longer writing with a larger public in mind.

    3. It is interesting that in the first part of the 20th century opera, operettas, musicals and variety shows all coexisted as popular entertainment. I think it would be fascinating to do a similar large-scale data analysis of musicals on Broadway and look at their programming history over the last century. While Broadway musicals are still going strong (they are billion dollar a year industry), there are hints of the repertoire becoming more standardized. Stephen Sondheim says, “You have two kinds of shows on Broadway – revivals and the same kind of musicals over and over again, all spectacles….It has to do with seeing what is familiar…. I don’t think the theatre will die per se, but it’s never going to be what it was…. It’s a tourist attraction.”

  • Cody

    True news story this week: Detroit Symphony went on strike, demanding that people enjoy classical music.

    A typical strike is about how to divvy profits between those that supply human capital and those that supply fiscal capital. In this case though, there is just not enough demand for these people’s services. Nonetheless, they feel they worked hard all their lives and have a skill that not many other people have. Therefore, having studied music and not economics, they feel they ‘deserve’ more compensation.

    As the market started to shrink, they could raise prices. That is part of what made classical music an elitist art form. This has reached its limit now. Even with taxpayer-funded support for certain select art forms blessed by the lords of culture, we just can’t keep these people in the lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to.

  • http://krsavage.com Kelly Savage

    @ Cody: I can see your point that it is distasteful, especially in tough economic times, to see well-off people complain about their salaries. However, this is not unique to musicians. Just recently, for example, a well-to-do Chicago law professor came under fierce attack for complaining on his blog that the potential tax hike would adversely affect his lifestyle. Also, it is important to note that the Detroit orchestral musicians are the top few that have made it. Salaries for typical, experienced orchestral musicians are hardly lavish—around $50,000—and most of my classical musician colleagues combine private teaching and freelance work, which amounts to substantially smaller salaries.

    Further, highbrow/lowbrow has more to do with cultural status than with money. In his recent NYT Op Ed, Alex Ross, while acknowledging the hard to shake “pince-nez image” of opera, claims that opera-goers are “a motley middle-class lot” and that the Met ticket prices are on par with tickets to a Rolling Stones concert.

    Finally, strikes are often not about dividing profit. Public school teachers, bus drivers and other municipal employees, for example, regularly go on strike, although they are fully supported by public funds. The Met, on the other hand, is supported almost entirely by ticket sales and private donations.

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