May 11, 2023

Opera's worst mothers

When you think of opera's most heartwarming parent-child relationships, mothers don't often come to mind. Rather, it's the mad and murderous moms we enjoy watching onstage. They're dangerous, devastating, and they get some of the best arias. From killer Queens to high priestesses, we've compiled a list of some of opera's worst operatic mothers just in time for Mother's Day.

Queen of the Night, Mozart's The Magic Flute

Most mothers ask you to clean your room; Pamina’s mother asks her to kill a man. Even going so far as to hand her the knife and threaten to disown her if she doesn’t help Mama get her vengeance. To top it all off, she promises her daughter’s hand in marriage to an evil — not to mention ugly — minion when a perfectly good Prince is available.

Kathryn Lewek as Queen of the Night in Lyric's 2016/17 production of Mozart's The Magic Flute.

Klytemnestra, Strauss's Elektra

When you kill the beloved father of your children in order to be with another man, family dinners are bound to be awkward. The power-hungry mother exiles her son, and pits her daughters against each other, driving Elektra mad — enough so that she happily dances in a pool of her mother's blood in the final act.

Michaela Martens as Klytämnestra and Nina Stemme as Elektra in Lyric's 2018/19 production of Strauss's Elektra.

Azucena, Verdi's Il trovatore

While she didn't know she was throwing her own baby into a fire, she still purposefully threw a baby into a fire. Instead of accepting her less-than-stellar parenting abilities, she decides to raise her enemy's youngest son as her own. Too bad she didn't tell him who he was until his own brother was about to kill him.

Jamie Barton as Azucena and Russell Thomas as Manrico in Lyric's 2018/19 production of Verdi's Il trovatore.

Norma, Bellini's Norma

Forced to raise her illegitimate children in secret, this high priestess considers killing them in order to "save them" from dishonor of their father's abandonment. Luckily, she reconsiders. Unluckily, she and their father both choose to die on a sacrificial funeral pyre for their sins, leaving the children orphaned.

Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of Norma in Lyric's 2016/17 production.

Kostelnička, Janáček's Jenůfa

Jenůfa's stepmother, while deeply misguided, always believes that she is acting in her stepdaughter's best interest. In trying to protect Jenůfa from an imprudent marriage, she sets off a series of unfortunate events that lead to her tossing her own grandchild in an icy river. Disturbingly enough, there are no hard feelings in the end and Jenůfa forgives her stepmother for killing her child while she was asleep.

Karita Mattila as Kostelnička in the Royal Opera House's 2021 production of Janácek's Jenůfa. This role will be played by Nina Stemme in Lyric's 2023/24 Season.

Madame de la Haltière, Massenet's Cendrillon

In a somewhat refreshing change of pace, this stepmother is more selfish than truly evil. The haughty Countess is dedicated to the happiness of her own two daughters and married a meek country gentleman to offer them stability. Too bad it's at the expense of his own daughter, Lucette, who she bullies relentlessly.

Elizabeth Bishop as Madame de la Haltière, Emily Pogorelc as Noémie, and Kayleigh Decker as Dorothée in Lyric's 2018/19 production of Massenet's Cendrillon.

Being a mom is hard work. Being a mom in a tragic opera is even harder. This Mother's Day, we'd like to celebrate all of the dedicated mother-figures who have successfully avoided the death, drama, and general devastation that makes us love to hate their onstage counterparts. Cheers to you!

Header photo: Michaela Martens as Klytemnestra in Strauss's Elektra. Credit: Andrew Cioffi/Lyric Opera of Chicago

All other photos: Andrew Cioffi, Tristam Kenton/ROH, Todd Rosenberg, Cory Weaver