Singing Things: The Castrato in Vernon Lee’s Biography of a ‘Culture-Ghost’, by Anthony Teets

“Singing Things: The Castrato in Vernon Lee’s Biography of a ‘Culture-Ghost’”


“Singer, thing of evil, stupid and wicked slave of the voice, of that instrument which was not invented by the human intellect, but begotten of the body, and which, instead of moving the soul, merely stirs up the dregs of our nature! For what is the voice but the Beast calling, awakening that other Beast sleeping in the depths of mankind, the Beast which all great art has ever sought to chain up, as the archangel chains up, in old pictures the demon with his woman’s face? How could the creature attached to this voice, its owner and its victim, the singer, the great, the real singer who once ruled over every heart, be otherwise, than wicked and contemptible? But let me try and get on with my story.” (Lee 156)

The singing voice, that very specific space in which a tongue encounters a voice and permits those who know how to listen to it to hear what we can call its “grain”—the singing voice is not the breath but indeed that materiality of the body emerging from the throat, a site where the phonic metal takes shape. (Barthes 255)

In the late nineteenth century a specter haunted the scenes of opera. That specter was Wagnerism, a musical movement that, as some critics thought, threatened to replace all previous innovations by swallowing musical things up in its oversized orchestras and the grand abstraction of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the integration of multiple forms of drama, music, and the visual arts. It was a “total art” that stormed the eighties and nineties decades leaving havoc in its train and altering forever the senses and sensibilities of its ghastly neurasthenic spectators. Recent critical work has underlined the impact of Wagnerism on late nineteenth-century British Aestheticism, drawing attention to the many ways in which consumer culture negotiated the demands of a new opera on preexistent theories of the voice and its relation to the opera. Theodor Adorno, echoing much twentieth century criticism, describes Wagnerism as a “culture industry” that produced a mass phenomenon making Bayreuth an institution of spectacle. (Huyssen 29)[i]

According to Vernon Lee, one of the casualties of Wagnerism with its absorption of all parts of an opera into the whole was the disappearance of the voice from its time-honored place at the center of opera. It has been argued that before Wagner, the singer’s voice was the thing central to the opera guaranteeing its cultural significance and meaning from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. With Wagnerism, all of that changed, totally. What the Wagnerites demanded was the saturation of their senses, as illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley’s semi-recumbent and over-taxed subject of “Les Revenants de Musique” (1892). Emma Sutton has observed that “the attributes of Wagnerian aestheticism which Beardsley treated in his Les Revenants appear in extremis in Vernon Lee’s short story “A Wicked Voice.” (Sutton 65) [Fig.1]

In Wagner’s operas, the medium was not specific to voice, music, or staging, but depended on the total bombardment of the senses. In a well-known caricature from “L’Eclipse,” (1869) telling in its fetishization of the aural, André Gill depicts a miniature Richard Wagner, eyes bulging and with hammer and notes piercing into the human ear. [Fig. 2] Though the human voice is still present in the new Wagnerian opera, it was felt that its role had changed. It was no longer the cynosure. It is specifically the singing voice that is of interest in this paper, since Lee’s characters are haunted by it. The voice itself does not sing – to sing is to transform the voice into a singing voice. It is therefore not the human voice itself that is being called a thing in this paper, but a specific kind of singing voice, that of the castrati of the title. A mere equal it had become “a voice and nothing more.”

It is against this operatic totalism that some vociferous critics of Wagnerism like Vernon Lee, wrote their polemics. In Germany, Nietzsche notoriously complained of Wagner’s appeal to the masses, the absorbing of the audience into a “herd,” of Wagner’s creation of an “affective art,” and his appeal to the Decadents. In The Birth of Tragedy Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk is set against the very invention of opera and its development in the Baroque. Nietzsche’s contradictions stem from his personal relations with Wagner. His polemic in ‘The Case of Wagner’ was written almost simultaneously to Lee’s short story “A Wicked Voice.” (Nietzsche 115) In Britain, George Bernard Shaw likewise inspected the political ramifications of Wagnerism in “The Perfect Wagnerite” (1898) while maintaining a steady fascination with its socio-cultural effects. Emma Sutton describes these Wagnerites and anti-Wagnerians as mixed cauldron. In their various responses, they are as much products of Wagnerism as critics and opponents.

Among these critics Vernon Lee alone is described as consistently critical of the “total art work” and pleading the case for the singing voice in opera. Fluent in four European languages, a traveler, writer of fiction and historiography, Lee is well-known for having published at age fourteen an “it-narrative,” at twenty four, a comprehensive history of literature and music dedicated to her mentor Walter Pater, Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880), and thereafter, a steady flow of books, essays, travel literature, and criticism. Much of this work is concerned with her musical interests in general, but the material presented here is about Lee’s engagements with the eighteenth century castrati.  Though most of her theoretical work is no longer read by musicologists, her fictional work is beginning to resurface in literary criticism. Over the last decade critics have begun re-examining Lee’s work in light of Talia Schaffer’s description of her as one of the “forgotten female aesthetes.” No critic can fail to recognize the unique emphasis Lee places on “object relations” in her texts, and that is the direction she takes with regard to the objects of music as well.

“Opera,” writes Lee’s biographer Vineta Colby, “which she…takes as the touchstone of eighteenth century Italian music, was composed for singers.”(Colby 36) In “Eighteenth century song and opera…the voice was everything, the instruments merely provided the support.” (Colby 217) It is above all to the Italians that we owe, according to Lee, the favoring of melody over harmony.

