Opera and Romanticism
Sounds Romantic: The Castrato and English Poetics Around 1800
J. Jennifer Jones, University of Rhode Island
In contrast to the notion that Italian opera has no relation to romantic opera or to romanticism generally, this essay demonstrates that the Italian castrato was a prominent figure in London during the period around 1800. The essay argues that the idea of the romantic castrato makes it possible to revise understandings of the (aggressive) relationship between sight and sound that is so often attributed to literary production of this period, particularly to William Wordsworth. The essay explores the ways that the castrati-c imagination (ironically) facilitates an analysis of romantic sound imagery that is mindful of materiality, offering in particular a reading of the relation between castrati, sound imagery, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. This essay appears in _Opera and Romanticism_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (http://www.rc.umd.edu/), University of Maryland.
There was a spot,
My favourite station when the winds were up,
Three knots of fir-trees small and circular,
Which with smooth space of open plain between
Stood single, for the delicate eye of Taste
Too formally arranged. Right opposite
The central group I loved to stand and hear
The wind come on and touch these several groves
Each after each, and thence in the dark night
Elicit soft proportions of sweet sounds
As from an instrument. "The strains are passed"
Thus often to myself I said, "the sounds
Even while they are approaching are gone by,
And now they are more distant, more and more.
O listen, listen how they wind away
Still heard they wind away, heard yet and yet . . .
— William Wordsworth
He had a voice proportioned to his gigantic stature, extending beyond the ordinary compass near an octave, in notes equally
clear and sonorous. At the same time he possessed such a degree of knowledge in the science of music, as he might be supposed
to have derived from the instructions of the skilfull Porpora, bestowed on a diligent and favourite pupil: with unexampled
agility and freedom did he traverse the paths . . . [of] success, till he became the idol of the Italians, and at length of
the harmonic world.
— Vincenzio Martinelli, 1758
Thinking about the realm of the aural in romantic-era art almost by nature implicates the realm of the visual in relation to the aural. Particularly where Wordsworth is concerned—who from his earliest topographical poetry imagines sound as an experience that emerges only after darkness has usurped the power of the eye—this relationship is one that seems to posit the realm of the aural as secondary. As John Hollander has written, the visual will always rule over the aural because the latter is less escapable; it cannot fully conform to the notion that faith is the evidence of things unseen. We can close our eyes in ways we simply cannot close our ears—"vision is far more directional than hearing, which is not 'To such a tender ball as th'eye confin'd' . . . [but instead] more 'diffus'd'" (59). Furthermore, whereas the visual is in constant dialogue with its contrasting term, the visionary, the aural is continually referred back to the fact that it has no such contrasting term, no vocabulary of transcendence. Ultimately the kingdom of the visual in Wordsworth's poetry is understood to be predicated on the power of the visual to reject the material world, a rejection that the aural does not, perhaps cannot, match. There is, in other words, an irreducibly sensual component to sound.
Because the critical imagination of this power of sight over sound has been so influential in terms of how we receive Wordsworth as well as how Wordsworth has influenced our ideas about romanticism, I choose here to think again about aural representation in both contexts and in relation to one another. Initially, one might be compelled to invoke Wordsworth's late ode concerned with remythologizing natural music, "On the Power of Sound," because this work is predicated on a reversal of the balance of power between the eye and the ear. Here audible harmony survives the destruction of the earth, sound survives image: "though Earth be dust / And vanish, though the Heavens dissolve, her stay / Is in the Word, that shall never pass away" (222-224). Wordsworth might be said to be trying to imagine an aural transcendence here, one that is predicated on the very subjection of sight to sound. The unpalatability of this argument, for me, is that it insists on an imagination of aggress, in which one sensual register must overcome the other for transcendence to become possible. Moreover, this is simply a reversal of terms, the recasting of a standard narrative that changes our understandings of sound and image in the context of Wordsworth's poetry little if at all. Is it possible that the representation of sound in Wordsworth's poetry specifically, and in romanticism generally, can open us up to a wider world without either setting sound against sight or relying on the standard rejection of the material for it to do so? My goal here is to think sound alongside rather than in relation to sight, and to do so in a way that confronts rather than concedes the priority of one over the other.
One place to begin is with the sheer pleasure Wordsworth associates with sound and to look carefully at precisely how he figures those sounds. In the great Ode, the poet insists, "I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!" (50). The sound that precipitates this exclamation is not that of the birds singing "a joyous song" (19) nor the "tabor's sound" (20) of which the poet also takes note, but rather the cataracts, which "blow their trumpets from the steep" (25). Similarly, as the poet looks out to the chasm opening up on the mist-covered Irish Sea in The Prelude, he hears "mounted" the "roar of waters, torrents, streams . . . roaring with one voice" (58-59). So often the sound with the most resonance in Wordsworth's poetry is quite literally high—the steep of the cataracts, the mounting of the torrents' voice. And yet sheer contrast draws our attention to the pitch of these sounds, which seems not high but rather low and deep—a blast, a roar.
In the Preface to Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth thinks carefully about sound. Among the attributes of the poet is his capacity to listen, and then to respond to what he hears by recapitulating it through what he terms the harmonious music of written language, poetry. To describe this principium of poetry Longinus used the word hypsous. In what is perhaps an explicit attempt to distance himself from Longinian, or more properly Augustan, poetics, Wordsworth's terms are joy, enjoyment, pleasure. Yet these concepts turn out to be exceptionally unstable in the context of the Preface, and moreover, their instability stems from that about which Longinus is quite explicit: hypsous, height. "We have no sympathy but what is propagated by pleasure" (258), Wordsworth writes, affirming the necessity of pleasure as the end game of poetry, which should, in turn, produce "an overbalance of enjoyment" (258) in readers. But Wordsworth's definition of pleasure is itself bifurcated, making it more difficult both to deploy and to receive than he initially admits. On the one hand there is "dignified" (255) pleasure, which Wordsworth describes as the product of natural utterance. On the other is the "painful and disgusting" (257) version of that passion, which, as the monstrous counterpart to dignified pleasure, is lowly or disgusting precisely because of its height: it is produced by language that finds it necessary to "trick out or elevate nature." Given that joy by definition elevates us, we are left to wonder how we can be at once elevated and low. What is the height and pitch of romantic poetics? What does it sound like?
