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Moms In Opera: Women On The Edge

Mozart's Queen of the Night (portrayed here by soprano Diana Damrau), in his <em>The Magic Flute</em>, is one of opera's more intense mothers.
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Mozart's Queen of the Night (portrayed here by soprano Diana Damrau), in his The Magic Flute, is one of opera's more intense mothers.

We love mothers for all the Hallmark reasons: for their compassion and patience, not to mention giving birth. But some moms aren't exactly greeting card friendly — and none less so than those who live in the opera house.

This is opera, after all, so we expect the outrageous. But operatic moms seem to be disproportionately portrayed as murderers, harpies or generally women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Your Normas, Medeas, Butterflies, Queens of the Night and Clytemnestras.

But dads are found in all kinds of touching musical moments. There's Wotan's moving farewell to his daughter Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, Boris' heart-rending scene with his little son in Boris Godunov and the two-hankie reunion of Boccanegra and his long lost daughter in Simon Boccanegra by Verdi, a composer with a rich catalog of poignant father figures.

But why the disparity? The answer must lie beyond the fact that all these composers are men. Perhaps men with a few hangups?

Unsure of a theory, I looked up Susan McClary, a music professor at Case Western Reserve University and author of Feminine Endings: Music, Gender and Sexuality. She says mothers often get the short end of the stick, whether it's in fairy tales, Shakespeare or many other shared narratives.

"Within patriarchal societies, nubile women provide the pretexts for homosocial bonding," McClary says. "So long as women are valued for their beauty, they will fear becoming their mothers. And men, who grow up knowing the domestic authority of their mothers, dread them. So mothers become either invisible or monstrous. Opera is in good — or bad — company, depending on your point of view."

Got a theory of your own, or a favorite operatic mom we missed? Please let us know in the comments section. Meanwhile, listen to a few famous operatic mothers in high stress mode. They are strong characters for sure, but you wouldn't necessarily want to call them mom.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.
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