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Snip Snip Here, Snip Snip There, and a Couple of Tra La Las": The Castrato and the Nature of Sexual Difference ALAN SIKES In their 1987 essay "Medicine and Music: The Castrati in Opera," Enid Rhodes Peschel and Richard E. Peschel produce a figure of the castrato compatible with present day conceptions of sexual difference; the pair define this difference in terms of a binary relation between male and female subjects, then posit the castrato as a tragically mutilated example of the former by asserting that "the abhorrent practice of male castration became entrenched in seventeenth and eighteenth century Italy to provide evirati (literally: emasculated men) with beautiful high singing voices for the churches, courts of nobility, and opera houses of Italy—and beyond."1 The pair then recount, with horrified fascination, a litany of abnormalities linked to castration and visited upon the castrato, abnormalities generally associated with feminine subjects that therefore qualify the castrato as a freakish example of their masculine counterparts: "an infantile penis, a lack of beard growth, and a grotesque-looking body characterized by a eunuchoid appearance and womanlike features, including breasts" (33). Given the horrific effects of castration, Peschel and Peschel wonder how the production of castrati could ever have achieved such widespread sanction, despite the lovely singing voices that such production entailed. 197 198 / SIKES The tone of shock and dismay exhibited by the Peschel article is perhaps one of the more egregious instances of the anxiety that castrati generate in contemporary scholarship. Scholars have devoted many pages to the role of the castrati in eighteenth-century culture, yet their accounts are often colored by an aversion to castration clearly derived from contemporary conceptions of sexual difference—conceptions in which castration appears only as a derailment of natural sexual destiny. For instance, in his stillseminal 1956 text The Castrati in Opera, Angus Heriot reveals his anxiety over castration when he asks "Why was so strange and cruel a practice thought worth while, and why should audiences of succeeding generations have preferred these half-men with voices as high as those of women, both to women themselves and to natural men?"2 Heriot then answers his own question by listing several reasons for the longstanding production of castrati, including a general preference of the period for high voices over bass and tenor registers, an early ascendance in sacred music due to a prohibition of women from the choirs of the Catholic church, and later success in opera due to the reluctance—or in Rome the outright refusal— to allow female performers upon the public stage. Heriot also gives reasons for the eventual cessation of castrato production, including a decline in the opera seria tailored to castrati and the disruption of the Italian conservatory system due to the Napoleonic invasion and its importation of the French distate for castrati voices. Yet even as he attempts to offer legitimate historical bases for the appearance and disappearance of castrati, Heriot seems to have inherited the aversion to castrati that arose in tandem with their fall from grace: "Succeeding generations," Heriot maintains, "regarded their memory with derision and disgust, congratulating themselves on living in an era when such barbarities were no longer possible" (21). More recently, Patrick Barbier has attempted to take a more dispassionate attitude toward the castrato phenomenon in his 1989 text The World of the Castrati. Indeed, in his Introduction Barbier urges readers to suspend judgment on castration given the radical difference between past and present imaginations: "How can the 'modern' mind, moderately influenced by the nineteenth century, understand how a particular period dared to seek pure and 'gratuitous' Beauty through a mutilation so 'costly' to to the individual who was subjected to it'?"3 Barbier then offers a detailed account of the lives of the castrati, including their early training, their roles in the Church and in the Opera, and their impact on European culture. Yet on the topic of castration and its relation to sexual difference Barbier falls into familiarly anxious rhetoric. On the one hand Barbier calls the castrato "a 'supernatural' being who belonged to both sexes without knowing the limits of either," yet on the other hand he associates the castrato with...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1938-6133
Print ISSN
0360-2370
Pages
pp. 197-229
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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