The Top 10 Dysfunctional Families in Opera

Monday, August 29, 2011 - 01:52 PM

This weekend, as a precursor to the blustery Hurricane Irene, the summer's indie hit Our Idiot Brother opened in theaters, jamming marijuana dealing, incarceration, parole, infidelity, a pregnancy arising from said infidelity, a crazed mother who falls asleep white wine in hand and no small amount of sibling rivalry into a family of five.

Now there's a lot to love about this family, and the comedic chops of Paul Rudd, Steve Coogan, Emily Mortimer, Adam Scott, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel and Rashida Jones make all of this waywardness endearing and charming. But the same issues taken on an operatic level can spell disaster. And with a few offbeat family values making their way into the Met's Summer HD Festival this week, what better time to name names? Read on for our top 10 picks, and tell us below: What's your favorite dysfunctional family in opera?

10. Gluck: Iphigénie en Tauride (1779)
The clan of Clytaemnestra, Orestes, Agamemnon, Electra and Iphigenia is one of the greatest instances of pure familial chaos. See: Strauss’s Elektra, a precursor to the events that take place in Gluck’s own Greek rhapsody, focusing on Oreste after he has killed his mother. Yes, here everything ends happily, but you have to imagine that Iphigénie is looking at some hefty therapy bills after almost ritually sacrificing her own brother. If you want to see real sibling revelry in action, you can see Susan Graham and Plácido Domingo sing the star roles of this work tonight at the Met in HD’s Summer Festival.

9. Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia (1833)
Even the Ashtons of Lammermoor can’t compete with the Borgias, a family who—while fostering a number of important Renaissance artists—mastered their own art of what Wikipedia neatly lists as “adultery, simony, theft, rape, bribery, incest and murder.” Donizetti’s opera may not be true to Lucrezia’s actual life story (she died following complications after childbirth), but that doesn’t make his Hugo-based story of Lucrezia falling in love with a man later revealed to be her son and his subsequent death at her hands any less delightfully twisted. Her own subsequent death is complemented by a sublime cabaletta.

8. Berg: Lulu (1937)
Neither of Alban Berg’s operas boast families that will issue Oprah-endorsed parenting guides anytime soon, however his femme fatale Lulu ekes out over her male counterpart in Wozzeck for a series of catastrophic marriages and a strange homeless man who may or may not be her father and may or may not have slept with her. As if that weren’t enough, this opera boasts one of the most gleefully deranged moments: The widow Lulu, seducing the son of her late husband—murdered at her own hands—asks “Isn't this the couch on which your father bled to death?" Evidently, this works as a pickup line.

7. Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande (1902)
The love triangle is one thing: How many romantic comedies have been founded on two crazy kids marrying and then one spouse falling for their mate’s brother or sister or best friend? However, how many romantic comedies also make the newlyweds live with a grandfather king who is a few cards short of a full deck, a jealous husband who makes his own son spy on his new wife and brother and who eventually kills that same brother after he tries to escape the craziness that is their ancestral castle. Worst of all, however, is Mélisande, a fatalistic femme fatale who appears out of nowhere, is found in the woods and, giving credence to Léonard A. Rosmarin’s interpretation in When Literature Becomes Opera, is aware of the trouble she’s stirring and blithely lets it carry on anyway.  Actually, with Gianni Schicchi under his belt, this could be a really interesting work for Woody Allen to take on.

6. Handel: Agrippina (1709)
A lot of Handel’s historical operas center around those incongruous workings of the ancient empires. But nothing beats the precursor to ambitious stage moms everywhere—Agrippina—attempting, after hearing that her husband, Claudius, has died at sea, to make her son Nero Holy Roman Emperor (against his will). From there, the plot dissolves into Claudius turning up alive and offering the throne to Nero so he can play with his new mistress Poppaea. Problem is, everyone loves Poppaea and everyone also wants the throne and the tangled web is complicated even more by a healthy dose of Handelian deceit from all sides. Even at the end, when things wrap neatly, Agrippina still saves her hide by lying to a believing Claudius. The throne and the girl shift hands a few more times before settling safely. Knowing, however, what happens historically to these characters, means the awkwardness is far from over.

5. Verdi: Don Carlo (1867)
Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition: Giuseppe Verdi may have been no stranger to slightly-askew family values, from burning the wrong baby in Il Trovatore to a single dad’s parenting values run amok in Rigoletto to having a severely unhinged daughter in Nabucco. However, all of these pale in comparison to the Spanish monarchs in Don Carlo, which features a son in (mutual) love with his young stepmother, at political cross-purposes with his father that nearly results in a royal auto-da-fé and a ghostly grandfather who carries out his kin’s demise from beyond the grave. Catch a Lincoln Center screening of this on September 5 at 7:15 pm as part of the Met’s Summer HD Festival.

4. Strauss: Salome (1905)
As mentioned earlier, Strauss had one set of daffy siblings to boast with Elektra. However, four years prior to that he struck real gold with the story of Herodes, Herodias and Salome. Elektra’s own daddy issues pale in comparison to Salome, who works a nubile sexuality that would make Nabokov’s Lolita look like a nun in order to manipulate her stepfather-uncle into decapitating John the Baptist—all to the delight of her mother. However, Herod turns the tables on his stepdaughter-niece following this and has her executed. Did ancient Judaea have a department of child services?