“It [melody, the singing voice] leaped up, broke loose, and giddily followed its own course; a strange wild course, from which it returned, trembling and terrified, seeking the shelter of the instruments. But independence once tasted was never forgotten; the single voice had learned the existence of a world of music whose doors had been closed to the compact harmonic groups; it had learned that it had the strength to move and work by itself. Henceforward the single voice is the main musical interest…the instruments have become the servants of this new master of the art, of this individual voice: they must prepare its advent, wait for it, sustain it, give it time for repose, receive it back after its triumphant journeying. But what shall this liberated voice do? Shall it follow boldly in the free, varying steps of the spoken word? Shall it sing or shall it declaim?…Accustomed but little to its liberty, uncertain of its powers, uncertain of what is in its store, it feebly attempts both to sing and to declaim; nay, sometimes in its foolishness, it tries to imitate its servants, the violins and fifes; worst of all, it still seeks safety in the shadow of its servitude, and would when free do what it did when imprisoned in its harmonic shackles.” (Lee 1887 161)

Writing under the influence of the eighteenth century Enlightenment her mother taught her to value, Lee’s sentences here recall a freedom tract or pamphlet proclaiming the emancipation of the singing voice. Like Emmanuel Kant’s citizens newly freed from their nonnage, the singing voice has the choice to go boldly into the world of melody, or remain behind in the “shackles” of harmony.

Though other critics objected to political, cultural, and social aspects of Wagnerism, Lee focuses more than any one else on its devastation of the voice as the thing of the opera. Wagner’s revolutionary writings and his well-known musical activism do not receive any attention, for Lee sees his “murder of the voice” as his politics. In her criticism of Wagner she turns to the polemical essay, imaginary portraits, and short stories to voice her attachment to the material culture of the eighteenth century. In her syntax the verb predominates as the singing voice takes on an ontological freedom released from its political bondage. Her micro-history of the singing voice has irony though, for it will be a class of persons generally regarded as enslaved to opera that will be its freedom riders and vocal champions.

What I would like to examine in this context, is Vernon Lee’s writings about a specific kind of singing voice, that of the eighteenth century castrato. The castrato’s voice in Lee’s texts is a “singing thing” just as much as the castrato himself was a singing person from a remote past.[ii] This dual attention to the voice as a thing and to the castrato as a unique class of persons standing on the threshold between personhood and thing will be constructed as a way of thinking through Igor Kopytoff’s argument about the commodity character of slaves as things. (Kopytoff 65) Secondarily, the argument will follow Bill Brown’s expansion of Kopytoff’s arguments by suggesting that Lee’s work may be considered not only as a response to material culture, but a unique recreation of it. (Brown 176 n.6) Her studies of the castrato may be read as a kind of exercise in historical ontology, what philosopher Ian Hacking calls “making people up.” (Hacking 229)

In his book Historical Ontology and the popular essay provocatively titled “Making up People,” Ian Hacking defines the scope for this field of study made popular by Michel Foucault. Historical ontology investigates the many ways in which beings are constructed at given moments in history through social and political discursive practices.  Moreover, the very conditions of possibility of knowledge, power, and ethics are investigated in historical ontology as being themselves historical. It is in Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” that Foucault first reads the project of a ‘critical ontology of ourselves’ delineating what we are, and how it is possible to become something else. This inquiry which constitutes the discovery an early critique of modernity is central to Foucault’s understanding of the Enlightenment.

In “Reification, Reanimation, and the American Uncanny,” Bill Brown refers to Michel Foucault and Ian Hacking’s notions of historical ontology as “the study of the possibility of certain objects coming into being, which includes the historical study of the kinds of persons it becomes possible to be: a pervert, a child, a homosexual, a heterosexual, a psychopath.” (Brown 2006 182) To this list I would like to add the castrato, who as a historical class of persons was constructed for one unique purpose, to become a “singing thing.” Material culture, whether aural, visual, literary, or technological, records the ongoing effects of the “commodity process.” Vernon Lee’s ventures into various literary genres while tracing the trajectory of this liminal figure may be read as attempts to negotiate and reframe the ambiguous ontology of the castrato. The common history shared by slaves, eunuchs, and singing castrati should be kept in mind while various products of material culture are explored.

The eighteenth century Italian castrato is what Lee called a “culture ghost,” which she vaguely defines with special attention to the substantive “culture” as “signifying in the earliest eighties anything vaguely connected with Italy, art, and let us put it, the works of the late J. A. Symonds.” (Lee 1976 xxxvi) In the texts examined here by emphasizing the material culture which produced the castrati, Lee places them and their unique voices at a blurred liminal site of person-thing relations: “the culture ghost”. The castrati are more than mere corpus vile though, they are elevated to a unique category by virtue of their singularity. Corpus vile, Latin for “worthless body,” refers to the treatment of persons, animals, or things as fungible, as experimental subjects regardless of whatever loss or damage suffered as the result. A critic of vivisection, Lee was peculiarly sensitive to the categories constructed to separate persons, things, and animals. Over a succession of years and in various texts, Lee writes the biography of a thing, the castrato and his unique singing voice.

Drawing on Igor Kopytoff’s processural definition of “biography” and the troubling of the boundaries between persons and things, it will be argued that Lee’s imaginary “hauntings” renegotiates and recuperates the cultural space of the singing voice in a particular historical context. While in Lee’s estimation the castrato’s singing voice had become evacuated by Wagner’s notion of the opera as a Gesamtkunstwerk, in her literary text the materiality of that voice would reappear as a ghostly haunting thing.[iii]

In “The Cultural Biography of Things,” Kopytoff builds on the idea of writing biographies of things, but he does so in order to stress paradoxes and contradictions at the heart of Western notions of personhood and ‘thingness.’ He challenges the difference between non-humans and humans, the animate and the inanimate, by proposing that all pass through similar processes of “singularization” and “commoditization.” Noting the strong tendency in the Western world to dichotomize people and things, Kopytoff emphasizes slavery, not as a limit case or an exception to a rule, but a condition in which the line between persons and things is temporal (a slave-thing can become re-socialized, but then thrown back into a state of commoditization.) This “cultural shaping of biographies” provides the basis for Kopytoff’s critical term “singularization.” Singularization is the process of decommodification that may occur in the biography of the thing in question. Looking at how things like persons may be understood as traveling through lifecycles (Appadurai’s “trajectories”); Kopytoff provides a list of questions to ask:

“What, sociologically, are the biographical possibilities inherent in its status and in the period and culture, and how are these possibilities realized? Where does the thing come from and who made it? What has been its career so far, and what do people consider to be an ideal career for such things? What are the recognized “ages” or periods in the things “life,” and what are the cultural markers for them? How does the thing’s use change with its age, and what happens to it when it reaches the end of its usefulness.” (Kopytoff 66-7)

