DHC Weekly 1/25/19: Data Visualization

Hello Digital Humanities fans! This week on the blog I want to play a little with some user-friendly data visualization, in the form of Excel charts and TimelineJS.

As my data set this week, I’m taking a look at a world near and dear to me – that of professional opera. As probably very few of you are aware, it is now that time of year when American opera companies start to announce their seasons, which means it is also that time of year when opera fans and musicologists and arts journalists have serious conversations about representation on the operatic stage, and the overwhelmingly conservative and regressive nature of the operatic canon. Because production costs are so much higher and talent pools so much smaller and more specialized, opera companies tend to pull from a much more restrictive canon than theater companies – but just how restrictive is the operatic canon? I took the recently announced 2019-2020 seasons of one major American house, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, as well as the 2018-2019 season of the most prominent American opera house, the Metropolitan Opera (their season for next year has not yet been announced), and am going to look at a couple different ways to visualize their diversity (or lack thereof).

One of the first decisions to be made when putting together a dataset is what sort of information to include; I knew I wanted to look at how old the works being performed were, how many (if any) were written in languages other than the big three of Italian, German, and French, and — optimistic fool that I am — I added a column for the gender of the composer. In Excel, my dataset for the Lyric looked like this:

Simple data visualization is actually quite easy in Excel – from this dataset I pulled out the information on the languages:

By selecting these cels and choosing the pie chart option under the “Insert” tab, I get a nice pie chart:

Let’s compare this to the language breakdown for the Met, which has a significantly larger season (24 operas rather than 12):

What jumps out to me immediately is that the Lyric has no French operas programmed for next season, whereas a quarter of this year’s Met productions are in that language. I am more surprised, however, by these seasons’ fundamental similarity – even with vastly different resources and different scopes, they are both significantly Italian, about 40% of each season.

The next question I had was about how old these works are, and while I could have sorted them into centuries and created more pie charts, I instead decided to use a program called TimelineJS to create timelines for these seasons – I suspected being able to experience and interact with the gulf between the operatic classics of the 19th and 18th century and the few new or contemporary works in these seasons might prove interesting.

TimelineJS is extremely user-friendly – it generates a Google Sheets page that you plug your data points into, and then generates a timeline from them:Here’s what my Lyric Opera timeline turned out looking like:

And here’s the Met’s

Again, as with our pie charts, what strikes me here is that despite the Met having fully twice the productions of the Lyric, the distribution across centuries is more or less the same – with one or two Mozart operas from the 18th century and one or two contemporary works flanking a veritable glut of 19th century opera (admittedly this is probably a little skewed by both of these seasons happening to contain full productions of Wagner’s four opera Ring Cycle).

The Lyric is probably the second most prominent opera house in the United States, after the Met – going into this exercise, I was unsure of whether the Met’s larger season would allow them more room to take chances on less mainstream works or if the Lyric’s lessened scrutiny in the opera world would push them further from conservatism. What I found is that neither of these were the case – the Lyric’s season and the Met’s are in many ways built along the same lines, albeit at different scales. To my own question of how restrictive is the established operatic canon, I would say that at the country’s largest houses, the answer is extremely. This is a perhaps a less than shocking conclusion, to me, a person who has followed these sorts of season announcements in the past, but the value of the visualizations is that I could show them to anyone and they, too, would be able to see the lack of variation in these seasons.

I’d like to leave you with one last set of charts, that kind of say it all when it comes to the lack of diversity in the opera world. Remember my columns for composer gender? Well, here they are, graphed:


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