Wordsworth's image of the cataracts blowing their trumpet from the steep hearkens to another trumpet image, one which sounded its notes in a far different context—that of Italian opera—but whose lore would have been almost impossible to avoid in England during the period around 1800. As the story goes, Nicola Porpora (1686-1766) introduced his pupil Carlo Broschi, who would become notorious both in England and throughout Europe under the name Farinelli, to a Roman audience in his opera "Flavio Anicio Olibrio" in 1722, during which the young singer spontaneously initiated a contest between himself and a gifted trumpeter. In 1772, Charles Burney recounted Farinelli's vocal competition with this trumpeter to English readers, making the story infamous:
there was a struggle every night between him [the young Farinelli] and a famous player on the trumpet . . . this, at first, seemed amicable and merely sportive, till the audience began to interest themselves in a contest, and to take different sides: after severally swelling a note, in which each manifested the power of his lungs, and tried to rival the other in brilliancy and force, they had both a swell and shake together, by thirds, which was continued so long, while the audience eagerly awaited the event, that both seemed to be exhausted; and, in fact, the trumpeter, wholly spent gave it up, thinking, however, that his antagonist as much tired as himself, and that it would be a drawn battle; when Farinelli, with a smile on his countenance, shewing he had only been sporting with him all that time, broke out all at once in the same breath, with fresh vigour, and not only swelled and shook the note, but ran the most rapid and difficult divisions, and was at last silenced only by the acclamations of the audience. From this period may be dated that superiority which he ever maintained over all his contemporaries. (Burney 213-214)
Upon hearing this tale, again we are left to wonder. What did this standoff, in which the young singer and the trumpet player at once imitated one another's sounds and yet pushed one another beyond them, sound like? Though we may well meet with another such accomplished trumpeter, we can never hope to meet with a singer whose vocal range, timbre, power, and technique can match that of Farinelli. In the first place, his voice was heralded as unprecedented by those who loved and those who detested Italian opera alike. It exercised such a powerful fascination over its listeners across Europe that in some instances it has been characterized as producing sublimity or transport, and in others pure frenzy. Reporting the response of London audiences to Farinelli upon his arrival there in 1734, Burney declares, "what an effect his surprising talents had . . . it was extacy! rapture! enchantment!" (216). Late eighteenth-century music historian Sir John Hawkins writes that "few hesitated to pronounce him the greatest singer in the world; this opinion was grounded on the amazing compass of his voice . . . sweet beyond expression . . . pass[ing] all description" (876). Mancini, a singer and contemporary of Farinelli, declares, "His voice was thought a marvel because it was so perfect, so powerful, so sonorous, so rich in its extent . . . its equal has never been heard" (Rogers 417). If, as Rodolfo Celletti has recently argued, virtuosity must be understood as "the capacity to perform exceptional feats in any field" (11), the capacity to "bring into being something which goes beyond the reality of everyday life and the normal capacities of human beings" (2), then Farinelli, as his standoff with the trumpeter suggests, is a genuine virtuoso. He is, according to Celletti's definition of the term, genuinely wonderful, producing "unreal, unworldly sounds . . . the embodiment of a vocal 'poetics of wonder'" (8). The sense that romanticism prioritizes image over sound because sound cannot overcome its immanence is unsettled by the voice of Farinelli, which seems to vastly increase the power of sound, his voice having been described by English listeners precisely by drawing on the vocabulary of transcendence.
Of course, the reason the sound of Farinelli's sublime voice is not only distinctive but also impossible to reproduce today is that he belonged to a class of singers that would not survive the nineteenth century, referred to variously as musici, evirati, and most commonly in London circles, castrati. This essay does not recall the figure of the castrato singer to mourn him, however, but rather to suggest this figure's relevance to the study of romantic poetics, particularly in terms of the opposition so often remarked upon the relationship of sight to sound. This relationship has been persistently elusive, because romantic-era culture defined itself in part through its opposition to the figure, and indeed the sound, of the castrato, which it fantasized as having purged in spite of the fact that castrati continued to enjoy great acclaim in London through the first two decades of the nineteenth century. By attempting to eliminate this figure, the structure of the romantic relationship to the castrato repeats the structure of opposition between sight and sound that is so often understood to organize romantic poetics. Becoming more attuned to the relationship of this figure of the castrato to romantic-era culture not only revises his history in the period, namely that his elimination cannot be associated as a quintessentially romantic endeavor, but also allows us to revise our understanding of the relationship between sight and sound on which the fantasy of his elimination is at least in part based.
One instructive example of poetic work to which we can productively turn in this regard is to Wordsworth's meditation on the sound of trees in an Alfoxden journal fragment (commonly referred to by this time as "There was a spot"), in which the "sweet sound" of the wind elicits from the trees "[a]s from an instrument." This piece serves as a substantial conjurer of what we might term the castrati-c imagination through its vivid representation of the materiality of sound as music, and one that locates this sound visually in a manner that does not oppose it to its evanescence, its temporality. Wordsworth narrator writes specifically of a "spot" where he most likes to listen, and he describes the three fir trees that define this spot as a spectacle perhaps "[t]oo formally arrayed" to please "the delicate eye of taste." Here is a Wordsworthian image that cannot be resolved to the aggressive relationship between visual and aural experience that we have so often associated with Wordsworth. Here the poet-narrator imagines an audio-visual scene of complementarity rather than competitiveness. In what follows I will undertake to study romantic sound through the figure of the castrato singer as an analogue to the image of Wordsworth listening to elm trees. Like these trees, the castrato's material presence became increasingly indelicate to the eye. The "too formal" array of Wordsworth's trees—which are suggestive of a Baroque, and thus backward, aesthetic—serve as an analogy for the spectacle of the castrato singer not only as a voice but also as a body. This notion of embarrassing or insulting the "eye of taste" through form is crucial to the reception of castrati in the period around 1800. Wordsworth insists on drawing the spectacle of the trees into view even as he acknowledges the indelicacy of such a spectacle and the probability that it will be discomforting to his readers. Why is this insistence useful? As the vocabulary of transcendence began to associate itself with the sounds of Italian opera and the castrato singer, this vocabulary became a way to try to escape the uncomfortable corporeality of the singers themselves. Thus, while sound has been, and continues to be, understood as too material, not fully able to decouple from the realm of the material, fantasies of a disembodied voice increasingly defined the imagination for the castrato singer on the part of English listeners and readers. As Gillen Wood argues, for example, Francis Burney's representation of the experience of listening to a castrato at the opera in Evelina and Cecilia is conspicuously disembodied—any and all description of the castrato's corporeality is absent, being transposed into the sound of his sublime voice. Such escape tactics, in which the image of the castrato is wrenched from the sound of his voice in the name of delicacy or comfort is significant both to the study of the castrato specifically and to the study of image/sound relations in romanticism more generally. I hope to show that the castrato in London during the period around 1800 is a powerful figure precisely because it enables the rethinking of the aggressive relation of vision and sound that is so often attributed to the poetic production of this period, not least of which that of Wordsworth. Moreover, I hope to show that this rethinking is an enterprise to which Wordsworth himself, as well as other romantic-era writers, contributes.
Castrati singers emerged in southern Europe during the latter half of the sixteenth century where they found a place in Papal choirs; rose to acclaim in Italy both as church singers and throughout Europe as chamber and opera singers during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the first castrato making a public appearance in London in 1707; and then fell into relative decline by first quarter of the nineteenth century, the very last castrato reported to perform in London being in 1844. In the twenty-first century, castrati singers are extinct. The cultural practice of privileging a boy's throat over his testicles has become ideologically and morally untenable, the very fact that this practice ever was tenable, particularly, as John Rosselli points out, in modern times and at the heart of Western Christiandom, having long been an embarrassment. But, then as now, castrati singers have not only aroused fear and distaste, but also "prurient interest" (Rosselli 143), which perhaps explains why the production of music originally written for castrati singers, and thus present-day singers attempting to imitate their voices, has been, in recent years, steadily on the rise.