Kopytoff explains that biographies of things are “psychological, professional, political, familial, economic…” that is, culturally specific. This extends to works of art as well, so that “a biography of a painting by Renoir that ends up in an incinerator is as tragic, in its way, as the biography of a person who ends up murdered.” (Kopytoff 67) What makes this kind of biography “cultural” is “how” and from “what perspective” it confronts the thing. In the present essay most important is Kopytoff’s “literal instantiation of the trope” used by Arjun Appadurai, that things have “social lives.” (Brown 2006 178)

As an anthropologist particularly interested in the history of African slavery, Kopytoff argues that the slave is the perfect example of a thing. As a commodity object, the slave circulates in and out of slavery thus complicating the unambiguous dichotomization of persons and things that in turn distorts historical realities of Western discourses on the construction of personhood. But Kopytoff pushes this notion even further when, towards the end of “The Cultural Biography of Things,”  he describes “a perennial moral concern in Western thought, whatever the ideological position of the thinker, about the commoditization of human attributes such as labor, intellect, or creativity, or more recently, human organs, female reproductive capacity, and ova.” (Kopytoff 84)

The idea of the voice as a commodity object in this context might not seem as extreme as Kopytoff’s slave-thing. Clearly the voice, like the eye, is also an object of scientific study. Like other objects animate and inanimate, the voice is reproduced mechanically, commodified, and even fetishized.[iv] The laryngoscope, invented in 1854, allowed throat specialists to peer into the throat and inspect its properties for the first time. As Wayne Koestenbaum notes, the intervention of this device ironically coincided with the demise of the castrato. (Kostenbaum 158) Instruments especially made in order to study the voice should alert us, not only to what Heidegger refers to as “equipment”, but also to the thing that is both the object of study and one that exceeds its status as object. (Heidegger 1978 97)

In “Eye and Mind,” Merleau Ponty also expressed the notion that “Science manipulates things and gives up living in them. It makes its own limited models of things; operating upon these indices or variables to effect whatever transformations are permitted by their definition, it comes face to face with the real world only at rare intervals.” (Merleau Ponty 159) Like Heidegger, Merleau Ponty questions how the equipment of science mediates between the object of science, and the operating subject. This observation in no way aims to diminish science, but to reaffirm through a phenomenology of the body, the role it plays in constructing and creating it. Whatever the contribution of laryngology may have been, whether it emphasized the materiality of the voice rooted in the body, it would seem that in the nineteenth century the intervention of science began challenging long-held assumptions.

Can the human voice not escape its slavery to the ephemeral, to pneuma, the breath (or spirit) that carries forth its immaterial, non-fungible qualities? When the voice is given a life through literary, musical or other artistic means, it can become, or seems to become, an evocative object. In the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, familiar to most Victorian children, the story of The Little Mermaid (1837) associates the voice with the tongue which the wicked witch violently removes from the mermaid’s mouth. Without a tongue the mermaid has no voice, but her story has an afterlife in contemporary culture. In order to satisfy the materialist physical requirements of such a definition one may point to the materiality of the human body as Roland Barthes did in his notion of “the grain of the voice.”

An ongoing MGM amusement at Disneyland features the wicked Ursula from The Little Mermaid (Sony, 1986) stealing the voice from Ariel’s (mermaid) body in the form of a ball of light. The shiny white round object is expelled from Ariel’s body like a cat coughing a fur ball. This game allows participants to record their own voice into a machine and then watch the cartoon that now sounds like them.

Ursula’s wicked theft emphasizes the materiality of the voice-thing that may be extracted as easily as removing a gumball from a candy machine. Technology is the recorded history of how things are made to bear the mark of cultural memory.[v] What we apathetically regard as a mere amusement, an MGM display, would have frightened our Victorian ancestors considerably. Where they would have possibly seen ghosts or horrendous displays of the fantastic, we see devices and objects. Our loss of affect seems to register the notion that once we get used to the new technology we will conform to it, for if we cannot feel the difference, there won’t be any difference. Yet there is a difference, for the message that is given along with the new technology is that things like voices should be regarded as fungible commodities. This technology hidden behind the innocence of Disneyland objects of amusement also shows how in a dissimulating way, “persons and things” as John Frow observes, “are mutually constituted in the representation of things.” (Brown 2004 351)

Bill Brown has demonstrated how toys in American material culture of the Reconstruction period contributed through “reanimation” to the reification of racial and other stereotypes, a process he calls “the American uncanny.”  We are justifiably horrified by “Aunt Jemima cookie jars, Sambo art, and the Jolly Nigger bank” for these toys metamorphose stereotypes into fetishes. What was once regarded as a harmless toy now comes to life and haunts us. For Brown, “capitalism continually offers up examples of sudden rises and falls, of the animation of things and the deanimation of humans…” He wants to “understand this revenge of the black collectible come-to-life as the recollection of the ontological scandal perpetrated by slavery, as the reanimation of the reified black body: not some literalization of the commodity fetish, but the reenactment of the breakdown of the person/thing binary…that encapsulates a long biography of things—the “relentless objectification” that reappears as the personification of objects. Such reanimation constitutes the American uncanny.” (Brown 2006 197)

In Andersen’s fairy tale, as Nora Alter and Lutz Koepnick argue, the witch “embodies the dark side of capitalist modernization, namely the mystifying law of commodification and reification. Under the witch’s spellbinding influence, voices travel from one owner to the next like merchandise. They become things among other things, mobile and endlessly exchangeable.” (Alter 8) It is exactly this operation that occurs in Lee’s castrato texts as suddenly things like antique portraits, old buildings, and manuscripts are reanimated and take their revenge. The uncanny, however, is played out with the Wagner-like protagonist Magnus W. being haunted by the voice. In “A Culture-Ghost; or, Winthrop’s Adventure,” Lee’s earlier version of the story makes the castrato’s voice inseparable from material culture and things, as we shall see. Like Heidegger, Lee questions the relationship between the materiality of works of art and the transcendental notions we attribute to them through aesthetic theories.