3. Janacek: Jenufa (1904)
Here’s a mouthful courtesy of Leos Janacek: Steva, Laca and Jenufa are all not-too-distantly related. Jenufa is in love with Steva and pregnant with his child, but Laca is in love with Jenufa to the point where he slashes her cheek out of spite. Steva falls out of love with Jenufa because of her scar but she still gives birth to his child, but because Jenufa’s stepmother, the Kostelnicka, wants her to marry, she drowns the baby so that Laca and Jenufa can marry without scandal. (Inhale) Then on Jenufa and Laca’s wedding day, the baby’s body is found in the thawing ice and the entire village is about to prosecute its mother, and it’s only when the Kostelnicka confesses to the crime that Jenufa learns her child did not die in its sleep, but was murdered at the hands of her stepmother. That’ll make for some fun holiday dinners.

2. Bernstein: A Quiet Place (1983-4)
We see dysfunctional families in many operas, but rarely does a character articulate such maladjustment as the chorus does in Bernstein’s problematic opus, singing in Act I: “What a fucked up family!” Picking up—and even absorbing—the plot of Bernstein’s one-act Trouble in Tahiti (which the composer wrote on his honeymoon, take that bit if info how you will), A Quiet Place features a philandering, misogynistic father reuniting with his damaged daughter, her sexually-ambiguous husband and her mentally-ill brother who was also a lover of her husband in the wake of his depressive wife’s alcohol-induced death. It’s seemingly impossible to shoehorn any other affectations into that breakdown.

1. Wagner: The Ring Cycle (1869-76)
Really? You’re going to offer your imperious wife’s sister up as collateral against an overblown housing project? Really? You know that you’re siblings yet you’re still going to run off to the woods and make a baby? Really? You’re going to have another pair of semi-siblings profess undying romantic love for one another? Really?! Really. No wonder it all goes to hell in Götterdämmerung. 

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Comments [11]

Nancy Thomson from Seattle

Loved the witty article, and the video clips. Thanks so much! Isn't opera fun!

Aug. 30 2011 11:10 PM
roopa from brooklyn

I meant The Medium. Was hearing Black Swan in my head and typed that instead!

Aug. 30 2011 09:37 PM
roopa from brooklyn

Menotti's The Black Swan. Sham alcoholic medium uses her young daughter and mute orphan boy to trick people into thinking dead loved ones are communicating with them. In a drunken fit, medium shoots orphan boy, with whom daughter was in love. Not a house in which I'd want to grow up, much less spend any time!!!

Aug. 30 2011 06:52 PM
John Clark from New Jersey

How about the Mannons in Marvin David Levy's 'Mourning Becomes Electra'?

Aug. 30 2011 06:41 PM
Devon Estes from Flatbush, NY

I nominate "Anna Nicole," especially since it's based in real life. Also, Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex. Any family that gets a disorder named after it is pretty fantastically dysfunctional.

Aug. 30 2011 05:19 PM
Greg. Elfers from Teaneck NJ

Headstrong mother and widow (Queen of the night) loses her daughter (Pamina) to a demon and priest of a temple of wisdom (Sorastro). In an attempt to take over the world, the mother use a local prince (Tamino) and his newly found friend to do her bidding and kill the demon. Turns out the demon is actually pretty smart and the prince joins the order with the lost daughter. To boot the Queen's dead husband was also in the brotherhood. Here's the dysfunctional part. The mother appears in a vision to her daughter and says that if she doesn't kill the demon all the mother's love for her daughter is dead. Kill your father's buddy or feel my wrath!

Aug. 30 2011 03:29 PM
Stephen from Manhattan

I vote for Cherubini's Medea. Nothing causes family dysfunction quite like infanticide.

Aug. 30 2011 03:08 PM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

Great article. Too bad Lucrezia Borgia gets such a bad rap. It is very common for rival families to spread rumors about women from other families as being whores. Lucrezia died from childbirth complications. She had quite a few children with her last husband. She was forced to marry men who would be advantageous to the Borgias. As for The Ring, well what can we say. Interspecies sex, incest, murder, fratricide, greed, etc. Great family hour. Great music.

Aug. 30 2011 10:05 AM
Max from Sunnyside, Queens

Does City Opera count? Just kidding... I think you covered it well. Great article!

Aug. 29 2011 07:29 PM

Oh yes, George. It's my belief that most of the families/casts of Handel's operas (and Mozart's—especially Le Nozze di Figaro, Cosí and Idomeneo) would give even the Bluths from Arrested Development a run for their maladjusted money.

Aug. 29 2011 07:06 PM
George Jochnowitz from New York

Medoro and Angelico don't get married until the end of Handel's ORLANDO, so perhaps they don't count as a married couple during the opera. But they are as dysfunctional as can be, although they are nowhere as crazy as Orlando himself.
This gloriously beautiful opera may have the most unreasonable of all characters in the history of opera plots, which is saying a great deal.

Aug. 29 2011 05:41 PM

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