Just In Time For Father's Day: Bad Dads In Opera

Renee Montagne talks to music commentator Miles Hoffman, who says his candidate for opera's most evil father is the character of Alberich from Richard Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's hear now from the opera, "Iphigenia in Aulis."

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "IPHIGENIA IN AULIS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Agamemnon, singing in foreign language).

MONTAGNE: This is the Greek king Agamemnon who, in the ultimate act of bad parenting, is about to sacrifice his daughter to please the gods. Still, Agamemnon is just part of a long list of bad dads in Opera. And here to talk about them and ruin your Father's Day is MORNING EDITION music commentator Miles Hoffman. Good morning.

MILES HOFFMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee. You know, he's not that bad. He kind of changes his mind. He tries to save his daughter. But it still - it's not...

MONTAGNE: It's not the nicest thing...

HOFFMAN: Is not the greatest thing for Father's Day. Yeah. I think I'll have my daughter killed so that my soldiers can sail on and attack Troy.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, there is one thing about all this though, Miles. You know, you run into lots of doomed young lovers in Opera. But we don't so much think of male characters as fathers.

HOFFMAN: Well, there are lots of fathers in Opera, Renee. And some of them are actually really bad, downright evil. Those are usually the most interesting ones.

MONTAGNE: All right. Well, amongst that interesting crowd, what would be your candidate for the most evil father?

HOFFMAN: I think I'd have to go with Alberich, Renee. Alberich, from "The Ring Of The Nibelung," the four operas that make up Richard Wagner's Ring cycle - the famous Ring cycle. And Alberich is bad in just so many ways. First of all - or last of all, actually - in the last opera of the ring, Alberich makes sure that his son kills Siegfried, who's the hero of the whole cycle. This is very, very bad parenting, to have your son kill the hero. But actually, Alberich had set the whole thing in motion with gold, and stealing gold, and making a ring, and cursing the ring and just...All sorts of people die - sons, and daughters and everything because of Alberich - very, very bad.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "DAS RHEINGOLD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Alberich, singing in foreign language).

HOFFMAN: My curse you cannot escape. That's Alberich cursing the ring, from Wagner's, "Das Rheingold."

MONTAGNE: So Miles, guess he's not getting a Father's Day card.

HOFFMAN: (Laughing) No, we're not sending him a card. And he's not the only bad father in the Ring cycle, Renee. There's also Siegmund, who has an affair with his sister. And then there's Wotan, who's the king of the gods. And he has affairs with both a mortal woman and an immortal woman. And he's the father of all the Valkyries. So he was the father of Brunnhilde, Gerhilde, Ortlinde, Waltraute, Schwertleite, Helmwige, Siegrune, Grimgerde and Rossweisse.

MONTAGNE: Lot...

HOFFMAN: Would you like to repeat those names?

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Well, let's take a break from Wagner.

HOFFMAN: Yes, yes.

MONTAGNE: And tell us about other bad dads from other composers.

HOFFMAN: Well, how about another curse, Renee? And a father who manages to get his daughter assassinated.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "RIGOLETTO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Rigoletto, singing in foreign language).

HOFFMAN: The end of Giuseppe Verdi's "Rigoletto." That was the title character, Rigoletto, singing, she's dead, the curse.

MONTAGNE: So Rigoletto was responsible for his daughter's death?

HOFFMAN: Yes. He was very careless. I'm afraid, though; this was an assassination plot that went bad, Renee. Although, Rigoletto had been cursed at the beginning of the Opera, and he blamed the curse.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, I'm kind of wondering, can we get away, maybe, from all the death and doom? I mean, I'm thinking a bit of, maybe, of a dad who was a no-show at his daughter's or son's first recital - that kind of bad dad..

HOFFMAN: No, Renee. This is Opera.

(LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: So we can't do that. We're still with death and doom. But I can give you a father who's very protective of his daughter. So on one level, an admirable role model - but a guy with a very bad temper. He gets killed protecting his daughter. And then he shows up for dinner as a singing statue. And then he drags his daughter's attacker to a fiery doom.

MONTAGNE: And this singing, statue father would be?

HOFFMAN: This would be the Commendatore, the commander, the father of Donna Anna, in Mozart’s, "Don Giovanni."

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "DON GIOVANNI")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Commendatore, singing in foreign language).

HOFFMAN: That's the Commandatore, Renee - the stone guest, singing the music of Mozart.

MONTAGNE: Well, Miles, indulge me here. Father's Day is a happy holiday. We love our dads. So let's go out with something related to fathers and their children that's beautiful.

HOFFMAN: OK. Why don't we try, "Gianni Schicchi," by Puccini? Gianni Schicchi, in the opera, "Gianni Schicchi," is the father of Lauretta. And although he's not exactly pure as the driven snow, in the end he manages to work things out very cleverly so that Lauretta can marry the man she loves, Rinuccio. And they live happily, ever after. So in the famous aria, "O Mio Babbino Caro," "Oh my dear Papa," Lauretta tells her dad how much she loves Rinuccio.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "GIANNI SCHICCHI")

(As Lauretta, singing in foreign language)

HOFFMAN: I think lots of people here this, Renee, and think it's a love song - think this is a woman sitting to her lover. And actually, she's singing to her dad. She's singing to her daddy, oh, my dear papa - o, mio babbino caro. She's essentially begging him for permission to marry the man she loves.

MONTAGNE: And Miles, you have a couple of daughters who love you very much, I happen to know, Eva and Jillian. Happy Father's Day.

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is the violist of the American Chamber Players and associate professor of viola at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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