I follow a historical channel on facebook that often posts really quirky or interesting facts about various periods in history. I’ve actually learned a few things from their articles and it’s one of the more enjoyable sites that I follow. Yesterday, they posted a clip of A. Moreschi, the last castrato. He was never a major operatic voice, but a well-respected singer in the Vatican choir. There are recordings of him made in 1902. They’re not great. Recording technology at the time lacked the capacity to record the fullness of a singer’s range. One sees the same issue with female sopranos who were recorded around the same time. The result is weird, thin, and reedy. Still, we have these recordings and they are an interesting nod to a group of men who transformed the musical world.
So, many of the commenters were unfamiliar with castrati and since this is pretty much exactly what my entire dissertation is going to be on, I jumped in and we were talking about it, except the women (and it was all women with whom I was conversing, something that, given the topic, surprised me) with whom I was conversing couldn’t get past “you’re disgusting” if you find beauty in this. The idea of transcendent beauty, of sacrificing oneself for something better, for an art that will impact generations, of considering an art worthy of self-transformation was completely beyond their comprehension. They could not get past, “that’s horrific and you’re disgusting unless you agree with us wholeheartedly that it’s awful.” Well, I don’t think it was.
The names of these men are sacred to me. When they were very young they (there are cases of individual castrati requesting it. I believe Caffarelli was one such) or their parents chose castration in service to Art. Instead of progeny, they reached for immortality. Instead of poverty, they chose a path that would, if they succeeded even at a modest career, elevate the standard of living and status of their entire family. They chose a path that transformed them into conduits for an awe-inspiring, transcendent beauty. I mourn the loss to our world of their living presence.
I think in a world poisoned by the post-modernism, where our idea of Art is to throw paint on a canvas and call it such, where we no longer connect the arts and the sacred, where we are, in fact, deeply suspicious of anything holy or sacred, and where we consider the human individual the height of majesty it can be very, very difficult to comprehend a time, a place, and people who have other standards. Art is the best and highest expression of who we are as a species. It is better and more important than any single one of us and those who sacrifice themselves to its fire should be honored. I was a ballet dance, professionally for a time, which means I started a career that left a brutal imprint on my body – one I still struggle with in terms of ongoing injury and chronic pain—when I was a child. This was my choice. In fact, I did it against my parents’ desires. So to say that a child cannot know what he wants, cannot make the choice to devote himself to a craft is nonsense. Children do this every day.
We have no problem today with celebrating children ranging from three on up who choose to take hormone blockers, pharmaceuticals, and to prepare for extremely painful surgery and who run the risk of rendering themselves permanently sterile to shape their bodies in accordance with their inner vision. How is this any different?
The castrati were not, despite efforts of queer theorists to use them as such, transgender. They were men, men who gave themselves over to something much bigger and more important than their individual selves. In doing so, in creating bodies capable of containing and producing a glorious, angelic sound, they transformed their world and ours. I think we must affirm their choice to shape their body as their will intends, or where is the freedom of the individual we so cherish today? Beauty at that level is always horrific. That is why it is sacred. I, for one, praise it. Moreover, I’d like to see more people willing to give their all for Art, and most of all, for their Gods.