Martin Heidegger, more than any modern philosopher has drawn attention to the “thingly” nature of art works. In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” he notes the deceptions we suffer by attributing too much to the “aesthetic” aspect of things:

If we consider the works in their untouched actuality and do not deceive ourselves, the result is that works are as naturally present as are things. The picture hangs on the wall like a rifle or a hat. A painting, e.g., the one by Van Gogh that represents a pair of peasant shoes, travels from one exhibition to another. Works of art are shipped like coal from Ruhr and logs from the Black Forest. During the First World War Hölderlin’s hymns were packed in the soldier’s knapsack together with cleaning gear. Beethoven’s quartets lie in the storerooms of the publishing house like potatoes in a cellar. All works have this thingly character…even the much-vaunted aesthetic experience cannot get around the thingly aspect of the art work. (Heidegger 2001 19)

Where Heidegger designates the “something else in the work” its “artistic nature’ as allo agoreui (allegory) and sumballein (symbol), Lee, as imaginative writer, resurrects the musical manuscripts in the lumber room along with the dust and old clothes. Angela Leighton, writing about Lee’s material culture-ghosts, notes that “A ‘lumber room’ is a place full of stuff which has lost its relevant use, but has not therefore forgotten it.” (Leighton 4) For Lee, the task of the writer is to be a resurrectionist, to resurrect the life in the supposed dead things. Part of that process also involves thinking the thingliness of persons from a remote past.

While Heidegger is reluctant to call persons things, part of his project is to investigate the ontological possibilities. He notes that “we hesitate to consider the peasant in the field, the stoker at the boiler, the teacher in the school as things. A man is not a thing.” (Heidegger 2001 21) Furthermore, what processual anthropology and thing theory investigate is the liminal blurring that Western models of thinking paradoxically reaffirm by continuously reaffirming the dichotomies of persons and things. Kopytoff and Brown, like Lee, work with specific categories of persons, demonstrating how such thought can assist in thinking things through history. An important difference between Heidegger and Kopytoff is the latter’s processual thinking. Material objects circulating through social and cultural milieux provide, as Bill Brown has shown, opportunities to stage the afterlives of persons as things.

Like Kopytoff’s “processual perspective” disclosing the ambiguous status of some persons as slaves, Lee’s narratives understand the commodity-like character of her castrati as embedded in a material history. When Vernon Lee gives voice to material things (culture-ghosts) in her imaginative literature, she also does this by having them speak through the consciousness of thing-narrators who tell their own stories. One of her earliest literary endeavors, written at the age of fourteen, was her cultural biography of a thing, an antique coin. Narrated in the first person singular, Biographie d’une monnaie (“Biography of a Coin”) is an “it-narrative,” “a subgenre of fiction [that] appeared in the eighteenth century, preponderantly in English” that has recently gained critical attention.

The seeming confusion in genre here is explained by Lee’s unwillingness to forego the loss of subjectivity. Because a first person account would be an “object autobiography,” a contradiction, Lee appears to have dismissed the original titular “biographie.” In Les aventures d’une piece de monnaie (“The Adventures of a Coin”) her peripatetic coin passes through various hands over a period of history starting in ancient Greece traveling through time to the mid-nineteenth century. This story allows her not only to exercise her knowledge of history, but to promote the ethics of sympathy while recounting adventures verging on the picaresque. Most notable are several encounters with slaves who share a similar fate and thereby receive sympathetic attention from the coin. Here too then, Lee has given voice to an inanimate object and made Kopytoff’s point ante litteram that “biographies of things can make salient what might otherwise remain obscure…” (Kopytoff 67)

Though Biographie d’une monnaie is Lee’s earliest thing-biography, it is by no means an isolated case in her literary work. Her later narratives continue blurring the boundary between persons and things. Whether writing about the voice of things or the singing voice of persons that serve as things, it is always in the open space that subjectivities are negotiated. Christa Zorn describes Lee’s writing as troubling the boundaries between genre and subject matter, noting also her resemblance to Monique Wittig’s “lesbianization of mythological texts.” (Zorn 62) In this context it is worth noting that Lee’s “gender trouble” works in tandem with the textual troubling mentioned above. Lee frequently provides her masculine characters with conventional feminine traits and many of her women characters display aggressive and powerful traits in sharp contrast to Victorian gender norms. (Vicinus 114) In the case of Biographie d’une monnaie however, it appears that Lee was at least willing to experiment with the ambiguities of subjectivity.

Describing herself as a materialist in For Maurice (1927) one of her late collections of “unlikely stories,” she attempted to “raise a spectre of the antique.” She achieved this by focusing on the material culture of history always with particular things in mind. Her ghosts are “culture ghosts,” old things that carry with them a sense of the past. Things haunt the characters in her short stories. Whether an Italian Renaissance cassone, a doll, statues, portraits, jewels or clothes, these things carry with them the power to be imagined as:

“things of the imagination, born there, bred there, sprung from the strange confused heaps, half-rubbish, half treasure, which lie in our fancy, heaps of half-faded recollections, of fragmentary vivid impressions, litter of multi-coloured tatters, and faded herbs and flowers, whence arises that odour (we all know it), musty and damp, but penetratingly sweet and intoxicatingly heady, which hangs in the air when the ghost has swept through the unopened door.” (Lee 1976 48)

The introductory remarks to the “Fourth Unlikely Story: Winthrop’s Adventure” emphasize the material culture of her castrati-ghosts through references to portraits, old musical manuscripts, instruments, and voice-recording technology. Describing a famous portrait of Metastasio, Teresa Castelli, and Farinelli painted by artist Jacopo Amigoni (1682-1752) [Fig. 3], the castrato “would not have been merely a ghost but an awful, audible, deathless reality like Caruso quavering from a house boat at Hampton Court, if gramophones had been invented a couple of centuries earlier.”[vi] These stories are instances of history recorded at a particular juncture before and after the invention of the gramophone. The technology gets hijacked in order to upgrade and improve her “ontology in things.”

