Five Opera Characters Who Would Have Been Good Statisticians

Operas feature princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses, priests and priestesses, artists, courtesans, revolutionaries, and even a mechanical doll. Few statisticians are listed among the dramatis personae.

But a number of opera characters would have made good statisticians. Here’s my list of five opera characters who might have opted for a quantitative career. (Plot spoilers ahead.)

Leporello (bass). The servant in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni demonstrates his statistical ability in his Act I aria "Madamina, il catalogo è questo," where he lists the counts of Giovanni’s victims: 640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, and 1,003 (so far) in Spain.

Leporello might have found a better use for his statistical talent than enabling a sexual predator. At the end of the opera he is cowering under a table and unemployed. Still, he ends the opera in a better (and not quite so eternally hot) place than his master.

Violetta (soprano). There were not very many opportunities for ambitious and intelligent women in the mid-nineteenth century. Marie Duplessis, the model for Verdi’s courtesan heroine in La Traviata, taught herself to read and write and established a literary salon where she was famous for her wit, charm, and intelligence.

But suppose that Violetta had instead used her considerable talents to become a biostatistician. She might have participated in a research team to prevent or cure tuberculosis instead of succumbing to it at age 23.

Figaro (baritone). Of course the title character from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville is on this list. Figaro can do anything.

Minnie (soprano). Even though she had only “thirty dollars’ worth of education,” Puccini’s heroine in La Fanciulla del West runs a school for the miners and knows enough about her odds in poker to prepare in advance an alternative way to win the game staking the life of Dick Johnson, aka the bandit Ramerrez.

Minnie speculates, “If I’d studied more, who knows what I might have been?” Had she studied crime statistics, Minnie might have known that con artists tend to use the same sob story (“I had to become a bandit to feed my poor mother”) repeatedly, and told him “Addio, Dick.”

Edward Teller (baritone). In real life, physicist Edward Teller did use statistics. He and the other scientists featured in John Adams’s Doctor Atomic relied heavily on statistics and probability theory in their calculations for the atomic bomb.

In fact, the real Edward Teller co-authored one of the most influential statistics papers ever written:

Nicholas Metropolis, Arianna W. Rosenbluth, Marshall N. Rosenbluth, Augusta H. Teller, and Edward Teller (1953). “Equation of State Calculations by Fast Computing Machines,” Journal of Chemical Physics, 21(6), 1087-1092.

The Metropolis algorithm allows one to sample from or integrate over a complicated high-dimensional probability distribution, and tremendously expands the scope of statistical models that can be used.

Where has the algorithm been used? It’s difficult to think of an area of science where it hasn’t been used (the paper has been cited more than 38,000 times), to answer questions such as

What other characters would have made good statisticians? Send me your suggestions, and I’ll feature them in a later column.

Copyright (c) 2019 Sharon L. Lohr

Sharon Lohr