Our collective obsession with fathers and father figures is nothing new. (See: Christianity, the Ancient Greeks, the American Revolution, Freud, Harry Chapin.) However, we may be reaching an era of peak Dad Obsession. According to Google Trends, searches for “daddy issues” reached an all-time high in December 2020 after a gradual incline since 2004. On TikTok, @dadsofhistory is “passionate about knowing if the great men of history were good dads.” Conversely, the popular podcast “You Are Good,” formerly known as “Why Are Dads,” explores the many facets of fatherhood–good, bad, and nebulous–through film.
It’s this nebulous underbelly that’s most interesting when considering some of opera’s most famous fathers and father figures. How far off-balance is their moral center? What sort of shadow does their legacy cast across the work as a whole? What happens when we consider the composers’ and librettists’ biographies, including their own paternal relationships? For an art form that’s often criticized for being “too unrealistic,” the fathers of opera are incredibly human, their words and actions often hitting uncomfortably close to home.
Which is exactly what this Father’s Day playlist is for. These arias, duets, and scenes—sung by and about fathers—present some of opera’s most famous patriarchs, and the real-life sons and fathers who composed them, in all their multifaceted, complicated glory.
“Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!” (Wotan’s Farewell) from “Die Walküre” (1870)
“I am the saddest of all men,” Wotan laments at the beginning of “Die Walküre.” He’s caught between protecting his son Siegmund in battle, and honoring his wife Fricka’s charge that Siegmund be punished for running off with (and impregnating) his own sister. Such a tight-knit circle of (at times literal) incest wasn’t too far off from Wagner’s own world of paternal politics, which began with him falsely believing that his own father was Ludwig Geyer, included a marriage to Liszt’s daughter, and has continued into a dynasty seemingly more chaotic with each generational iteration.
By the end of “Die Walküre,” Siegmund is killed and Wotan must abandon another child, his daughter Brünnhilde. If he was the saddest of all men at the beginning of the evening, this loss renders him impotent. It’s a legacy of his own hubris, one that Brünnhilde herself ends in “Götterdämmerung.” The Wagner legacy cycles on.
“Sois immobile” from “Guillaume Tell” (1829)
It’s rare to encounter a father without some veil of secrecy draped over parts of his life. Much of our own lives are lived under the influence of those unknowables. Why, for instance, did Rossini retire from opera at 37, with nearly 40 years left ahead of him? It might be that Rossini himself draws the veil back for us with his final opera, “Guillaume Tell.”
“I’ll tell you that the feeling which moved me most in my life was the love I had for my mother and my father, and they repaid it at a usurer’s rate of interest,” Rossini told Wagner when the two met in 1860. “It was there, I think, that I found the note that I needed for this scene of the apple in ‘Guillaume Tell.’”
Rossini refers to “Sois immobile,” which Tell sings to his son, Jemmy, after being ordered on the point of death to shoot an apple off the boy’s head. It’s an aria-as-armament, a lament worthy of Bach in the face of Austrian-occupied Switzerland. But it’s also a startlingly intimate moment across a vast grand opera. Tell is no Wagnerian hero; rather he is, as philosopher Susanne Langer best put it, a “citizen, husband, father, friend, and patriot… [who] rises to the occasion, overcomes the enemy, frees his country, and returns to the peace, dignity, and harmonious joy of his home.”
Perhaps, like Tell, Rossini accomplished everything he needed to with this opera, which both looked ahead to the works of Verdi and Wagner and went back to the wellspring of paternal love the composer had experienced as a child. What else to do after that but return home?
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart:
“In diesen heil’gen Hallen” from “Die Zauberflöte” (1791)
“Thinking of writing a singable translation of ‘The Magic Flute’ that highlights how much of a dick Sarastro is,” composer Matthew Aucoin recently tweeted. Sure, the Queen of the Night is the traditional villain; Sarastro the noble hero. But just as many abusive fathers wage protracted custodial battles and spin false narratives for their children, not as a means of protection, but as a means of continued abuse. Remember that the next time you hear Sarastro’s stately, Socratic reasoning for not returning Pamina to her mother.
“Au bruit de la guerre” from “La fille du régiment” (1840)
“You went down cellar steps, where no glimmer of light ever penetrated,” Donizetti wrote to Simon Mayr. “And like an owl I took flight.” Mayr was Donizetti’s first music teacher, and encouraged his talent above and beyond the call of duty, so much that the composer would later refer to Mayr as his second father. Listening to the interplay between Marie—who was adopted by an army regiment when they found her abandoned as a baby—and the company’s leader Sulpice, you get a similar sense of the tenderness and devotion between a child and their father figure.