Nostalgically, Lee remembers the moment when she became obsessed with the idea of hearing Farinelli’s voice. Visiting the Accademia Filarmonica in Bologna with her friend John Singer Sargent, Lee was fascinated by a portrait of Farinelli painted by Corrado Giaquinto (1703-66) [Fig. 4]. The association between the portrait and the technology of the gramophone is an indication that the ghosts haunting For Maurice are not considered “supernatural.” The supernatural is merely a word and a means of “making people up” to create “unlikely stories.” She writes: “But when we were a couple of romantic hobbledehoys, my friend John and I, spellbound (by our own childish, self-complacent spells) in front of Farinelli’s picture, and ignorant that gramophones were about to be invented, what would we not have given if some supernatural mechanism had allowed us to catch the faintest vibrations of that voice!”[vii]

Ironically an attempt to recreate that thing does exist in Gérard and Andrée Corbiau’s film biography Farinelli (Sony Picture Classics, 1994). The problem of finding the right kind of voice that would fit a castrato was resolved by a digital engineering team at IRACAM where the voices of American countertenor Derek Lee Ragin and Polish soprano Ewa Mallas-Godlewska were “combined through digital interpolation (or, morphing) to yield a single, unified timbre.” Katherine Bergeron notes that “In Farinelli, of course, the mistaken thing is an unnaturally high male voice.” (Bergeron 183) Here the digitally mastered voice reinforces a gender stereotype by representing the castrato’s voice as somewhere between two adults, a male and a female. The banality of the project lies in its caricature of our singing thing, the castrato Farinelli, while it also points to the voice’s transition in contemporary technology from thing (vox antiqua) to bits (vox nova).[viii] The project’s literal recreation of a voice that might also be described as somewhere between child and adult or angel and monster, is fixated on an uninformative gender dichotomy.

Before people have asked if the singing voice is a thing, they have presumed that voices are gendered. Joke Dame, in her essay “Unveiled Voices: Sexual Difference and the Castrato” asks the perplexing questions “What is a male soprano? A castrato? An extremely high falsetto voice?” She observes that “Even in our time the need to categorize a voice according to gender, to assign a sex to the voice, has not ceased.” (Joke 139) Apparently, the reconstruction of a historical singing thing such as the castrato’s voice, requires considerable imaginative effort on our part along with a great deal of technological wizardry. Most of the literature about the castratos of the eighteenth century continues to register this sense of wonder about its ambiguity. Poised somewhere between male and female; angel and monster; child and adult, the castrato remains a mysterious cultural anomaly.

Closer to the production side of these constructed singing-things, the historical castrati pose problems that gender criticism is uniquely capable of theorizing. Patrick Barbier opens his The World of the Castrati with the question “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 the individual who was subjected to it?” (Barbier 1) John Rosselli likewise registers surprise: “This well-known fact has long been an embarrassment. That people should have castrated numbers of boys, not in antiquity or in another continent but in early modern times and at the heart of Western Christendom, arouses fear, distaste, sometimes a prurient interest.”(Rosselli 32) The pathos and poignancy expressed in such questioning is partially a response to the permanent ignorance we must embrace. Not knowing exactly how the castration procedures worked, under what conditions they were performed, and what the end product sounded like, all contribute to the mystery.  The castrati are as much singing things (musici), as slaves were res to the Romans, or negotium to the Kentucky court that ruled (1828): “whether it be politic or impolitic, a slave by our code is not treated as a person, but a thing.” (Brown 2006 179)[ix]

Taken from their families (usually peasants) and sometimes sold by them, little boys between the ages of eight and twelve were made to endure the painful operation and sent to musical conservatories where they would be vocally trained. Though a few cases of willing self-martyrdom are on record, the overwhelming evidence of this culture industry suggests that “herding” and “farming” are not exaggerated descriptions of its systems of production and marketing. Histories of castrati generally begin with some explanation of origins associating castration with the remote other and employing a kind of naïve orientalism. Located in some other nation’s history at a safely remote distance, the practice of castration is considered “premodern.”

The Persians may well have been the first people to use emasculation, but it is difficult to establish a chronology among all the civilizations (Indian, Chinese or Arabic, for example) that have had recourse to it. The terms ‘castrato’ or ‘castration’ seem to have come from the Indian world, deriving more particularly from the Sanskrit word sastram, meaning a knife. It is known too that the Chinese used it in order to satisfy the widespread taste in their country for young boys with a feminine appearance. (Barbier 6)

This kind of orientalism reinforces the ideological association of southern Italy with the “Orient” allowing the stereotypical linking between the eunuch as a slave, and the castrato as a sexual go-between. Stolen from his family and placed in a harem-like conservatory, the romantic origins of the castrato (generally, and mistakenly placed in Naples) also invest them with the symbolism of the foundling. Castrati are supposed “marvelous creatures” that provide the missing link between beasts and the gods, persons and things.

Musicological research on the popular responses to leading castrato figures in the eighteenth century provides evidence that eighteenth century opinion held the castrato to be a thing. By the early nineteenth century however, this creature had become a veritable monster, “the voice that would not go away.” Two popular anonymous caricatures from 1825 illustrate the changing notions of human nature that came to the fore during the Romantic period. [figs. 4 and 5] In both caricatures the castrato Giovanni Battista Veluti (1780-1861) is ambiguously depicted as both a “Thing” and a “No-thing.” The semantic play corroborates with the new scientific view of the vocal as a property of the “natural” (gendered) body, and properly observes that the castrato is no longer in fashion.

Arguing that the castrati were a doomed species by the first quarter of the nineteenth century, J. Q. Davies notes “a worldly and embodied view began to dominate—and it excluded the category of the male soprano.” In other words, the conditions of possibility that were realized with Wagner’s total demotion of the voice in opera were already present at the turn of the century. Davies writes: “that the species ended up being projected below language was confirmed…at a time when, as The Musical World [1844] put it, even ‘the negroes of the British dominions have been placed in the class HUMAN’.” (Davies 275) In a world where the ambiguously gendered voice and body are no longer in fashion, the castrati are never quite persons but merely some kind of “singing things.”