Above all else, castrati singers were valued for their capacity to perform powerful feats of vocal height. A male singer who has, between the approximate age of six and twelve, undergone a surgical procedure to impede the "breaking" of his voice that would normally take place during puberty, the castrato is a male soprano, soprano meaning, literally, higher. "Higher," according to Rosselli, was not a notion taken lightly by Italian society, which was at once intensely hierarchically-minded and accustomed to displaying hierarchical order in ways readily perceivable to the senses (148). He admits that vocal height may have been valued for its associations with youth, but argues that it was more likely its association with superiority that made it so valuable and caused its rise in popularity. The practical expression of the supreme value of the high voice was demonstrated by the fees paid to opera singers dating from the beginnings of public opera houses in the 1630s, in which high voices in leading parts (castrati and women) were almost always paid more than tenors or basses. The fees paid to Italian castrati in London throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are also notoriously high. As early as 1713, Johann Mattheson wrote, "He who in the present time wants to make a profit out of music betakes himself to England. The Italians exalt music; the French enliven it; the Germans strive after it; the English pay for it well." Again, visiting London in the early 1770s, J. W. Von Archenholz reported that "the English were paying enormously high sums, the highest in Europe in fact, to Italian singers" (Petty 4).
Burney's influential writings on Italian opera during the latter third of the eighteenth century make the argument that the rise of castrati singers is the result of an increasing desire for high voices that could not be met by those who had heretofore filled the role of the soprano: boys and women. The principle liability of boy singers was their unreliability and of course retirement from their careers as soprano singers once they lost their voices, and Papal law banned women from displaying themselves publicly early in the seventeenth century, making it impossible to use them at all, either in choirs or opera. However, musicologists have begun to dispute these claims, arguing instead that the voices of castrati did not rise in order to replace either boys or women, but rather because they were capable of a unique sound, a voice that neither boys nor women could match. According to Michel Poizat, for instance, contrary to the received wisdom of a general prohibition of women from the stage during the period of the rise of the castrato singer in Italy, the prohibition did not extend beyond the Papal States. Everywhere else, and particularly in Naples (where great numbers of castrati were trained), women did have access to the stage:
The castrato was not a substitute woman. Therefore the rise of the castrato must derive from motivations entirely specific to the voice . . . This phenomenon is a clear indication of the autonomy of the . . . high voice, as an object of jouissance detached from its usual functions of signification, communication, and the marking of gender difference. Ultimately, the principal feature of the castrato voice is not that it is the voice of a woman in the body of a man, but rather its extraordinary, literally unheard-of quality. (116)
Nor, according to recent arguments, can one reasonably imagine castrati as merely replacing boy singers. Biology itself is such that young boys literally could not live long enough as soprano singers to receive the training that would allow them to compete either physically or technically with castrati, who typically trained between ten and fifteen years before making professional debuts.
Indeed, biological manipulation enabled the production of an entirely new class of singer. For, where biology failed the boy singer, it was engineered to great effect in the case of the male castrato, who has to be understood as a "singing machine" (Rosselli 108), created solely by making use of the laws of biology. Normally, the vocal cords of females and males are approximately the same size from birth until the onset of puberty. However, while female vocal cords enlarge only slightly during puberty, male vocal cords enlarge significantly. It is due to this enlargement that boys undergo the "break" of their young voices, which had previously allowed them to sing naturally in the soprano range, subsequently producing the characteristic decrease in pitch in singing as well as speaking in the maturing male. Modern medicine understands the significant enlargement of the male vocal cords during puberty to be the result of the male body's increased production of the androgen hormone in the interstitial cells of Leydig that reside in the male testes. Although the precise hormonal mechanism responsible for the "breaking" of the male voice is not thought to have been understood by medical practitioners of seventeenth-century Italy, according to Richard E. and Enid Rhodes Peschel, enough was understood for practitioners to deduce that castration of males prior to puberty would prevent the characteristic voice change experienced by normal males. Adult soprano singers could thus be 'created' through a process of castration that would short-circuit the normal maturation of the boy singer's throat, subsequently allowing the boy to keep his beautiful high singing voice throughout the course of his adult life. Thus the castrato singer was 'born.'
Narratives concerned with the rise of English romanticism very often conceive of the purging of the soprano voice for that of the tenor as the proper or natural voice of the male opera hero during the period around 1800 as a transition that is constitutive of romanticism itself. Such narratives understand this transferal of vocal supremacy from the castrato to the male tenor to be brought about by political, ideological, and moral shifts that made the castrato singer untenable to 'modern' society, thus imagining the romantic era to be simultaneously the cause and the effect of his extinction. Napoleon Bonaparte is a case in point. He condemned the production of castrato singers, and, at the request of his brother Joseph (at that time the King of Naples), forbade castrated boys from matriculating at schools or music conservatories as a means of abolishing the practice of castration in Italy, to which the Monitore Napoletano of 5 December 1806 testifies: "His Majesty has been unable to consider without indignation the barbarous practice of creating eunuchs in order to produce women's voices in men. As a result he has ordered, by the decree of 27 November, that in future such people shall not be admitted into the schools at all" (Barbier 227). Napoleon flattered himself by believing he had not only contributed to the abolition of the production of castrati singers, which he described as "shameful and horrible," but had in fact ended it: "'I abolished this custom in all countries under my rule . . . under penalty of death. . . . it will not appear again,'" he is reported to have confided to his doctor on St. Helena. "Clearly he could not conceive," writes Barbier, "that the entire nineteenth century would still have eunuch singers" (227), nor that they would continue to be invited to sing in major European cities to much acclaim, including Paris and London.
Much as Napoleon wanted to understand his own historical moment (and indeed himself) as categorically different from the Baroque past through the modern period's development of a distaste for the castrato singer, it is actually the case that the castrato generated tremendous controversy nearly from his birth. Indeed, from the seventeenth century onward this new species of singer generated passionate responses not only by those who welcomed his arrival into the musical world but also by those who spurned it. Castrati were, from the first, both greatly admired and greatly loathed. In England, intense criticism was coexistent with the very emergence of the castrato on the London stage, and it continued through even the periods of Italian opera's great popularity in London. The period between 1780-1830 is actually a significant moment in this regard, though, as Naomi André has noted, there is hardly a case when scholars acknowledge the relationship between romantic opera and castrati singers. These periods of popularity of Italian opera—and particularly of castrati singers performing—in London include the 1720s and 1730s, when Farinelli, Cafarelli, Carestini, Senesino, and Gizzielo sang there, when Handel was in residence composing operas specifically designed for the castrato voice; the 1780s, which gave London audiences the remarkable voices of Rubinelli, Pacchierotti, and Marchesi; and finally the first decades of the nineteenth century, during which London hosted the brilliant and internationally-acclaimed singers Crescendi and Velluti, Crescendi spending four years in London, roughly between 1802-1806, and Velluti the years 1825, 1826, and 1828. Indeed, what we in literary studies understand to be the romantic era could be said to begin and end with castrati performers in London.
