For a while now, and for reasons that are entirely my own, I have felt I’m being called to honour a certain group of dead; people who both are and are not my ancestors.
I’m writing this post to invite you, dear reader, to share your thoughts and ideas, as well as your opinions, because I’m not that set in my ways (haha, am I ever? Can I even afford to be?!) that I wouldn’t value input. You’re expressly invited to object, if you have an objection, but know that it is ultimately my decision what I do with the objection.
That being said, let’s skip to the topic at hand: honouring the dead.
I said beforehand that I am called to honour people who both are and at the same time are definitely not my ancestors. In fact, any such claim would be, uh, highly contestable, since it’s biologically impossible that they are. Because the group of people I’m talking about are notoriously childless—more often than not to their chagrin—as they’re the cantanti evirati (the emasculated singers) of the baroque era. The musici, the virtuosi, the soprani and contralti, in short: the (operatic) castrati.
Hence the biological impossibility, obviously. The castrati were singers who had been castrated before the onset of puberty to preserve the upper range of their singing voices. Many, though certainly not all, came from poor families with too many mouths to feed, quite often from the impoverished south of Italy. Many, though also certainly not all, were orchidectomised against their will—yes, there is one example of a boy even demanding castration. The boy’s name was Gaetano Majorano—he later became both famous and notorious as Caffarelli.
It was officially forbidden by both church law (on pain of excommunication!) and secular law to castrate children against their will… which, frankly, meant nothing at all. Children are easily impressionable, and the prospect of fame, and in some cases the prospect of being able to live for music, did have its appeal. They were drugged before l’operazione, so that their consent was more or less a fait accompli. Not to mention that parents would be offered money if they gave their child away. In the first half of the eighteenth century, there would be men travelling the south of Italy, especially the part of the country that is today known as Puglia, looking specifically for male children of poor families. Often, actual musical talent would play a lesser role in the decision than material dearth and the promise of fame. Because of the practice being outlawed, often actual surgeons would not perform the operation without medical reason, although medical reasons would be invented aplenty. Frequently though, the operation would be performed clandestinely by people who were not surgeons—veterinarians, barbieri, even butchers. Frankly, all one needed was a basic understanding of human anatomy, a working set of coltelli (knives), some opium (though not too much, as overdosage easily led to death in young children), and at least one strong muscled assistant who would be in charge of pinning the child down during the process. It all was shrouded in layers of lies, half-truths and open secrets. The sheer number of “horse-riding accidents” or cases of “hernia” that would necessitate castration to “save the life of the boy” is—a statistical oddity, to say the least. In certain circles, “to have fallen off the back of a horse” would become a euphemistic paraphrase of the thing itself: castration.
Just for the sake of accuracy: the voice, of course, would not be preserved in the strictest sense of the word. Due to the fact that those boys never reached sexual maturity, their larynxes would remain the size of a child’s—smaller even than the average woman’s larynx in width by approximately 0.3-0.5 centimetres. However, the castrati’s physique would not be comparable to either a woman’s or a child’s—and with physique being a strong influence on the colouring, i.e., frequency distribution of the tone, the actual sound of a castrato’s voice would not be child-like, and not womanish (although mockery would certainly have it that way). Even today’s countertenors cannot mirror what a castrato would have sounded like, since they use a completely different singing technique—falsetto as opposed to modal register, which affects the tone quality even more strongly than physique.
The operation itself, compared to the medical average at the time, and even with the added malus of non-surgeons performing it, would be relatively risk-free in terms of mortality rate; however, if not done correctly, or too late in childhood—the age at which it would be done was between 7 and 11 years, the latter being really exceptionally late—the voice could yet break at the usual age. This was the worst case scenario, as the voice would then take on an unappealing quality lacking fullness or strength; in other words, it would become entirely unsuitable for a career as a singer. Needless to say: a castrato had no viable alternatives, except a scant few that included trying his hand as a composer or working menial jobs at the conservatori. And those who lacked a voice, musical understanding and luck? Their fates are lost to us today, but they were lucky if they would be kept for a pretty face; and even that would of course not last.
TL;DR: Castrati were singers who were castrated for the sake of their high voices before they ever hit puberty.
So. I’m called to honour them as I would my ancestors, even though they cannot possibly be. Which is why I’m thinking the reconstructionists among you will be frowning deeply by now. Also, never mind that they were Italians (Gods know I have nothing whatsoever against Italians—I just don’t have Italian ancestors to the best of my knowledge) and very Catholic (mostly). The fact remains that they’re not my ancestors, or anyone else’s. I’m not part of their lineage, strictly speaking, so consequently, they do not have the same vested interest in me as my ancestors do: I’m not carrying on their line.
But here is what I am doing: I am carrying on their name, not in my own name, but in my speech. I am carrying it on by virtue of my music. I sing pieces that were composed for or dedicated to them. I will be performing a motet written for a primo uomo this. Very. Sunday. Through me, and others, they are not forgotten.
And they may not be my forbears biologically, but they certainly are culturally. If not for them, the whole genre of opera would not have evolved as it did. The castrati were the icons of opera during the late rennaissance, ALL of baroque, and early classic period. They were the muses that would inspire some of the most beautiful arias ever written. They were the ones who set a standard of vocal quality that would far outreach Italy and even Europe. Who can say how opera would have developed if not for them? If not for the castrati, we would in all likelihood not know the classic belcanto operas of the early 19th century, nor would we know a “Götterdämmerung”.
Sometimes, they would become political figures, even running kingdoms as inofficial prime ministers—look into Spain, look into Felipe V and Fernando VI of Spain, I dare you, and start researching.
The castrati, in summary, have shaped the entire musical culture in Europe, and then some.
There is yet another aspect of their place in my life: although I cannot be a descendant of theirs, I am (in a couple of ways, don’t ask me to explain because I will not). If I write about them, or sing their music, it’s personal… they have, in a way, shaped my life just as much as my biological ancestors have, and perhaps more. And as such, I feel have a responsibility and a holy duty.
I have, as a matter of fact, had a shrine to them for quite some time now. I just didn’t know it was a shrine, but I would maintain the general area with something resembling devotion. Central to my shrine, there is a framed picture of the great Farinelli—all castrati admired him, aspired to his level of perfection, would seek to imitate him, would envy him. And although some came close, or arguably even surpassed him vocally, none would mirror his gentle, good-natured character at the same time. So, all in all, I have already been honouring them—to the point that I gave up smoking two years ago for the sake of my voice: because compared to their sacrifice, I thought then, this was tiny. It was the least I could do.
And finally: let’s not forget one very poetic detail: gender ambiguity. They’re the epitome of it. And therefore should, according to me, be honoured by aaaaaalll the Lokeans, especially those who identify as queer. No, I’m only half serious here, but what I do mean seriously is this: if we relate to this aspect of our Deities, I think it would be inconsistent to deny them honour.
So, what do you think? Is it “proper” to honor them along with the ancestors? Is it consistent or inconsistent with your own practice? What do you think would be an argument against it, or for it (other than those I’ve mentioned)? Please have at it, I will appreciate your comments!
P.S.: I have not talked about the hypocrisy of the whole business, deliberately. I did not intend this post as a slur against the Catholic church, is why.