In one of her late castrati writings, an “An Eighteenth Century Singer: An Imaginary Portrait,” (1891), Lee introduces the young Antonio Vivarelli.[x] Those familiar with Lee’s writings would have known of her close affiliations with Pater, as well as his proclivity for “strange souls.” In 1883, while concluding his Marius, Pater confided to Lee that he had “visions of many smaller pieces of work the composition of which would be actually pleasanter to me.”[xi] These smaller pieces would be the Imaginary Portraits (1887) for which Pater has become so celebrated. Though the standard definition of the imaginary portrait emphasize its interartistic concerns and its reliance on the reader’s heightened consciousness and attention to detail, this has been substantially broadened by critics sensitive to its biographical and autobiographical potential.

Since the imaginary portrait as a genre is a kind of biography of an imagined person, they really have no stated purpose or argument. They are imaginary works somewhat like biographies but exploring the boundaries of rational thought and blurring artistic genre (music, painting, sculpture). Opening her imaginary portrait with a spurious quote from a supposed lost page of Stendhal’s diary, she writes: “Spent the day with Vivarelli, Ultimus Romanorum of Singing, at his country house on the Brenta…we know that no creature has ever possessed such a magical charm. ‘Tis the living allegory of music, born in the days of pigtails and of Voltaire’s plays, and, nevertheless, a more poetical art than painting and sculpture, both arisen when the world was picturesque and passionate.”(Lee 1891 842) The allegorical and poetical art that exceeds both painting and music combines both the singing-thing and the song. Here moreover, as a mere fancy and creature of the imagination, Vivarelli and his world may be reframed in a zone safe from censure.

Vivarelli is described as a product, a singing thing made by the maestro vocal alchemists of the eighteenth century. The thing not named (castration) is appropriately buried deeply in the heart of her portrait:

“To make a voice out of nothing at all, or at all events to make a voice into something totally different from the sort of elemental force at which it had begun, was possible to those masters and pupils who virtually knew no limits to time. The necessity of dealing largely with the now obsolete chairbags [italics mine] and with a class of singers preserved from mutation of voice had given the singing masters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the habit of taking up their pupils exceedingly young, and teaching steadily on through the long period of vocal development and change…This early beginning not merely enabled the master to make the young voice—watching it and manipulating throughout its growth and changes—instead of merely teaching certain tricks to an already made one, but enabled him to devote months to things now hurried over in as many weeks or days…”

Lee’s emphasis on the production side of this castration farm (‘make’ is italicized in the original), although properly subordinated to the training industry which followed, delicately passes over the naming of the thing itself. Her nonce word “chairbag” almost joycean in its bathetic and gleeful flaying of the “fleshly bag,” announces the fait accompli.[xii] The indeterminacy of the naming process, aside from possible (and unknowable) editorial dictates, may be read as the site of both a loss and a creation. One thing is certain, the “chairbag,” or castrato as understood through Lee’s italicized verb “make,” is an instance of Hacking’s notion of “making people up.”

The description of the castrati as “singers preserved from mutation of voice” both celebrates the historical emergence of the singing-things while burying the fact of what was not “preserved from mutation.”[xiii] Lee’s subtle elision appearing in the heart of a text otherwise verbally uneconomic (thirty-eight pages) might also be read as a way of mirroring the condition of consumer economics in the late-nineteenth century. To hide the production side of things from the consumer’s view becomes a sign of distinction as well as a mode of capitalist consumerism. (Saisselin 37) In this way Lee inserts a barb against Wagnerism in the context of a reference to castration. Just as Wagner’s opera as phantasmagoria operates by stealth, so too, the scene of the castration crime will be occluded in riddle.[xiv] Castration is a dark secret that must be talked through endlessly.[xv]

It is through the reified and disembodied voice that Lee’s castrato stories show the mechanisms and processes involved in the commodification of persons. The earliest of these texts, “A Culture-Ghost; or, Winthrop’s Adventure” first appeared in Fraser’s Magazine (1881). In its basic plot structure it differs little from “A Wicked Voice,” suggesting just how intense was her engagement with this figure. Like Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, Lee’s story is also an allegory of the quest for a lost voice. “In Andersen’s fairy tale, the material realities of modern life are, of course, nowhere mentioned in either word or phrase. And yet the whole story hinges on a peculiarly modern anxiety about corporeal and perceptual disintegration, a fear caused by the shock like separation of sights and sounds in industrial culture.” (Alter 7) The little mermaid wants to bridge the gap between the archaic world of sea things and the modern world of land dwelling men. In order to join that world she must undergo a double symbolic castration. Her mermaid tail must be split into legs and her tongue is cut out as payment. Lee’s Winthrop and Magnus also undergo symbolic castrations worked out through the horrifying spectacle of the voice severed from the body.

Julian Winthrop suffers terrible anxiety when at a soirée he hears an eighteenth century piece of music sung by one of the guests. Composed by Barbella, the aria “Sei Regina, io son pastore” (“You are a queen, I am a shepherd”), is described by the singer as “an old air which I discovered last week among a heap of rubbish in my father-in-law’s lumber room. I think it quite a treasure, as good as wrought iron ornament found among a heap of old rusty nails, or a piece of Gubbio majolica found among cracked coffee cups.” (Lee 1976 145)

The Countess’ remark about the music being “as good as” the objects she describes brings to mind the experimental recordings of the early forties (musique concrète) where the object was to make music out of things in the real world that made sounds and noise. Like Heidegger’s Beethoven quartets found among the potatoes; the aria, a thing among things, will drive Winthrop on his quest. That quest brings him face to face with a portrait of the castrato Rinaldi that comes to life for Winthrop. He wants to know the history of it so that he can begin to piece together a biography, and later he will worry about what is to become of it once its owner dies and his collection is dispersed. He is as concerned about the future of the thing as he is of the historical person represented. Also like Kopytoff’s suggestion quoted earlier, that the biography of a portrait ending up in an incinerator can be as tragic as the biography of a murdered person, Winthrop’s concern makes the portrait and the person overlap.