The attempted erasure of the castrato during the romantic era elides the ways in which this figure underlines key romantic notions of sublimity, originality, and exceptionalism. To be exceptional is to be out of the ordinary course, unusual, special, extraordinary. Following romantic aesthetics, particularly the discourse of the sublime, the extraordinary has come to refer to a heightened emotional state, a sense of astonishment, strong admiration (or the contrary), and perhaps such usage is not unhelpful in describing the effects of castrati singers on their listeners. It is to earlier definitions of the term that we might most productively turn, however, including the OED entries of "acting in an unusual manner," "partial," and "outside of or additional to the regular staff; not belonging to the 'ordinary' or fully recognized class of persons; supernumerary."
To begin with, the figure of the castrato singer is quite literally unusual, biological engineering having rendered him corporeally abnormal in more ways than one, many immediately visible to the eye. There are as many reports about the particularities of the castrato's physical deviance from the norm of the adult male as there are reports of their sexual proclivities and capabilities, many of them, of course anecdotal and many of them untrustworthy at best. For instance, Heriot claims that the operation "appears . . . to have had surprisingly little effect on the general health and well-being of the subject, any more than on his sexual impulses and intellectual capacities. The hurt was very largely a psychological one, in an age when virility was accounted a sovereign virtue" (63). The Peschels, on the other hand, claim that the medical procedure castrati underwent "had numerous dire medical consequences . . . [that] have often been ignored" (27). In spite of the fact that they seem to think otherwise, it is actually the Peschels who best represent the suspicions and beliefs of the English by the time of period around 1800. Rumors, anecdotes, and satires about the bodies of castrati singers were as widespread as they were diverse and serve as valuable evidence of the cultural anxiety over the abnormality of the castrato's body regardless of their basis in fact.
One of the most prevalent rumors was that the castrato singer possessed the body of a woman, including lack of beard growth and usual male distribution of auxiliary hair; distribution of pubic hair in a female pattern (accompanied by an infantile penis); distributions of subcutaneous fat localized at the hip, buttock, and breast areas; and pale skin. Such associations of the castrato body with womanishness are made by Horace Walpole, who wrote, upon recalling his meeting with Senesino in 1740, "We thought it an old fat woman; but it spoke in a shrill little pipe, and proved itself to be Senesino"; similarly, and during the same period, the French traveler Charles de Brosses reported that Porporino was "as pretty as the prettiest girl" (Gilman 62). In 1762, Casanova made the following report of a castrato: "In a well-made corset, he had the waist of a nymph, and, what was almost incredible, his breast was in no way inferior, either in form or in beauty, to any woman's; and it was above all by this means that the monster made such ravages. Though one knew the negative nature of this unfortunate, curiosity made one glance at his chest, and an inexpressible charm acted upon one, so that you were madly in love before you realized it" (Heriot 54).
The other greatly prevalent rumor was that the castrato's body was abnormally large, particularly his arms and legs, though his torso was also purported to be of a much wider girth than is normal as well. The Peschels associate the body of the castrato singer with monstrosity, claiming that he had a distinctly "freakish appearance," to which, once again, myriad reports of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries testify. Alluding to Farinelli, one observer wrote that he was "as tall as a giant and as thin as a shadow, therefore if he had grace, it could be only of a sort to be envied by a penguin or a spider." Burney described Tommaso Guarducci as "tall and aukward [sic] in figure." And de Brosses wrote that "Marianini [sic], at six feet tall . . . is the largest princess I'll see in my time" (Peschel & Peschel 28). Finally, a caricature drawing entitled "Farinelli in Gala Dress" attributed to Antonio Maria Zanetti portrays the singer's arms and legs as grotesquely long and his hands as grotesquely large; and another drawing attributed to Hogarth depicts two giant-sized, malformed castrati (thought to be representations of Farinelli and Senesino) towering awkwardly over normal-sized singers.
The castrato body tests our understanding of his exception, and of exceptionalism generally, by confronting us with a body that is simultaneously partial and supernumerary. A comment Casanova made in 1745 helps us to understand the ways in which castrati singers represented a body peculiarly constituted at once by lack and by excess:
an abbé with an attractive face walked in [to a café]. At the appearance of his hips, I took him for a girl in disguise, and I said so to the abbé Gama; but the latter told me that it was Bepino della Mamana, a famous castrato. The abbé called him over, and told him, laughingly, that I had taken him for a girl. The impudent creature, looking fixedly at me, told me that if I liked he would prove that I was right, or that I was wrong. (Heriot 54)
Heriot suggests that the import of this remark lies in the castrato's demonstration of his homosexuality, ostensibly through what he takes to be a solicitation. However, it seems more to the point here to take his taunt more literally than that. The castrato dares us to confront his body of evidence, as it were. His remark is calculated to remind us both of the lack (shriveled testes? an infantile penis? or perhaps worse, missing testes and penis?) and the surplus (abnormally large rib cage? abnormally long extremities? unusual height? unusually fat? breasts? something more still?) we might encounter beneath his clothes, both of which govern the cultural imagination of the castrato body and constitute it as exceptional, monstrous.
The castrato singer's corporeal supernumerarity, however, was not thus limited. His body was also understood to possess a biological surplus in excess of that imposed by medicine, this time engineered by the art of music itself, through extraordinary effort and arduous training. "A typical daily curriculum," according to Heriot, "was remarkable, not only for the amount of hard work it entailed, but also for the thoroughness and comprehensiveness" (48). Caffarelli's daily schedule, for example, consisted of eight or more hours of formal training and included practicing "passages of difficult execution"; the "study of letters," in which he practiced how to sing words so that their meaning would be brought out rather than obscured; singing in front of the mirror "to practice deportment and gesture, and to guard against ugly grimacing while singing, etc."; theoretical work; counterpoint; improvisation; playing and accompanying the harpsichord; and composition (48). While the abnormal growth of a castrato's arms and legs were the result of the redistribution of various hormones as a result of the medical procedure to which he was subject (one consequence of which was that their bones remained abnormally 'open,' thus allowing continuous growth of these extremities), the rigorous training rituals to which castrati singers were also subject from early youth through young adulthood was the cause of the abnormal development of their rib-cage and lungs, which became wider and stronger, "giving them vocal power and exceptional breathing capacity, as well as an unusually sound grounding both in vocal technique and in musicianship" (Celletti 8):
Through the effect of the orchiectomy, the castrato singer retained the ring, the freshness, and the carrying power of the boy's voice. Among the secondary manifestations was the appearance . . . of the so-called keel chest, with expansion of the rib-cage, leaving more space for the development of the lungs. Subjected as he was to assiduous and extremely strenuous vocal exercises, the boy castrato acquired an abnormal lung capacity, which had a direct impact on his ability to hold his breath for a long time, and on the power of his tone. This exceptional mastery of breath control and breathing power, combined with his assiduous training, was responsible for the flexibility, the soft edge, the agility, the wide range, the ease of legato, and other qualities which . . . were present . . . in some castrati. (109)
A boy soprano would not choose, or be chosen, to devote himself to the profession for life without possessing extraordinary natural talent. However, talent was not nearly enough, nor was the subjection of himself to the medical procedure that would retard the development of his vocal cords and ensure that he could retain his soprano voice. He had also to be devoted to the rigors of a decades-long training regime in order to further modify the physical properties of his body and thus acquire the technical and vocal capacities with which the castrato singer came to be identified, techniques and capacities, moreover, that these singers pioneered and were alone capable of attaining. Virtuosity as we associate it with the figure of the castrato has been defined as "the outcome . . . and the search for sophisticated technical progress . . . the effort to conceive and bring into being something which goes beyond the reality of everyday life and the normal capacities of human beings" as well as "the mighty effort of imagination and technical skill" (Celletti 2, 5).
