Modern Mythology and Unseen Influence

This article is part six in a six part series on the rise and decline of the castrati in Western music. The six sections are:

Castration and Christianity
Castrati in Opera
The Castrati Advantage
The Castrati Effect
Modern Mythology and Unseen Influence

Poster to the generally inaccurate and over-eroticized portrayal of the castrati, "Farinelli" (1994).
Poster to the generally inaccurate and over-eroticized portrayal of the castrati, "Farinelli" (1994).

Modern Mythology and Unseen Influence

The legacy of the castrati has continued to invisibly affect opera even until today. As castrati disappeared, their expertise of lightness and agility went out of demand as power and expression became the new aesthetic. Instead of a castrato of graceful and virtuosic ability, the new exciting operatic hero became the tenor, a voice type that French tenor Gilbert-Louis Duprez quickly endowed with high A’s B’s and C’s di petto to replace the powerful high notes of the castrato. Opera in general shifted back from artifice to drama, yet the fundamental virtuosic nature ingrained in opera from the days of the castrati made it difficult to stay as far from earlier Baroque and Classical aesthetics as the other arts. Because composers have continued to write virtuosic opera music that few people can effectively sing, we will likely always have some large, overweight singers unconvincingly playing the most young and attractive characters because they are the only ones who can. The frequent opera-goer today still must overlook the obvious surface incongruences and enjoy the higher emotional reality expressed in the musical expressivity and skill of the singer, rather than his or her physical build.

Now, as society returns to appreciate early music we find ourselves with a dilemma as we approach opera seria. No singer alive today can satisfactorily portray the abilities of the castrati roles, not to mention the mythical status we have built around them. Conditions are different: drama is generally valued over technique in art and singers no longer study exclusively breath technique or appoggiaturas for months straight but perform earlier at much lower skill levels. Opera itself is an anachronism today while sports stars are the new modern castrati, worshiped and paid exorbitant amounts by the public for their unconventional physical talents and rigorous training. Still, we marvel at the chimera of the past, ambiguous creatures of an age that performed at a level we can never attain. Like the six-fingered piano music in the movie Gattaca,[1] these operas will remain unplayable (or unsatisfactorily played) as long as intended artists are gone.


[1] Gattaca, writer and dir. Andrew Niccol; prods. Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher; perfs. Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law, et al; DVD (Sony Pictures, 1998).

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