The “adventure” in the story title is Winthrop’s retelling of a visit to the Lombardian palace of Maestro Fa Diesis (F-sharp major), a veritable museum of manuscripts and instruments. An obsessive collector, Fa Diesis is a character who is a symbol for written music. His sole aim in life is to acquire the next manuscript for his collection which he always urgently needs. “What makes a collection transcend mere accumulation,” writes Baudrillard “is not only the fact of its being culturally complex, but the fact of its incompleteness, the fact that it lacks something. Lack always means lack of something unequivocally defined: one needs such and such an absent object.” (Baudrillard 23) It is even suggested that Fa Diesis may be nourishing himself on ink or “some mysterious vivifying fluid from his MSS.” This character is sharply contrasted to Winthrop who is in search of a specific sung aria: “For music itself I firmly believe he [Fa Diesis] cared not a jot, and regarded it as useful only inasmuch as it had produced the objects of his passion, the things he could spend all his life in dusting, labeling, counting, and cataloguing, for not a chord, not a note was ever heard in his house, and he would have died rather than spend a soldino on going to the opera.” (Lee 1976 156)

Winthrop encounters in one of the many rooms the mysterious portrait holding in its fat painted hand a score with “the name—Ferdinando Rinaldi, 1782; and above it, the words—“Sei Regina, io pastore sono.” The fact that the aria’s words and the composer are altered does not seem to matter, for what is of concern is what lies all around. When Winthrop inquires about the history of the subject in the painting, Fa Diesis tells him that his own aunt and Rinaldi had been involved in a scandal resulting in the singer’s murder some ninety-four years previous.

Winthrop is seized by the idea of visiting the scene of the murder and sets out to find the old abandoned palace of the Marchese Negri. Unsuccessful in his first quest because he was given faulty directions, he returns to his inn in despair. He spends the following day in town where preparations were being made for a fair. The passage that follows seems deliberately placed between Winthrop’s two adventures as if to emphasize that the real ghosts are found among things. The quest for the voice, the singing thing in the portrait is delayed by the extra-diegetic detailing of things seen at the town fair. He saunters about “among the crockery and glassware…the packing-cases and hay…figs and cherries and red peppers in the baskets…old ironwork, rusty keys, nails, chains, bits of ornament on the stalls…vast blue and green glazed umbrellas…old prints and images of saints tied against the church bench.” (Lee 1976 174)

This narrative detail is not what Barthes calls l’effet de réel but rather a necessary textual clutter indicating the accumulation of things that make up the “culture-ghost.” Constructed as a kind of symbol of the eighteenth century art of song, the castrato is the site of an excess. The “thingness” of the voice and the “singing-things” are this excess. The voice as thing is both more and less than the object it is. In his introduction to Things, Bill Brown notes that we could imagine “things” as “what is excessive in objects, as what exceeds their materialization as objects—their force as a sensuous presence or as a metaphysical presence, the magic by which things become values, fetishes, idols, totems.” (Brown 2004 5) The past is made up of things that return at a later time to haunt us, part of what Derrida calls a “hauntology.” Both Lee and Derrida refer to Hamlet when expressing this idea that “time is out of joint.” In Lee’s case her present which meant Wagner’s “culture industry,” (the opera as phantasmagoria) was haunted by the specter of the music of the past. The “culture ghost” is made up of heaps of material objects, and Winthrop’s attempt to get at the ghost leads him down a path winding through thickets of things.

Treating the voice as a material thing of the body, a product, or a commodity risks blurring “the conceptual distinction between the universe of people and the universe of objects.” (Kopytoff 84) This is precisely what Winthrop does when he encounters his culture-ghost. He sees in its eyes those of the portrait of Rinaldi that he gazed upon at Fa Diesis’ mansion. Here the voice is so closely associated with a work of art that it causes Winthrop to worry about its future. The difference between Winthrop’s adventure and Magnus’ madness in Lee’s rewriting would be lost without the Wagnerism against which Lee stages her parody. (Caballero 401) The Wagnerian specter alluded to earlier is itself haunted by the cultural material of the past and played out over the body of the castrato.

While Lee’s criticism of Wagnerism in the various reviews she published participate in the debates of her day, in her literary and imaginative writings, the full impact of Wagnerian culture can be gauged by probing the “material unconscious” of the texts. Bill Brown has identified this as, the “granting [of] dimensionality to a passing reference or impression… [to] confront an image of the past that otherwise inexplicably renders the text as a whole, and its moment in history, newly legible.” (Brown 1996 14) Not only does material culture open literary texts, but its history is written by it. Likewise, in staging the singing voice-thing as a “culture ghost,” Lee’s texts expose the Wagnerian opera to what she conceived of as its “murder of the voice.” Something covered up newly emerges from the grave to haunt the musical scene. According to Huyssen’s reading of Adorno, Wagner’s techniques for hiding the voice involved submerging the orchestra at Bayreuth and dimming the lights in the opera hall. As if to cover up the murder of the voice, Wagner also hides the instruments of his crime.

In Shakespeare’s play, the murder of King Claudius is staged by Hamlet in such a way that the ghostly father is both a thing and nothing:

Hamlet: The king is a thing—

Guildenstern: A thing, my lord?

Hamlet: Of nothing.

