Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 12, No. 8 May 2007

On Operatic Mothers

May 30, 2007

Opera composers have not been kind to mothers. There are plenty of bad mothers in opera, but good ones are hard to find. Think of Gertrud in Hansel und Gretel—is there a mother in greater need of a lesson in child psychology? Poor Gioconda—she has to sacrifice herself in a love triangle because her rival, Laura, once saved Gioconda’s blind mother, La Cieca. Look at the surfeit of suicidal mothers (Suor Angelica and Butterfly), or downright homicidal ones (Medea, Azucena, Marguerite, Fricka—ok, so she is a stepmother to Siegmund...). The Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten would “sell her shadow”, meaning renounce motherhood—for wealth and beauty. Is Norma a good mother? Not a chance—she was going to kill her own children so they wouldn’t suffer? An unacceptable solution by any standards! Erda gives birth to all the valkyries and the Norns, but Wagner portrays her as singularly lacking in maternal instincts. In sixteen hours of the Ring, she spends zero stage time with her daughters, preferring to sleep her time away!

Yes, the opera stage is littered with demented, dysfunctional, or otherwise dumped-upon moms. You can say opera composers create drama at the expense of motherhood. This is in sharp contrast to how operatic fathers are portrayed. With some exceptions, they are kindly, benevolent, and forgiving (Peter in Hansel und Gretel, Simon Boccanegra, and really almost any father in Verdi)

My vote for the model operatic mother is the long-suffering Rosa Mamai of L’Arlesiana, a verismo opera by composer Francesco Cilea. Rosa spends the whole opera worrying about the welfare of her two sons, particularly the wild Frederico. She puts all her energies into getting him to see the light. She sings her only aria , “Esser madre è un inferno”, a lament on the trials of motherhood. But what does the ungrateful Frederico do? He breaks his mother’s heart by jumping out the window!

As for a favorite piece to be sung by mothers—I would pick Wiegenlieder from Brahms to Schubert. But my favorite has to be Richard Strauss’ Wiegenlied. Is there a more sublime melody, especially when the singer is the incomparable Jessye Norman ?

Joseph So

Parmi mes mères préférées dans l’opéra, je citerais Jenufa et je vais m’expliquer ici brièvement.

Pour moi une mère idéale pour le théatre ou l’opéra doit incarner un personnage riche en émotions, susceptibles d’explorer les facettes antagonistes de celle qui est à la fois la mère et l’épouse, la personne convoitée et la victime. Jenufa remplit tous les critères: son extrême beauté (surtout quand elle est jouée par Karita Matila!) attise les amours rivaux de Laca et de Steva. Le premier la blesse au couteau, le second la trompe et la laisse tomber pour la fille du maire. En tant que mère, la présence de son enfant va soutenir le drame de l’opéra. Tiraillée entre son amour pour Steva, dont l’enfant porte le nom et les règles que la Kostelnicka lui impose, Jenufa se révèle une mère victime. Son amour maternelle, sa tendresse et sa dévotion ne font pas l’ombre d’un doute (n’est-ce pas aussi Jenufa qui a appris à lire à Jano, le jeune berger?). Son désespoir à l’annonce de la mort de son fils s’inscrit dans la série des Mater Dolorosa qu’ont illustrée les peintres à travers les âges. L’acmé de tout l’opéra est sans aucun doute atteint avec cette scène où Jenufa prie la Vierge Marie, une autre mère célèbre de l’histoire... La correspondance entre les deux est inévitable.

Stéphane Villemin

I have to admit that my favourite mother in opera is Klytemnestra in Richard Strauss’Elektra. At first this may seem a surprising choice because I’m sure that this particular mother’s maternal milk would have curdled in the mouths of her children ! Klytemnestra demonstrates few redeeming human features: She arranges the murder of her husband, Agamemnon, has driven her son Orestes into exile, and seems intent on driving her daughters, Elektra and Chrysothemis, to distraction or madness. They say that you reap what you sow, so it seems only fitting that Orestes should return and ally himself to the vengeful Elektra in order to kill Mummy.

While it is true that my favourite operatic mother has no maternal instincts or human character traits, it is also true that she does have several of the most stirringly dramatic scenes in all of opera (the duet with Elektra still makes me shudder). This is motherhood on an epic—or operatic—scale!

Richard Turp

(c) La Scena Musicale