The exceptional physical properties of the castrato's body—from his enlarged rib cage and unusual height to his uncertain sexuality to the rise and fall of his sublime voice—have long been termed abnormal, freakish, monstrous. Such terms are not necessarily, however, merely synonymous with exceptionality as that which occasions wonder, that which stands out as extraordinary. For example, Paul Youngquist has recently identified the period of English romanticism as a moment of transition in this regard, when the idea of monstrosity began to be mean something quite specific, namely, the deviation from a corporeal norm. According to Youngquist, exceptional bodies could no longer be wonderful or sheerly exceptional. They became uniformly monstrous. Moreover, the cultural responses to exceptional bodies became evacuated of complexity as well. Monstrosity inspired horror—recall, for instance, Victor Frankenstein's horror upon viewing his creature: "its gigantic stature, and deformity of its aspect [was] more hideous than belongs to humanity." What had once been understood, affirmed, and even celebrated as "social exceptionality" and "prodigy" transformed into an individual instance of "physical deformity" and "pathology" that could be measured and studied as such.
The castrato poses a peculiar challenge to the normalizing forces at work on the body in and around the period of English romanticism as imagined by Youngquist. For, the castrato is not found but made (and self made), made to be extraordinary. The castrato singer gains recognition first not as a monster but as a young boy with a particular talent—an impressive soprano voice and a natural proclivity for the study of music—upon which he is biologically engineered precisely so that he may deviate from the norm, become corporeally exceptional. Furthermore, the castrato's body is not only imposed upon him (by a medical procedure) but also self imposed (through training). His corporeal exceptionalism is the product of nature (biology) and of art (technique) that cannot be reduced to cultural or individual agency but rather indicates a peculiar combination of the two. In many ways, the castrato is the corporeal manifestation of Longinus' theory of the sublime, in which hypsous requires a synthesis of nature and art that cannot be reduced either to capacity or to will. Nature in this case refers to innate talents, the ability to conceive great thoughts and for powerful and inspired emotion; art refers to craft [tekhne], that which is not innate but rather a matter of training and technique: composition, diction, and use of rhetorical figures.
The castrato's exceptionalism might best be referred to the medical and aesthetic impulses of our own era, take for instance the looming prospect of genetic enhancement. We are no longer focused only on curing diseases through genetic research, and perhaps we never really were. Instead, we are reaching beyond health altogether. Stronger bodies and greater intelligence are our version of transforming a talented boy singer into an adult soprano virtuoso. We face similar stakes when we contemplate the idea of a genetically-enhanced athlete today (not to mention the bio-engineered athletes with whom we are by this point regularly confronted) as when we contemplate a romantic-era castrato. The operative question: what is the relationship between the (mutilated/supplemented) body and exceptionalism? art? Both examples are capable of reminding us that those forms of corporeal exceptionality sought and employed by athletes and performers, and which are condoned and encouraged by so many, confound the relationship between natural endowment and will. Ironically, this relationship seems permissible if it is hierarchically ordered—if, in other words, one term is privileged at all times above the other as a matter of form. But the commingling of the two in a non-hierarchical manner such that the two become dynamically intertwined as they do with a steroid-taking athlete or a medically-altered singer—both of whose bodies, incidentally, transform as the dual result of hormonal redistribution and sheer effort—is deeply troubling. As one critic puts it, "We want to believe . . . that success . . . is something we earn, not something we inherit. Natural gifts, and the admiration they inspire, embarrass the meritocratic faith; they cast doubt on the conviction that praise and rewards flow from effort alone" (Sandel 56). To stave off such embarrassment, we amplify the significance of will (art) at the expense of giftedness (nature). "No one believes that a mediocre basketball player who works and trains even harder than Michael Jordan deserves greater acclaim or a bigger contract" (56). The fact is, exceptionalism is not, properly speaking, fair.
One flaw of this critic's logic is to imagine that biotechnological power is new to the arena of exceptionalism (It wouldn't have been reasonable to cast a screeching falsettist in the leading role of Handel's "Rinaldo" rather than a smooth-voiced castrato merely because the former tries harder), and the other is to imagine that exceptionalism must be boiled down either to will or giftedness (in the critic's case, will), and this is precisely what the extreme example of the castrato can serve to remind us. The question is why, and to what extent does the disavowal of their dynamic interconnections allow us to ignore the complexities of exceptionalism? After all, the disappearance of the castrato during the period around 1800 is held up as a victory of cultural progress and continues to be a signifier of liberalism and enlightenment. Is this victory undermined by the fact that it obfuscates the status of excellence, exceptionalism, virtuosity as neither wholly natural nor wholly a matter of individual will?
The figure of the castrato can do more than vaguely aggrandize the sense of cultural progress in his absence. Instead this figure might be thought, theoretically, as an instance of corporealized irony: the castrato's corporeality invites us to see how incomplete our understanding of the significance of his body in fact is, even in its anecdotal or satiric forms, which we seem to miss even though we have been maniacally focused on it, and that we can perhaps acknowledge in spite of, or because of, the fact that it no longer exists as such. Once the initial connection is made, irony multiplies. The body of the castrato is exceptional in part because of its lack—it cannot reproduce. And yet it is also a profoundly virile force, an asexual auto-reproductive organism. The castrato's body keeps growing and growing. It turns itself into more self, exhibiting a biological excess and meaninglessness that is sublime. It becomes excessively large. An adoring fan of Farinelli has written that "he had a voice proportioned to his gigantic stature." Have we been too dismissive of the positive relationship between the castrato and the leveling of hierarchies, of proto-democracy? Could it be instantiated by the image of a body whose exceptionalism is simultaneously, and in equal degrees, both lacking and supernumerary, natural and artificial, biological and artful?
