When I picked this topic for a blog I had no idea how challenging it would be. I thought this topic would be a nice one to show a few more positive stories of female characters in opera, when so many opera plots lead to death. Then, I tried to find operas with mothers who are positive role models, and this is where I encountered a problem.
First of all, the majority of operas have no mothers at all. There are plenty of fathers, who are both positive and negative influences on their various amounts of sons and daughters, but the mothers are nowhere to be found. Presumably this can be explained away by the historically high mortality rates for women, but they can’t all have died in childbirth, surely?
When we do find mothers most of them are rather problematic. One of the most notorious has to be Azucena in Il trovatore. At her own mother’s execution, she throws a baby into the fire, thinking she is getting her revenge by killing the Count’s son. Only when she looks at the other baby in her arms does she realise it is her own son she has murdered. She takes the boy and raises him as her own, so she can use him at a later date to enact her vengeance.
Next to her, the stepmother, Madame de la Haltière in Cendrillon looks quite tame, although she neglects and abuses Cendrillon, in the same way Gertrude throws Hansel and Gretel out of the house.
Jean’s mother, Fides, in Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète looks promising, as they clearly have a close relationship, but as soon as she threatens his success he is prepared to have her killed. La Cieca is not an inherently bad mother to Gioconda, but her kind, god-fearing nature has not made a difference to her daughter’s lust for murder.
Maurya in Vaughan-Williams’s Riders to the Sea sees all of her sons and her husband killed by the sea, and nothing she can say, do, or pray, prevents it.
Lucia in La gazza ladra almost has her son’s girlfriend executed, even though she’s innocent.
Suor Angelica never gets the chance to be any sort of influence to her son, and like Cio-Cio San, her Puccini sister, kills herself when she realizes she has lost him.
In Jenufa, a step-mother murders her own grandchild, and imprisons her step-daughter rather than allowing her to be a mother, and in Elektra, Klytaemnestra is instrumental in the murder of her own husband, and her children know she is guilty.
Norma dreams of killing her children, and then abandons them to be raised by someone else as she kills herself.
I could continue, but this list is getting rather dark and depressing.
So, where did the mothers go?
Although it has been stated over and over, it is always worth repeating, particularly during a month which contains Mother’s Day: the operatic canon has always been biased towards works by men, and about men. Many people are now working to correct this balance, but it will probably take decades to repair the centuries of disenfranchisement that women have faced in this art form. This means that in the majority of operas in the canon, men are at the forefront of the stories, and it is their desires and motivations which influence the plot.
To prove this, here’s a fun game; just sit for a moment and think of all the operas you know, and off the top of your head try to find one with more than three main female characters. By that I mean someone with significant solo singing, and an important storyline. The Floras and Anninas of the world are sadly not important enough.
If we take out anything not set in a convent, you will likely end up with Le nozze di Figaro; a story where a powerful, married man tries to sleep with his maid on her wedding night. There is of course Wagner’s Ring Cycle as well, which features many principle roles for women, although only one fully human one, and nearly all of them being subject to kidnap, rape, imprisonment, death in childbirth, or immolation. Even the ones in convents end up in suicide, or execution.
Although you could argue some of the baroque operas, like Handel’s Giulio Cesare, have significant numbers of roles that can be played by women, the characters themselves are male, and the roles were written for the castrati. For more background on this practice, check out my other blog on the traditions of gender swapping in opera: Who wears the pants?
So what we have as a result is a very limited number of stories where women are able to lead a happy life, whether they are mothers or not.
Happy Mother’s Day?
Despite all the opposition they face in the genre, I have found a few mothers who manage to be a positive influence in their children’s lives.
Anna Maurrant in Kurt Weill’s Street Scene is a very positive influence on her children, Rose and Willie. Anna believes there is a better life available to Rose and Willie than Anna was able to have, and these dreams and beliefs she holds make her children strong and independent. Her daughter Rose is sure of herself, and will not let her life be dictated and controlled by men, even those that she loves. Sadly, Anna is murdered by her husband when he suspects her of having an affair, but she has raised Rose to be such a confident and independent woman, that she can immediately take her place in raising Willie, and live a life independent from the control of others.
In Haydn’s La Canterina, Apollonia works really hard to ensure that her daughter does not have to suffer the same indignities in life as she has had to, and is ultimately successful in seeing her daughter happily married to a wealthy man that she loves. Strangely though, the tradition with this opera is for Apollonia to be a skirt role. Originally designed for comic effect, this loving mother is usually played by a male singer.
Monisha, in Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha is a completely loving mother, who has a great positive influence on her daughter. As she explains in her aria ‘The Sacred Tree’, her daughter, Treemonisha, is not biologically hers. She was found under the sacred tree, but Monisha raised her as her own. Despite having almost nothing, as part of a community freed from slavery, Monisha and her husband traded labor for Treemonisha’s education. Her mother’s love and encouragement enables Treemonisha to become the leader of their people. This really is a happy day for Monisha, when she sees what her daughter can become.
Can you think of any other mothers in opera who prove to be a great influence on their children? Maybe there are stories of famous influential mothers that should be retold in opera, who would you pick?