The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opera is dead, in one chart

Lon Chaney in the 1925 film "The Phantom of the Opera."

Opera is officially dead. Or maybe not completely dead, but at best ekeing out a zombie-like existence in a state of undeath. As proof, I submit this fascinating chart of Metropolitan Opera performances, which shows that for decades the Met has rarely performed any operas composed in the preceding 50 years.

The chart shows that opera ceased to exist as a contemporary art form roughly around 1970. It's from a blog post by composer and programmer Suby Raman, who scraped the Met's public database of performances going back to the 19th century. As Raman notes, 50 years is an insanely low bar for measuring the "contemporary" - in pop music terms, it would be like considering The Beatles' I Wanna Hold Your Hand as cutting-edge.

Back at the beginning of the 20th century, anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of Met performances were of operas composed in some time in the 50 years prior. But since 1980, the share of contemporary performances has surpassed 10 percent only once.

Opera, as a genre, is essentially frozen in amber - Raman found that the median year of composition of pieces performed at the Met has always been right around 1870. In other words, the Met is essentially performing the exact same pieces now that it was 100 years ago.

The entire classical music industry faces a similar relevance problem. Over at Slate, Mark Vanhoenacker marshalled an impressive collection of data tracing the industry's decline earlier this year. Falling album sales and a rash of orchestra bankruptcies are only the most visible signs of an art form failing to resonate with audiences.

It's not clear to me that this is a crisis, or that there's even anything anyone should do about it. The fall of classical music may simply be a natural consequence of evolving tastes in art. We may be writing similar elegies for what we now know as pop music in 100 years time. But nonetheless it's uncommon to see a genre's decline charted as clearly as Raman has done above.