One particular "monstrous" body has haunted romanticism for centuries in the form of Frankenstein's Creature, who is, among other things, both 'made' rather than 'born' as well as "gigantic" (Shelley 40). Unlike the figure of the castrato, however, which romanticism generally dissociates except through ideas of his purgation and absence, Frankenstein's creature is a quintessentially romantic form, not merely acknowledged but constitutive of the period. One of the most perplexing things about the Creature has always been his size. This aspect of his monstrosity is continuously contemplated and pointed out, but rarely if ever seriously questioned. Why in the world would Frankenstein decide to make his creature gigantic? Even the Creature himself asks the question: "my stature [was] gigantic: what did this mean?" (95). Most often, Frankenstein is taken at his word:
I began the creation of a human being. As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature; that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large. After having formed this determination, and having spent some months in successfully collecting and arranging my materials, I began. . . . A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve their's. . . . I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay . . . I collected bones from charnel houses; and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame. . . . my eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials. (40-41)
The most obvious question in this regard, however, is why Frankenstein would choose, without so much as a second thought, to make his creature monstrously large. For, Frankenstein associates his creation explicitly with the human here, and moreover, he fantasizes about the "happy and excellent natures" of this creation and his progeny, and the gratitude these creatures will bestow upon him for granting them form and life. This is not a fantasy of a monstrous creation, in spite of the fact that the question of why it isn't perpetually irritates and perplexes readers. The obvious answer to the question of why he determines to make the creature gigantic is addressed by Frankenstein himself: the "minuteness of the parts" prove a hindrance, so he opts to make a creature "of gigantic stature . . . about eight feet tall." In this regard,Youngquist has persuasively argued that Frankenstein is simply taking cues from anatomists of the period such as John Hunter, who, in order to approach the intense complexity of human parts, studied similar parts in animals, whose structures were more simple and presumably larger: "Frankenstein solves the same problem by making such parts especially huge, relying on their functional equivalence with human anatomy to yield a functionally equivalent human. . . . Frankenstein builds his monster's body in the image of a physiologically functional human being, overlooking its material singularity" (53-54). This application of modern anatomical study to Frankenstein's decision seems plausible. Yet there is a significant difference between the practices of Hunter and Frankenstein. Hunter is comparing anatomical parts of humans with animals to facilitate greater understanding of the former. Frankenstein is using these parts to piece together a human being. When we think about it in these terms, the question of how "equivalent parts" can possibly be substituted for human parts again becomes problematic. Keeping in mind that Frankenstein explicitly refers to his creation as "human," how is it possible that the creature engineered out of the parts of dead people and slaughter-house carcasses to be eight feet in height? Even supposing their bodies are "functionally equivalent," even Frankenstein could not delude himself into imagining he was creating a human being out of cows or horses, let alone pigs and chickens, particularly an especially large-framed human. The image of such a possibility leads not so much to monstrosity but to the ridiculous.
One way to solve the mystery of how Frankenstein managed to piece together a gigantic proto-human frame for his creature, and this solution might be approached as a sententious thought experiment, is to imagine a return of the not yet quite repressed: the bones of a castrato singer. Romantic culture, again, liked to imagine the figure of the castrato as a thing of the past, as an absence, but as with Napoleon, the idea that castrati disappeared completely around the period of 1800 is simply wrong. It is not only the case that castrati singers performed in London during the period, but they were also infamous as an idea, particularly Farinelli and Caffarelli. Once this speculative light has been turned on, it becomes possible to ask how the figure of the castrato could not be significant to the cultural imagination of anatomical exceptionalism, or, as the case may be, monstrosity. Their gigantic, malformed, sexually ambiguous bodies, bereft of fecundity and pleasure, haunt the pages of journals and papers, dramas, poems, and drawings, most often anecdotal and satiric, but nevertheless prolific and present as idea and artifact, not to mention that they were also yet a reality on operatic stages.
Frankenstein's creature, pieced together from the gigantic leg, arm, hand, and rib-cage bones of castrati singers . . . Mel Brooks certainly didn't miss the irony of it all in his 1974 film Young Frankenstein. There we are precisely confronted with a Creature whose greatest secrets are his voice and his penis. When he finally breaks silence, he sings "Putting on the Ritz" with a highly-civilized, and unmistakably high, singing voice. When a woman finally manages to woo and disrobe him after a film-length series of anecdotes about what we may or may not find beneath his clothing when and if we ever arrive at this moment, she responds with a trill of excitement that can only mean one thing: gigantic! Brilliant and astute, Brooks's humor draws a clear association between the castrato singer and Frankenstein's Creature. A lover of Farinelli has written that "he had a voice proportioned to his gigantic stature." Brooks's creature taps into the anxieties, particularly of the period around 1800, that the castrato's voice and corporeality were not in proportion. With that silly, high-pitched, falsetto emitting from his gigantic body, Brooks's Creature sounds many things, but vocally exceptional is not one of them. Brooks remind us, despite the fact that his Creature is hardly monstrous looking (save his height—he makes quite a spectacle towering over Dr. Frankenstein in his dapper tuxedo singing and tap-dancing "When you're blue, and you don't know where to go to . . ."), of the ways in which the castrato's corporeal exceptionalism was as veiled as much as it was conspicuous. The question of whether his genitals were mutilated or not, whether he could reproduce or not, and finally, whether he was capable of engaging in sexual activities with any pleasurable outcome to himself or not, were (and remain) constantly at issue, the body without a capacity for or a desire for sexual pleasure being, perhaps, the most monstrous idea of all for us now. Recall the Creature's mournful utterance, "I was not made for . . . pleasure" (105).
Indeed, from a speculative point of view, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein can be said to participate in, comment on, and effectively make visible the idea of the castrato singer in and for romanticism. Frankenstein himself does not view his Creature as having delivered the "torrent of light into our dark world" (40) he had hoped for when he made him. However, the fact that the Creature can figure the castrato body for us does deliver light, if not in torrents then at least in rays. Besides reminding us of the castrato's presence, the connection to Frankenstein's Creature reminds us to listen for romanticism as well as to look for it where bodies, and particularly exceptional bodies, are concerned. Once we become attuned to the idea, we become aware that sound and music are essential to Shelley's novel, which, again, is easy to overlook when we are busy looking rather than listening. Frankenstein himself sets a bad example. He looks but he does not listen upon first encountering his animated Creature. He sees his "dull eyes" (42)— "no mortal could support the horror of that countenance" (43); he sees "a grin wrinkle his cheeks" (43); and he sees the Creature's jaws open to speak. But he doesn't listen to him—"he muttered some inarticulate sounds . . . but I did not hear" (43)—which is ironic given that he spends the rest of the night "listening attentively, catching . . . each sound" (43). While it seems at least possible to excuse Frankenstein for not being willing to hear the Creature because he is inarticulate (which, incidentally, works nicely as a satiric commentary of the language issue regarding English audiences of Italian opera that served, as we have explored, as the grounds for many a critique of the horrors of irrational excess inflicted by castrati and Italian opera generally on English listeners) and thus not meriting the listening to, this is precisely not the case during their next interaction, when Frankenstein once again has a hard time listening. The monster implores Frankenstein to listen to him more than six times during this second interaction: "I entreat you to hear me" (74); "Listen to my tale . . . hear me . . . Listen to me . . . listen to me . . . Hear my tale . . ." (75).