“Five fathoms deep” from “The Tempest” (2004)
In Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” Prospero is a character defined more by the contours of his angles—as irreconcilable as they are unavoidable—than some holistic idea of the self. He’s a devoted father to Miranda, but he’s also a colonizer who exploits Ariel and Caliban for his own ends. Those ends are a political power play that involves shipwrecking a group of nobles and orchestrating a match between his daughter and Ferdinand.
Ariel leads Ferdinand to Miranda through a taunting song beginning with the famous line “Full fathom five,” leaving Ferdinand with the false impression that his father (Prospero’s political rival) didn’t survive the shipwreck and is already disintegrating into coral on the ocean floor. In Meredith Oakes’s libretto for Thomas Adès’s operatic setting, Ariel first demands her “fee” for this service: her freedom. “Spirits must rise or atrophy,” she sings. “I only thrive In liberty!” Prospero responds by threatening to clip her wings and imprison her for another 12 years.
As a result, the aria itself atrophies, with angular musical lines that jump beyond octaves. It tells us as much about Prospero as it tells Ferdinand about his father.
“Wenn deine beiden grossen Kinderaugen nicht waren” from “Lulu” (1937)
When biographer Hermann Watznauer wrote of Alban Berg’s father that “death had already lodged itself in the chief organ of life,” he may as well have also been describing Berg’s later body of work. In terms of familial lines, intervals, and angles, Adès owes much to Berg, whose music can be described in similar terms as Conrad Berg:
“His pale face had uncommonly sharp and refined features. The eyes were deep-set, and eyelids that were unusually widely spaced terminated in a finely curved sweep under prominent, graying eyebrows. Tall and gaunt in appearance, he would not have struck anyone as a businessman.”
Full of fine curves and gaunt melodies, “Lulu” operates under the specter of its main character’s own absent father, which leads her to finding protection in Dr. Schön, which (after she murders Schön) leads her to his son, Alwa. Lulu’s seduction of Alwa climaxes with one of the greatest exchanges in the whole of the operatic canon, and one that can be endlessly unpacked:
Alwa: You have robbed me of reason!
Lulu: Isn’t this the couch on which your father bled to death?
“Sì, vendetta” from “Rigoletto” (1851)
At a similar fever pitch to both Adès and Berg is Verdi, with the finale to Act II of his “Rigoletto.” Much of the 1851 opera places emphasis on Rigoletto’s role as a father, but this duet captures how one-way and hollow that relationship becomes. Ultimately, it’s more important for Rigoletto to preserve his daughter’s honor than it is to preserve her life and well-being. Even now that he’s nearly 80, Leo Nucci is the uncontested king of this duet, leaving costars, conductors, orchestras, and audiences galloping to keep up with his single-minded pace.
“Oi! Duschno, duschno” from “Boris Godunov” (1869 Version)
In an attempt to grab power at the turn of the 17th century, Boris Godunov attempted to exterminate all the members of the Romanov family in order to maintain his legitimate claim to the throne of Russia. However, as Simon Sebag Montefiore writes in his account of the real-life events that underlie Mussorgsky’s opera, “the vanishing of royal children at the hands of power-hungry relatives has a fitting way of destroying the very power they seek.” This proves prophetic at the end of Mussorgsky’s retelling of events (based on Pushkin’s 1825 play). As Boris dies in a monologue shifting between lucidity and madness, he counsels his young son: “Stay pure, Fyodor, this will give you strength and power.” A few minutes later, he gasps out deliriously: “I am still Tsar!”
He was wrong on both counts, but this duality plays into Mussorgsky’s image of Boris as a pretty good dad despite being a poor politician. With the benefit of history in hindsight, Mussorgsky alludes to this as well, bringing back the pomp and bombast of Boris’s coronation scene here, signaling Fyodor’s ascent to the throne, but distorting the chords just enough to foreshadow the 16-year-old’s reign, which—along with the Godunov power—would end after roughly six weeks with his murder.
“Fuggi, crudele, fuggi!” from “Don Giovanni” (1787)
Mozart wrote “Don Giovanni” the year of his father’s death, and opens the work with its own death of a patriarch: Giovanni’s murder of the Commendatore. When Donna Anna discovers her father’s lifeless body, she’s unhinged with grief. Librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte then gives Don Ottavio one of the more awkward attempts at consolation over a still-warm corpse: “Forget these bitter memories. You’ll have father and husband in me.” Considering “Don Giovanni” was based in part on Da Ponte’s compatriot Casanova (who purportedly slept with his own daughter), it’s hard to read this line as purely a figure of speech.
“Salome, ich beschwöre dich” from “Salome” (1905)
After convincing his teenage stepdaughter to dance for him in exchange for anything her heart desires, Herod hesitates to make good on his promise when Salome demands the head of John the Baptist. He attempts to extricate himself from this arrangement by offering her the whole of his coffers: opals that burn with an icelike flame, a crystal that no other woman is allowed to behold, turquoise that allows its wearer to see that which is not real. Instead, Salome demands that he keep his oath. Is Herod, who ordered the Massacre of the Innocents, horrified at Salome’s demand that he kill on her behalf? Or is he horrified that he was, for once, held to account?
