UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The roles of "mothers" in opera as exemplified by Fides (Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete); Kostelnicka (Janacek’s Jenufa); Mrs. Patrick de Rocher (Heggie’s Dead Man Walking) Harder, Caroline Hilda


Mothers in operatic plots are mostly absent; when present, they are generally sung by a mezzo-soprano and are considered “supporting” roles. This dissertation attempts to elucidate what led to the scarcity of mothers as important characters in opera, and to the apparent stereotyping of the role with the mezzo-soprano voice type. Chapter 1 introduces the topic, while chapter 2 explores the aesthetics of the singing voice throughout various periods during which the “preferred vocal ideal” changed, as vocal ranges were equated with the personification and stereotyping of certain character types. Influences which affected the evolution of plot paradigms are also investigated. A summary of opera libretti from the seventeenth to the twentieth century supports historical evidence drawn from the above context and identifies the mother characters in these operas (see Appendix A). Chapters 3, 4, and 5 offer three case studies of the treatment of operatic “mothers” who are central to the plot of the operas in which they, respectively, appear: Fids from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète, Kostelnicka from Janácek’s Jenufa, and Mrs. Patrick De Rocher from Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking. Each includes an investigation of the opera’s context, the dramatic study of the mother character, an analysis of the musical settings of the drama, and performance aspects. A brief interview with Jake Heggie is included in Appendix B. This study concludes that the presence/absence of the mother character is influenced by vocal aesthetics as conventionalized by Metastasian opera seria plots, and by subsequent opera plot conventions formulated through socio-cultural values. Despite the difference in time, place and musical style among the operas studied, the problems and feelings of the mother character have not changed much from the nineteenth century to the twentieth. Whether sung by a mezzo-soprano, or, occasionally, by a soprano, a timeless stereotype of the mother character emerges: a woman tormented between the love for her children and her moral duties.

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