The Creature's own capacity to listen, on the other hand, is as strong as is his delight in hearing, particularly song, which is apparent from his earliest experience. Narrating the moment when he first began "to distinguish my sensations from each other," the Creature discovers sound through song, which he seems naturally to love: "I was delighted when I first discovered that a pleasant sound, which often saluted my ears, proceeded from the throats of the little winged animals . . . Sometimes I tried to imitate the pleasant songs" (77). In many ways the Creature's coming-of-age narrative (his transformation from an infant to a man in the two-year period during which he secretly inhabits the de Lacy hut) revolves entirely around his progression from "inarticulate sounds" to exceptional eloquence. In the beginning, upon attempting to imitate bird song, the Creature fails miserably: "I tried . . . but was unable . . . the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from me frightened me into silence" (77). Yet, by the time Frankenstein agrees to listen to him, the Creature has acquired a striking capacity to communicate. Although in the end sound does not compete with sight here, the responses the Creature elicits from Frankenstein through his eloquent language—his articulate sounds—might even be compared to the sublime rhetoric of which Longinus writes: "I was moved. . . . His words had a strange effect on me. I compassionated him, and . . . felt a wish to console him" (108). And again, upon his deathbed, remembering the Creature's sonic power, Frankenstein commands Walton to close his own ears: "He is eloquent and persuasive; and once his words had power over my heart . . . but . . . Hear him not" (154).
If he is able to move others through sublime rhetoric, the Creature's own sublime experiences also occur through the medium of music, both in the listening and in the watching its effect on others:
the old man . . . taking up an instrument, began to play, and to produce sounds, sweeter than the voice of the thrush or the nightingale. . . . He played a sweet and mournful air, which I perceived drew tears from the eyes of his amiable companion, of which the old man took no notice, until she sobbed audibly . . . I felt sensations of a peculiar and overpowering nature: they were a mixture of pain and pleasure, such as I had never before experienced . . . and I withdrew from the window, unable to bear these emotions. (80)
When the Creature begins to recognize his corporeal exceptionalism, it is initially (and most frequently) through his size and his voice that he acknowledges it. "My person was hideous . . . my stature gigantic" (95); "my stature far exceeded their's . . . I saw and heard of none like me" (89). When the Creature turns violent, his streak of murders are centered on the throat, to which he had earlier in his life explicitly connected to the singing of birds, and with which he valued greatly ("a pleasant sound . . . proceeded from the throats of the little winged animals"): "The child struggled, and loaded me with epithets which carried despair to my heart: I grasped his throat to silence him, and in a moment he lay dead at my feet" (105). Youngquist has argued that the Creature's first murder was the result of vision, of his seeing the portrait of Frankenstein's beautiful mother around William's neck, reminding him of his aberrance, his monstrosity: "A feminized image of the proper body provokes the monster to murder little William, an image that deploys a particular ideology of gender to secure the devaluation of defiant flesh. The normative force of the proper lady guarantees the monster's exclusion from domestic affection" (55). The sound of the passage tells another story, however. The murder in fact takes place prior to the Creature's noticing the portrait of Mrs. Frankenstein. It is the Creature's appeal for William to listen to him and William's refusal to do so that causes him to become violent: "As soon as he beheld my form, he placed his hands before his eyes, and uttered a shrill scream . . . 'Child, what is the meaning of this? I do not intend to hurt you; listen to me.' . . . The child still struggled, and loaded with epithets which carried despair to my heart: I grasped his throat to silence him, and in a moment he laid dead at my feet" (105). The Creature has always been known as a strangler. But in this first instance, he grasps the throat of his future victim not to strangle him, but to silence him, one can only guess in an effort, once again, to be heard. It might even be said that this was not even murder but rather a mistake, a case of his great hands around the child's throat being stronger than he imagined or could know. Subsequently, he is not in the first instance a murderer. However, one might read his future stranglings, which are properly speaking murders (intentional killings) as memorializations of this initial traumatic moment with William of not being heard, of attempting to make himself be heard, and of the death of his desired interlocutor being the result of that effort. He proves he does not forget the relationships between sound, sorrow, and death when he exclaims to Frankenstein, upon committing the murder of his best friend, "Think ye that the groans of Clerval were music to my ears?" (162). Finally, the Creature's effect on Frankenstein, after his string of murders have begun, continues to be through the medium of sound, even, one could say, a monstrous form of music. Upon threatening Frankenstein ("I will be with you on your wedding day") after he destroys the Creature's future mate and then quitting him abruptly, Frankenstein exclaims, "All again was silent; but his words rung in my ears" (125).
Perhaps it is coincidental that the one passage from Wordsworth quoted in Shelley's novel (an invocation of Henry Clerval's natural goodness by Frankenstein on recollecting his death) is that passage from "Tintern Abbey" which contemplates nature through sound: "The sounding cataracts / Haunted him [sic] like a passion" (116). But it is worthwhile to contemplate the fact that Wordsworth's image of the cataracts, meant to convey the excesses of visual pleasure—"An appetite; a feeling, and a love, / That had no need of a remoter charm, / By thought supplied, or any interest / Unborrowed from the eye" (81-84)— is an image of sound. Our greater attention to the sound of romanticism perhaps enables us to read Wordsworth with a fresh sense for his sound. Returning to the great Ode, we recall that other image of a cataracts, "blow[ing] their trumpets from the steep." We recall that Wordsworth's sense of poetically-generated pleasure depends on its being "natural utterance" rather than "tricked out" or "elevated" rhetorical techniques. It is so tempting to interpret this charge as not only an abjuration of figurative language, "the enchanted regions of simile, metaphor, allegory and description" (Baillie 362), but also as an explicit anxiety over the relationship between sound and image. The question finally at hand is, does anxiety in this regard produce, or become synonymous with, monstrosity. We might think in particular about the idea of the monstrous image as we return to the indelicately upright stand of elm trees in relation to the music of the wind through them, or beyond Wordsworth to the spectacle of the castrato in relation to his song, or finally to the figure of the Creature attempting to imitate the sound of a bird. In key moments when sound becomes most pronounced in Wordsworth's imagery, a sonic counter-aesthetic might be said to emerge within the context of his own poetics. When the narrator of the "Ode" exclaims, "I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!," he is responding to a pronouncedly unnatural utterance, should we hold it to the tenets of the Preface. What he hears, what he responds to with such joy, is the cataracts, which "blow their trumpets from the steep." Again, we might be tempted to call Wordsworth on this trick and denounce these trumpeting cataracts as a monstrous image, just as anti-operatic discourse conceived of the castrato as a monster at times too horrifying to describe except as disembodied sound, and just as Frankenstein's Creature has become synonymous with monstrosity. But this would be an oversight that the image itself is equipped to address. It seems to me that rather than derogating sound in favor of image because of the former's inability to transcend the sensual world—its paucity of vocabulary of the transcendent—Wordsworth opens us up to a poetics that relies upon this seeming weakness of the aural realm, turning it into a significant strength. Wordsworth's sense of sound, and coextensively the sense of sound offered by the figure of the romantic-era castrato, engenders rather than suppresses our capacity and our desire to listen to, as well as for, exceptions. With its lingering associations to castrati singers and trumpet players and stands of elm trees, such listening can provoke the idea that exceptions, like exceptionalism, will always be composed of unequal parts of nature and art, but need not be regarded as monstrous. Finally, through their juxtaposition, we might begin to read both the figure of the castrato and Frankenstein's Creature as spokespeople of utopian humanity rather than as degenerate monsters. They sound "higher" because they literally are higher—higher here approximating an aesthetic, a version of the sublime even, that is constitutively horizontal rather than vertical, acknowledging art and nature as dynamic rather than ordered elements of virtuosity. Together, trumpets, Wordsworth's trees, the castrato, and the Creature intervene in received notions of the relationship between Augustan and romantic conceptions of exceptionalism. They give us an imagination for the ways in which height (Longinian hypsous) is not necessarily the measure of, and in some cases clearly rejects, hierarchy.