“Dear Daddy, Daddy dear… Merry Christmas to you, too” from “A Quiet Place” (1983)
Few words, when spoken by adults, are as loaded as “Daddy,” and librettist Stephen Wadsworth takes deadly aim with that phrase in “A Quiet Place.” At Sam’s funeral, his children recall a time when they were closer, caressing the word “Daddy” with childlike innocence. The layered trio lulls you into a sense of false security before Sam’s son, Junior, quickly turns from reminiscence to grievance. The melody warps into a striptease, which also contorts the word into something far more unsettling—especially after reading Jamie Bernstein’s own memoir of growing up in the shadow of Lenny:
“Daddy pulled his old trick: kissing me fully on the lips, then pushing his tongue into my mouth.… but my dismay was tempered by knowing he did it to so many others. The intrusion of Daddy’s tongue was an occasion less for revulsion and more for weary eye-rolling.”
“Ella giammai m’amò” from “Don Carlo” (1867)
“Don Carlo” is most often viewed through the lens of its title character: The woman he loves and to whom he’s betrothed is intercepted by his father as part of a peace treaty, becomes his stepmother, and sets up an impossible dynamic between love and country. But Filippo II is also situated in between loyalties and generational expectations. The spirit of his own father, Carlo V, hangs over the course of the opera like the threat of the Inquisition. In this stunning, sad aria of sleepless nights and loveless marriage, Verdi lets us in on Filippo’s own humanity, not as an excuse but as explanation. How rare it is to see our own fathers’ interiors.
“Wir arme Leut” from “Wozzeck” (1925)
While William Tell is able to accept the slings, arrows, and injustices of life with stoic resistance and fight for a better, fairer world, Wozzeck exemplifies the men who are crushed under the system. At the beginning of the opera, Wozzeck is already at the end of his rope against the burdens of being a father, provider, and man. What we’re left with is the slow-motion footage of that rope breaking apart, fiber-by-fiber.
“Ut navis in aequore luxuriante” from “Apollo et Hyacinthus” (1767)
Written when the composer was just 11, Mozart’s “Apollo et Hyacinthus” presages “Idomeneo” in its exploration of father-son dynamics and deus-ex-machina. Believing his son Hyacinth to have been killed by Apollo, Oebalus breaks off the god’s engagement with his daughter. When he hears Hyacinth’s final words, and learns that he had been deceived, Oebalus descends into a sea of fury like a ship pitched on merciless waves.
It would have been a lifetime later when Mozart, at 22, was in Paris with his mother—his first trip without patriarch Leopold in tow—and feeling similarly lost as he tried and failed to gain commissions or a position. He was all the more devastated when, after a brief illness, his mother died. Leopold didn’t help matters by blaming his son for the loss of his wife:
“You had your engagements, you were away all day, and as she didn’t make a fuss, you treated her condition lightly. All the time her illness became more serious, in fact, mortal—and only then was a doctor called in, when of course it was too late.”
This response began an estrangement between father and son that would last until Leopold’s own death nine years later. It’s easy to imagine the famous father in the near-decade between those shores, in a state of extended bitterness and resentment, unable to find peace.
“Opera within opera” from “Galileo Galilei” (2002)
Far more harmonious as paternal relationships go was that of Galileo Galilei and his daughter Virginia who, upon entering a nunnery, took on the name Maria Celeste in honor of her father’s study of the heavens. Their mutual love and devotion to one another was maintained even as Galileo was condemned by the Catholic church for his theory that the earth revolves around the sun. “Even after she professed a life of prayer and penance,” writes biographer Dava Sobel, “she remained devoted to Galileo as though to a patron saint.”
This in and of itself has become a compelling mystery: How did this deep and mutual devotion survive a literal inquisition? Galileo bought a villa with a view of the convent that housed Maria Celeste. When, in 1633, he was convicted of heresy for his scientific beliefs, he was sentenced to reciting a series of penitential Psalms every week for three years; a penance that his daughter also took up, but died before completing.
For Philip Glass, whose name evokes cyclical oscillations of intervals, to write an opera about Galileo is practically its own scientific given. That Galileo’s own father, Vincenzo Galilei, was one of the people responsible for the advent of opera is just one more element that comes full circle. In keeping with this, Glass and librettist Mary Zimmerman end the opera at the beginning: young Galileo in the audience for one of his father’s operas, the story of Orion and Merope. Knowing what happens to Galileo later in life, we read the opera-within-an-opera as an allegory for the trials that will come with a life of observing the cosmos. But we also see in it a metaphoric reunion between Galileo and Maria Celeste. ¶