Made for Life

Just what can the castrati tradition reveal about the algae opera singer?  Here is a first glimpse at The Algae Opera's protagonist, Evalga...

When I was 12, mum and dad bought me a hard backed shiny book about classical music.  I think it had a picture of James Galway on the front. Despite its shininess and the endorsement of a celebrity flautist, I thought this to be a very boring book; until I got to the bit about the castrati tradition.  My 12-year-old feminist self found it deeply curious that the 18th century's patriarchal system would rather castrate vocally promising pre-pubescent boys than have women sing in a public space. The other part of my 12-year-old self was morbidly fascinated about the sacrifices people and families would make for money, art and stardom.

The castrati tradition was a legacy of the Church and later, the Opera House.  Because women weren't allowed to perform in church or on stage, a small percentage of pre-pubescent boys were re-designed via castration to create the castrati tenor; a male singer with the vocal kick of a tenor and the high notes of a soprano.  At the height of the castrati tradition in Italy, 4,000 - 5,000 boys a year were sent for castration.  Many didn't survive the operation, many didn't make it through the training.  For those few boys that did make it, they were made for life.  Many went on to sing in the Cathedrals, a small handful went on to become the stars of the opera houses.

The castrati's design was therefore different to the average male of the eighteenth century, for the castrati was made for the church and not for family life. Due to this design need, the training and mutilation the castrati undertook transformed the male body and sound into something that was beautifully unnatural and not of this world.  As a result of this biological modification, (a young boy's larynx with the lung capacity of an adult) the castrati's breath capacity and vocal flexibility made composers slaver and women reach for their smelling salts.  They were the supersingers and therefore elevated to the superstar of the eighteenth century.  Their legacy went global with world tours that took in all the major courts and cities.

The algae tradition as we imagine in 2060 and present in The Algae Opera, doesn't pick up on the body mutilation of the castrati tradition.  But, it does follow the path of societal and familial needs and biological modification.  Evalga, the protagonist of The Algae Opera, is the new generation of an algae dynasty.  Her grandfather was talent-spotted and asked to complete the first clinical trials of the algae opera singer.  He was a huge success and went on to become the prototype for the algae opera singer.  Evalga, being firstborn, was expected to continue her grandfather's legacy, just like her father had done before her.  From the age of 10 she was transferred into an academy and trained in the algae tradition.  At 21, she emerged a fully modified algae opera singer; enhanced lung capacity, skilled in improvisation, offering a virtuosic algae mezzo operatic range - encompassing bitter and sweet sonic enhancement, and with political diplomacy that many a politician would cast an envious glance at. Like the castrati tenor, she too takes on a world tour, performing in all major cities to great critical acclaim and fan hysteria.  But her world tour is also political for she is an algae ambassador with the capability to start or end conflict on a global scale. 

If the castrati tenor was made for the church, the algae opera singer is designed to produce our future food. To ensure that her algae is always top quality, Evalga has dedicated her life to us, the consumer, since she was 10 years old..  And as Evalga knows, when you are a super singer life is very different. From deciding the meal you eat to the lover you take, the discipline of the art and the needs of the consumer is often at the forefront of that decision. Because of this, Evalga lives a very public life privately. When we attend one of her breath ceremonies, we don't see the hours of maintenance she and her creative team have put in place to make sure she is never contaminated and always looks, sounds and tastes amazing.  

Returning back to now, what does this comparison of 1760 to 2060 mean today?  For me, it encourages a set of burning question that are at the heart of evolving performance practice.  What we are designing today's singers for?  Where is the design taking us?  And what are the sacrifices for..?

Sources and links:
After Agri, Burton and Nitta, 2012
Singing in the Pain, Sean Coughlan, BBC, 2006
The Castrati: A physician's perspective, part I, Hektoen Inl, Vol 2, Issue 2, James L. Franklin, 2010
The Castrati: A physician's perspective, part II, Hektoen Inl, Vol 2, Issue 3, James L. Franklin, 2010

Blog Post Header Image: After Agri, Burton and Nitta, 2012. Photography by Matt McQuillan
Blog Post main body image: Caricature of Farinelli in a female role, Pier Leone Ghezzi, 1724. Source: Wikipedia

Sound sample in main body: Alessandro Moreschi; recorded in 1904; part of the 78 RPMs & Cylinder collection.  Source:


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