André, Naomi. Voicing Gender: Castrati, Travesti, and the Second Woman. Forthcoming, Indiana UP, 2004.
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I wish to thank both the Center for Humanities and the Arts at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation for generous support during the period this essay was written. I also wish to express my gratitude to Timothy Morton, Paul Youngquist, and particularly Jeffrey N. Cox for their comments on drafts of this essay.
1 These lines are quoted from John Milton, Samson Agonistes, lines 94-96.
2 In his study entitled The World of the Castrati (1996), Patrick Barbier describes this frenzy, arguing that it was particularly rampant in female listeners: "ladies displayed
boundless transports of delight: they threw tributes on to the stage, laurel wreaths, couplets or passionate sonnets, and
went nowhere without a portrait of their favorite castrato over their hearts" (137). He also recounts a famous incident relating
to Farinelli, in which a female audience member spontaneously cried out during a performance, "One God, one Farinelli!" (183).
3 Giovanni-Battista Mancini (1714-1800), a castrato soprano contemporary with Farinelli, was also the founder of a Bolognese
singing school based on the precepts of his teacher, Pistocchi. In 1774, Mancini published an influential treatise on vocal
training entitled Pensieri e riflessioni pratiche sopra il canto figurato, which was revised in 1777. (Practical Reflections on the Figurative Art of Singing. Trans. Pietro Buzzi. Boston: Gorham, 1912. Compared, trans., and ed. By Edward Foreman. Champaign IL: Pro Musica, 1967.)
4 According to Angus Heriot, "one Spanish singer in the papal chapel, Padre Soto, first heard of in 1562, is referred to by
Della Valle as one of the earliest of the castrati, but appears in the Vatican records as a falsettist, and another singer,
Giacomo Spagnoletto (engaged in 1588), is in a similar position: but the first admitted castrati at Rome were Pietro Paolo
Folignato and Girolamo Rossini, who appear in the books for 1599 (not 1601 as Burney has it)" (12). Pope Clement VIII, Heriot
continues, was much impressed with these castrati singers; once sanctioned by the highest authority in Christendom, castrati
rapidly became more numerous.
5 It is often supposed that the rise of castrati in Italy was caused by the rise of opera. According to John Rosselli, however,
castrati were not so much caused by opera as coincidental with it, nor did the taste for the castrato’s voice immediately
dominate the new form. According to Rosselli, "Chronology, if anything, might suggest that the popular taste for the castrato
voice reflected in the singers chosen for opera was largely created by church practice. . . . A castrato sang the prologue
and two female parts in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo at Mantua in 1607, but the lead part was sung by a tenor. Several decades were to go by before the custom became established
of having a castrato singing the protagonist’s part" (147).
6 Castrati singers were heard in England as early as the last third of the seventeenth century but were confined at that time
to private settings and did not seem at first to meet with great enthusiasm. Samuel Pepys, for instance, records having seen
two Italian castrati perform at a party given by Lord Bruncker, but without much interest in 1667. He writes, "Nor do I dote
on the Eunuchs; they sing endeed pretty high and have a mellow kind of sound . . . their motions, and risings and fallings,
though it may be pleasing to an Italian or one that understands the tongue, yet to me it did not . . ." (Barbier 180). Interestingly,
Londoner John Evelyn reported to have heard the castrato Siface in 1687 in Pypys’s own drawing room, which leaves one to speculate
whether Pepys altered his opinion of the singers. It wasn’t until 1707 that the first castrato sang in public (Valentino Urbani
at Drury Lane Theater), followed closely by the acclaimed Nicolino at the Queen’s Theater in 1708, which marks the English
acceptance of the castrato.
7 According to Christian Gaumy, the last documented performance of a castrato in London was that of Paolo Pergetti in 1844,
though according to Angus Heriot, it had been so long since London audiences had seen a castrato by that point (the last had
been Velutti in 1829) that "by then he must have been almost a freak, a kind of abominable snowman or wooly mammoth" (21).
8 Up until recently, according to James R. Oestreich, the New York City Opera produced only one noted Handel opera ("Guilio
Cesare" in 1966). In recent years, it has presented "Agrippina," "Ariodante," "Flavio," "Partenope," "Rinaldo," "Serse," and
"Alcina," among others. Moreover, the "Handel boom" extends far beyond New York, including a great number of new recordings
of Handel operas. One example among many are the two recent recordings of "Rinaldo," one conducted by Christopher Hogwood
(sung by Vivica Genaux, a mezzo-soprano) and the other by René Jacobs (sung by countertenor David Daniels). There have also
been a slough of recordings of music written for the castrato singer, including but not limited to Handel, including Music from the Age of the Castrato, Handel Arias for Castrato, Castrato Arias and Motets, Arias for Farinelli, Castrato Voice and the First Divas, and Art of the Castrato, as well as recordings by such countertenors as David Daniels and Daniel Taylor and female sopranists Ewa Podles and Stephanie
Blythe. Finally, along with his film about the life of Farinelli (1705-1782), Gerard Corbiau released a sound track (Music
Direction by Christophe Roussett) that includes the representation of the standoff between Farinelli and the trumpeter. To
approximate the voice of the famous castrato, Corbiau combined the voices of soprano Ewa Mallas-Godlewska and countertenor
Derek Lee, digitally remastering recordings of both voices singing the same music to create what Naomi André has termed "a
new hybrid voice."
9 Useful sources to consider regarding dates and particular castrati performers of Italian opera in London include Frederick
C. Petty’s Italian Opera in London 1760-1800 (1972, 1980); Angus Heriot’s The Castrati in Opera (1975); Naomi André’s Voicing Gender: Castrati, Travesti, and the Second Woman; and the New Grove Dictionary of Opera.
10 Youngquist’s work on monstrosity and romanticism is a recent contribution to a longstanding critical conversation on and
interest in the idea of monstrosity, including such as Georges Canguilhem, Felicity Nussbaum, Barbara Johnson, Alan Rauch,
Peter Brooks, and others.
11 Two of the "monstrous bodies" Youngquist analyzes are Caroline Crachami, a Sicilian dwarf, and Charles Byrne, an Irish giant,
both of whom were haunted during their lifetimes and subsequently "acquired" for anatomical research by the anatomist and
physician John Hunter upon their deaths.