Staged as play within the play, the father’s death allows Hamlet to make a person that is a thing and nothing in the Lacanian sense. To make an inexact but plausible comparison, in Lee’s texts the voice of the castrato is “a sublime thing, irreducible to the physical object…at once physical and metaphysical, sensible and suprasensible, both object and thing.” (Brown 2003 41) Music is uniquely capable of achieving this effect because the singing voice has always been regarded as ephemeral, intangible, and music as “the condition to which all the arts aspire.” Likewise, as Sophie Geoffroy-Menoux observes, “because music is the genius of both time and space, it makes the voice heard as necessarily phantom-like and of the past: reappearance of the returned, and return of the repressed.” (Geoffroy-Menoux 58)[xvi]

Serving as musical things embedded in the material unconscious of her texts, Lee’s eighteenth century castrati “culture ghosts” emerge from an erased historical past pointing to their materiality as culture while simultaneously debunking their ephemerality as “unlikely.” Thus, it is the cultural work that enters into the play of the text, and the voice itself as thing becomes more than an object of study (a sign). It is in Lee’s “A Culture-Ghost; or, Winthrop’s Adventures” that the voice is a thing (a portrait) that sings.[xvii]

[i] Huyssen contends that, “Wagner is indeed the pivotal figure in Adorno’s prehistory of the modern.” (29) For a very different reading of why the music overwhelmed the opera, see Dolar, Mladen. Music under Wagner “became much longer, actually took gigantic proportions…” as it “lost its power to elicit mercy and love,” the latter being the original raison d’être of the opera according to Dolar. (17)

[ii] Though castrati continued to play roles in the opera well into the nineteenth century, and the supposed “last castrato” Alessandro Moreschi being a contemporary of Lee, her focus is exclusively on the eighteenth century.

[iii] It should be understood that the argument offered here is partially a critique of the Lacanian notion of the voice as objet a appearing in the work of Mladen Dolar and Slavoj Žižek. My reading of the materiality of the body in Lee’s texts is closer to that of Roland Barthes and queer theorists who have drawn on his work. Dolar argues that the voice is not “reducible to what Barthes has called the “grain of the voice”—“the materiality of a body speaking its mother tongue,” “the body in the singing voice.” For to attach the voice to the body and to endow it with materiality involves all kinds of obstacles…” (Dolar 1996 10)

[iv] While a commodity may be marketed and sold, reproduced and exchanged, fungibility refers to products that are not interchangeable commodities like petroleum, electricity, and precious metals.

[v] This notion is elaborated by Bernard Stiegler who proposes that memory may be transmitted genetically or through culture, and technology is one way in which objects retain the memory of passing time.

[vi] For Maurice.  xxviii. Koestenbaum notes: “Technology has had a profound impact on opera from the first days of the media explosion. The voice of Enrico Caruso [1873-1921] was committed to records as early as 1902; these recordings soon became the most popular of the era, and they were in many ways responsible for the initial growth of the recording industry.” The Queen’s Throat. 167.

[vii] For Maurice. xxviii-xxix. Ivan Kreilcamp notes: “Edison’s phonograph—invented in 1877, “perfected” in 1888, first widely available commercially in England in 1898—was greeted as a radically strange device by its earlier auditors, who viewed with disquiet and astonishment the capture and reproduction of a distinctive human voice by a machine…The discourse surrounding the invention of the phonograph claimed that, in seizing a human voice as a thing apart from its origin, one might resist mortality itself.” Kreilcamp, Ivan. “A Voice Without a Body: The Phonographic Logic of Heart of Darkness” Victorian Studies, 40: 2 (1997)

[viii] Geoffroy-Menoux, Sophie. Les voix maudites de Vernon Lee: n.17 remarks on Farinelli’s strong resemblance to Lee’s story. Dierickx, Jelle. “Somebody’s Voice, Nobody’s Voice.” Trans. Helen White:, for the comparison between the vox nova and vox antiqua.

[ix] The Italian “musico” connotes both musician and castrato. While other Italian terms such as “castrato,” and “evirato” focus on the production side of castration, “musico” stresses the fact that this class of persons was made to serve an unique purpose: to sing.

[x] Pater, Walter. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. New York: MacMillan, 1899. Walter Pater’s notorious “Conclusion” had previously appeared in an anonymous review “Aesthetic Poetry.” Linda Dowling observes “Pater’s publication of the “Conclusion” to The Renaissance under his own name in 1873…marks a turning point in the history of Oxford Hellenism and homosociality.”  Lee’s association with Pater was well-known in Victorian intellectual circles. To the Victorian subscribers of the Fortnightly Review, the literary genre identified in the subtitle would have already been suggestive enough of what was to follow. Walter Pater, her mentor who defined the genre of the “imaginary portrait” notoriously scandalized readers of the reviews with his philosophy a few decades earlier.

[xi] Monsman, Gerald C.  Pater’s Portraits: Mythic Pattern in the Fiction of Walter Pater. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins Press, 1967. 99. Lee seems somewhat confused in presenting the topic for unlike Pater’s portraits, this one is more of an instructive essay attempting to resurrect a real history from a remote past in the guise of a fictional account.

[xii] In personal correspondence with Lee scholar Sophie Geoffroy, it was determined that this is a nonce word possibly introduced to soften the effect of signified.

[xiii] Making a similar point Wayne Koestenbaum notes that “Castration freezes the boy-voice before puberty can wreck it.” Koestenbaum, 166

[xiv] Huyssen, in After the Great Divide, 39-40 notes: “Adorno’s characterization of Wagner’s opera as phantasmagoria is an attempt to analyze what happens to aesthetic appearance (ästhetischer Schein) in the age of the commodity and as such it is the attempt to come to terms with the pressure commodity fetishism puts on works of art. As phantasmagorias Wagner’s operas have veiled all traces of labor that went into their production…In Wagner’s day the consumer goods on display turned their phenomenal side seductively towards the mass of consumers while diverting attention from their merely phenomenal character, from the fact that they were beyond reach. Similarly, in the phantasmagoria, Wagner’s operas tend to become commodities.”

[xv] Koestenbaum, The Queen’s Throat, 159 notes that contemporary loquacity might also have something to do with “voice culture’s affinity with psychoanalysis. Both systems believe in expressing hidden material, confessing secrets. And…[they both]… take castration seriously: voice culture wants to recapture the castrato’s scandalous vocal plenitude, while psychoanalysis imagines castration as identity’s foundation—star player in the psyche’s interminable opera.

[xvi] My translation of: “Car la Musique, génie du temps et génie du lieu tout ensemble, fait entendre la voix, nécessairement fantôme, du passé:  une résurgence du révolu, et le retour d’un refoulé.”

[xvii] The conscious play here refers to Daston, Lorraine. Things That Talk: Objects Lessons from Art and Science. New York: Zone Books, 2004.


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