The mothers in opera are… perhaps not all stars. Nevertheless, we can applaud them for always adding drama to the operas they’re in, and we can be thankful for that at least! To celebrate Mother’s Day, we’re taking a look at some of the more notable mothers in opera.
Cio-Cio San - Giacomo Puccini's Madam Butterfly
Starting our list off on a positive note, Cio-Cio San is a loving mother to her child, Sorrow. In Act 2 of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, Pinkerton has returned to America, leaving his bride to fend for herself. Unbeknownst to him, she has given birth to their child, Sorrow, in the intervening years (who’ll be renamed Joy when united with his father).
Despite the name, Sorrow is a happy child, not knowing why his mother is sad much of the time, and is often depicted by a young child or a puppet. Looked after and loved by both Butterfly and Suzuki, the Pinkerton’s arrival throws Butterfly into a maelstrom of emotion, especially when his new bride is revealed.
When Kate Pinkerton and Sharpless tell her Pinkerton intends to take Sorrow with him, Butterfly’s woe becomes palpable, reluctantly relinquishing the child to the American couple, for he will have a better life with them in her eyes. Knowing she has little to live for without her child and without Pinkerton’s love, she commits suicide with her father’s knife. A good mother, with a heart-breaking ending.
Iolanthe - Gilbert & Sullivan's Iolanthe
Our titular fairy also happens to be a rather stellar mother in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comedy operetta, Iolanthe! When our story begins, Iolanthe has been banished from fairyland by the Queen of the Fairies for marrying a mortal man, much to the disappointment of the other fairies. During this time, she gives birth to Strephon, her half-fairy son, who’s existance is revealed when the Queen quickly pardons Iolanthe due to increasing pressures from her court.
Strephon lives as a shepherd, separated from the civilized world of London’s courts. He falls for Phyllis, the ward of the Lord Chancellor, who has forbidden her to marry – partially due to him wanting to marry her himself!
When the Lord Chancellor is unmoved by the efforts of the fairies, Iolanthe is forced to reveal her identity to him: that she is his long lost wife, and Strephon is his son – despite this breaking fairy law once again. Moved by this selfless act of love, Iolanthe’s actions lead to the Queen of the Fairies changing the law, leading to a happy ending for all involved – Strephon and Phyllis together, along with Iolanthe and the Lord Chancellor.
Mother - Maurice Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges
An interesting case – whilst the mother has a seemingly constant presence in Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, she barely appears. Beginning in media res with the child being reprimanded for his behavior, the mother is represented by a huge skirt, towering over the small child and giving a child’s-eye view of the proceedings.
After his scolding, the child throws a tantrum, before being interrupted by the sentient furniture of the room, in pain and miserable from being thrown around the room and damaged. Realising the pain he caused, the child tries to make amends, but to no avail. Left alone, he cries out for his mother, ‘Maman’.
The child finds new compassion within himself, bandaging an injured squirrel in the garden his room has become. Changing their minds about the child, the denizens of the garden lead him back to his room, normal once again. In the final bar of the score, the child greets his mother, with the lesson she intended for him learnt: compassion towards all things.
Ravel’s opera, set to the libretto by Colette is only one act long, making it an accessible opera for children and adults alike. The fairy-tale like story has a great moral for today’s children to learn, and a perfect entry point to opera!
The Queen of the Night - Mozart's The Magic Flute
And now on to the… less ideal matriarchs.
The Queen of the Night is outright antagonistic in Mozart’s most famous opera, The Magic Flute. When she finds that our hero Tamino has fallen in love with her daughter, Pamina, she uses him to ‘rescue’ her from the ‘power, evil demon’, Sarastro.
Sarastro is, in fact, a rather benevolent ruler, that opposes the Queen of the Night, and looks after Pamina. The Queen of the Night appears to Pamina, telling her to kill Sarastro or else she will disown her daughter, in one of the most famous arias of all time, ‘Der Hölle Rache’ (‘Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart’).
The Queen of the Night’s treachery continues to the end of the opera, where she and her retinue plot to destroy the Temple of Ordeal, enlisting Monostatos (again, using her daughter’s hand in marriage as a bargaining chip). Before this happens, they are magically cast out, leaving them in eternal night. A deserved ending for a dastardly mother.
Marcellina - Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro
Following on with the theme of less than ideal mothers in Mozart operas, in The Marriage of Figaro, Marcellina is Dr. Bartolo’s housekeeper, and twice Figaro’s age. Despite this, she looks to blackmail him into marrying her (unaware, at this point, of her close relationship to him). She conspires with Bartolo against Figaro, who previously helped Count Almaviva ‘steal’ his ward Rosina (as depicted in Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, based on the prequel play by Pierre Beaumarchais).
When it is all but certain that Marcellina will be Figaro’s bride, the revelation occurs that Figaro is in fact Rafaello, Marcellina’s lost child she conceived with Bartolo. Thankfully Marcellina swiftly gives up on her plans to marry Figaro, instead deciding to marry Bartolo, marking the second marriage to happen that same day. No wonder it’s also known as “La Folle Journée” (‘The Mad Day’)! Truly remarkable mothering indeed.
Aunt Lydia - Poul Ruders' The Handmaid's Tale
Whilst much-less conventional and certainly not particularly kind, Aunt Lydia is a mother figure towards the a group of Handmaid in Poul Ruder’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Based on Margaret Atwood’s seminal novel, Poul Ruders’s The Handmaid’s Tale plunges us into the Republic of Gilead, where women have been entirely stripped of their rights and freedoms. Women who live in sin are indoctrinated as Handmaids by Aunts and the Aunt in charge of the entire operation is Aunt Lydia. Given the job to keep these women in line, Aunt Lydia is a hard-lined and sometimes aggressive mother figure.
Of course, a shout out must also go to the Handmaid’s who bear children for the Commanders which are then taken away from their mothers to be cared by someone else. Completely heart-breaking!
The mothers in opera aren’t all winners, but we’re celebrating them nonetheless!
Happy Mother’s Day, from our family to yours.