In this article from the Autumn edition of Chorus, the Opera Holland Park company magazine, Robert Thicknesse casts a merciless eye on opera’s mothers and fathers.
The poet Philip Larkin was no great opera fan, but his well-known views on the effects of parenting could serve very well as the art form’s vision or mission statement. Next year’s Opera Holland Park playlist is as good an illustration as any: Rigoletto is opera’s unrivalled Guide to Successful Parenting; Eugene Onegin features an entertainingly bungling mother, and as for the others – well, there has to be some reason how those young things got that way.
Traditionally in opera it’s dad who does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to ensuring the beloved offspring’s life is grim, miserable and short. Sons or daughters, it’s all the same. For every Gilda, infantilised and imprisoned by her peculiar papa, Rigoletto, there’s a Don Carlos, dobbed into the Inquisition for strappado by gloomy dad King Phil. For every Iphigenia chucked on the barbie by a father brown-nosing the gods, there’s an Idamante similarly basted. But let’s hear it for the distressing effects of mothers, too: they may often be subtler in their methods – indeed, they sometimes seem able to wield their baleful spells from beyond the grave – but they are no slouches when it comes to scuppering the life-chances of their brood.
There’s a strong case that all operatic tenors’ social and sexual problems can be traced back to their mothers. Most of them are Italian, after all. At the fundamentalist end of this radical mothers’ movement, we have Trovatore’s Manfredo, driven to madness and fratricide by mum Azucena’s mood-swings, and Don José reduced from ardent lover to blubbering infant by an emasculating missive from the old mater, telepathically twitching the apron strings from her distant hovel.
Still, it’s hard to deny there are fewer actively destructive mothers on the stage. The reason for this is basically structural. Opera has a highly equivocal attitude to reproduction, and therefore, alas, to mothers. They are regrettable necessities – in order to give birth to the freak shows whose various dooms are presented for our entertainment – but are thereafter dispensable. Any hint of fecundity in the next generation is severely frowned upon. Because opera, concerning itself with lust and allied furious passions, rightly concluded that Bringing Up Baby would make a deeply unsatisfactory storyline. The occasional couple is permitted a visit to the family-planning department – see Mozart’s Papagenic carry-on – though this is better understood as an anticipation of copious quantities of copulation.
Opera’s main aim, then, as it plots its hapless heroes’ future, is to stop them at all costs from exercising their genetic duty. Young women must be killed off before they are fertilised, or at least die in childbirth, like Debussy’s Mélisande. The best possible outcome is what the tabloids might call a ‘horrific double tragedy’ wherein the dewy-eyed lovebirds cop it together in some improbable inferno. Here, Wagner is your go-to-guy for top soap solutions: Tristan, eschewing medical attention for a superficial flesh-wound, goes gangrenous and necrotic, while Isolde checks out with a Tantric musical climax. Brünnhilde tells Hagen the best place to impale her beloved Siegfried (also her nephew) then commits suttee. As to Senta and the Flying Dutchman: well, nobody really knows what happens there, but it’s not pretty.
But to get back to our parental moutons. Despite a slew of memorable progenitors in Baroque opera – Nero’s mama Agrippina, for example, or the magnificent Medea – it was Giuseppe Verdi who established the system that would prefigure the insights of Freud. Verdi ran up an impressive nine operas in which parents and children are intimately involved in each other’s ruin and/or death. Among these, La forza del destino has a pleasing mutuality, the father’s death the proximate cause of the violent extinction of his entire clan. Il trovatore extends the generational conflict, beginning with the ‘wrong’ baby (i.e. her own son) killed by a girl wracked with guilt and shame about her own mother’s fiery demise at the stake. The rest of the action is the logical hecatomb of violence required to straighten out the whole mess.
Rigoletto presents us in the starkest possible way with the consequences of the ‘daddy’s little princess’ form of father-love, though the jolly jester’s take on this is pretty X-rated. Gilda’s mother having in the approved manner died during or shortly after childbirth, the child has been saddled with preserving the image of her ‘angelic purity’. This, naturally, requires Gilda to remain eternally virgin, imprisoned at home, while dad pays her secret visits as if she were a mistress, letting off steam by cherry-picking other men’s unsullied daughters for rape by his lusty employer. Gilda is doomed by the over-doting father’s confusion between daughter and wife – though happily for all she is spared the final indignity of childbirth by her early bath.
After all this, Tchaikovsky’s Ma Larina comes as something of a homely relief, though she is frankly culpable for initiating her daughter’s lifelong unhappiness. A professed devotee of the novels of Samuel Richardson, she has indoctrinated young Tatyana (a guileless little creature in provincial 1820s Russia) with the notion that the ideal suitor is an Englishman from circa 1750 (the model being Sir Charles Grandison, most tedious and upright of Richardson’s heroes); and that the ideal way to light the love-story’s blue touch-paper is via decorously impassioned, romantically idealistic letters. Tatyana myopically mistakes the louring Onegin – a chap from an entirely different book – for this improbable object of desire. Tchaikovsky omits one of Pushkin’s jovial ironies: old Mrs L only ever pretended to have read Richardson, in an attempt to appear clever.
Meanwhile, Tatyana’s sister Olga would seem (like her mother) to have never read a book: pretty, jolly and winsome, she is ideally cut out, like Lydia Bennet, for a life of flirtation and fickleness. We can only agree with Onegin that with her ‘round, lifeless face, like the silly moon up in the silly sky’, she’s a poor fit for the poet’s muse. Duly wounding poor Lensky’s oversensitive soul with her fluttering eyelashes, she barely waits until he is cold in the ground before gallivanting off with a cavalry officer – no doubt the spitting image of the chap her mother had eyes for all those years ago.
Relatives are sadly low-profile or reticent in next season’s other offerings: Danilo’s uncle in loco parentis in The Merry Widow nixed his affair with Hanna in the past, and old Guglielmo in Puccini’s Le Villi is an identikit operatic backwoodsman who, not too surprisingly, fails to see through the love-rat Roberto. More intriguing is the entirely unmentioned mother of Delius’s diligent sex-worker, Margot.
The chances are, I guess, that she was also on the game. Or, like Gilda’s mother, dead. More fun, though, to imagine her a prim, proper bourgeoise, like the mother in the Victorian music-hall song. Here, the wayward daughter, arrested as a prostitute, flees from the police and hurls herself into the Thames to drown. The perky chorus concludes:
Had she listened to her mother, had she hearkened to her words,
all her life would now be sunshine, and as happy as the birds!
Every pain would be a pleasure, every grief with joy beguiled –
had she only listened kindly to her mother when a child!
Though, as I have tried to demonstrate, it’s a lesson operatic characters would on the whole be advised to ignore.