This article explores the late Victorian fascination with the defunct voice of the operatic castrato as manifest in two texts by Vernon Lee — Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy and “A Wicked Voice” — and in George Du Maurier’s Trilby. Each text imagines a revenant castrato, using the life and body of the violated singer as a source of enchantment and endless aesthetic speculation. Though these texts implicitly acknowledge their exploitive nature, they lack the self-mastery to resist the pleasure of making the surgically altered and socially wanting castrato serve perfection fantasies. Still, the representations of the revenant castrato bear with them a social and moral history that interrupts the pleasure of speculation and highlights the brutality of what art lovers have nominated as an ideal.
Corps de l’article
On the surface of things, the arts of Vernon Lee (a.k.a. Violet Paget) and George Du Maurier bear little resemblance to one another. During the late nineteenth century, the former gained a reputation as a formidably brilliant thinker and aesthetic writer, the latter as a witty, satirical illustrator for Punch. Her command of language earned her the reputation as one of the fin de siècle’s most accomplished essayists (Gardner 34-52), while Du Maurier, even as the author of three novels including the highly popular Trilby, seemed both to himself and to literary critics a second-rate writer. Yet within five years of one another, each published a disturbing, occult tale of music, posing similar questions regarding the constitution of individual desires and identity and their relation to outside forces. The final story in Lee’s Hauntings of 1889, “A Wicked Voice” reprises a pivotal scene from Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1887): a first-person narrator articulates an exquisite yearning for a dead art, baroque bel canto as performed by castrati. Lee, as narrator of the non-fictional treatise, rationalizes her desire with references to the superiority of the previous century’s music and musicians. By contrast, the narrator of her short story, Maestro Magnus, experiences an unwilling obsession with the voice of Zaffirino, an eighteenth-century castrato whom the Maestro implausibly hears performing while on an extended visit to Venice. Though Magnus consciously desires to create modern, Wagnerian opera, with its emphasis on the composer as the generator and controller of sound and emotion, he suffers imaginative enslavement to the opera seria that catered to the sensual art of the singer. He is overcome, in his words, by a “miasma of long-dead melodies” (208). Revisiting such themes of compulsion and bondage in 1894, Trilby features a tone-deaf grisette and nude model who nonetheless possesses an immense voice and who, under the command of the mesmerist and musician Svengali, achieves international success as La Svengali, a prima donna who resurrects the virtuosic singing of the previous century. Never even aware of her own success, Trilby as La Svengali serves as a primary instrument through which the novel explores unsettling, epistemological questions about representation and transcendence, as well as ontological questions about bodily boundaries. As subject and object, a prized artist and a victim of Svengali, she as well as her mesmerist raise questions of what society willingly sacrifices or ignores in order to enjoy an unusual form of beauty.
As numerous critics have pointed out, however, the mesmeric relationship does not confine itself to the dyad of conductor and singer; it also incriminates the audiences who instantly fall under her spell (Winter 30). In Svengali’s Web, Daniel Pick argues that portrayals of “musical possession” in the late Victorian era simultaneously bespoke tremendous anxieties about the individual’s ability for self-control and about vulnerability to outside forces (117), while Alison Winter explores even larger claims: that mesmerism typified nineteenth-century culture in its testing of crucial issues including natural laws, the performance of trustworthiness, and the meaning of legitimate authority (6, 11). Mesmeric fears that the internal might not be fully amenable to the discipline of the reasoning mind or that the self might become an other appeared everywhere from folk superstitions to psychiatry and medicine with their interest in the hysteric and the somnambule. Both Winter and Pick demonstrate the spread of such suspicions to the political as well, where demagogues, charismatic speakers, or ethnic minorities in positions of power acquired reputations as wizards or hypnotists (Winter Ch. 12; Pick Ch. 7). Operatic examples of enchantment, however, predate the nineteenth-century phenomena, and opera’s history considerably illuminates “A Wicked Voice” and Trilby, both of which stage an uncanny coincidence of past and present art. Each text imagines a revenant castrato voice and art which perform through an unwilling (Maestro Magnus) or unwitting (Trilby) host: baroque bel canto, that is beautiful singing, takes hold of the minds and bodies of performers and listeners. This dubious recurrence of a lost aesthetic ultimately suggests the problems endemic to artistic idealism and to conceptions of beauty, suggestions that arise as much from the ideological contradictions within the literary texts as from their effective satires of late Victorian society.
Jonathan Grossman has argued that, in Trilby, Du Maurier deploys the figure of Svengali to conflate the entire aesthetic movement of the late nineteenth century into a “single, demon artist” (527) — that is, Svengali, who proves “a dangerous poser from his first trick performance on a little flute to his phony construction of Trilby as a singer” (534). His specious allure promises an unsurpassed artistic experience, but in fact emerges as a threat to culture and to virtually every aspect of individual identity, from physical and mental integrity to the sound of one’s voice. Similarly concerned with music’s “intoxicating” properties and capacity for identity erasure, Lee repudiates Richard Wagner for his operas which undermine “her classical notions of aesthetic experience” and subvert “clear distinctions between objective musical patterns and subjective personal feelings” (Caballero 400). Her literary revenge, therefore, entails representing Magnus, the Wagnerian aspirant, as “utterly overcome by the music Wagner held in deepest contempt: Italian opera — and worse, eighteenth-century opera, with all its meretricious indulgence of singers and voices.... She effectively turns the haunting power of the old vocal art she so treasured against the insolent German composer who aimed to obviate it” (Caballero 401). Yet the musical entrancement represented within the respective occult tales of Lee and Du Maurier connects both with late Victorian and eighteenth-century history, implicating the tales in the very practices they would critique — specifically, an aesthetic that violates or threatens individual identity. The surgical castration of boys in the eighteenth century converts into distinct but still sinister forms of physical, psychical, and social violence, and again such damage problematically figures as music that fulfills an ideal.
Almost from its inception the opera which spread rapidly from Italy to other parts of Europe, Russia, and eventually the Americas employed the castrato as one of its primary voices. Except for the majority of the Papal States, which forbid the use of female performers on the stage more or less continuously until 1798 (Heriot 26-27; Barbier 122-26), most countries receptive to the opera funded and courted preeminent singers of either sex. Yet the distinct history and timbre of the castrato have rendered him especially appealing to afficionados who unhappily witnessed the end of the baroque bel canto era or never even heard his song. These belated opera fans, entranced with nostalgic memories or descriptions of past vocal excellencies, heightened already charged discourses on the castrato’s voice. Claims for its divinity and its overwhelming sensuality not only co-existed, but even reinforced one another insofar as both confirmed the status of the castrato as a member of a third sex, a physical and vocal anomaly. The body of the castrato, neither fully masculine nor feminine, lacked most secondary male sex traits, including testicles, body hair, and an Adam’s apple, and acquired select female ones: many developed breasts and acquired fatty deposits on the hips, thighs, and neck (Barbier 13-14). Of greatest importance for the music industry, his larynx did not descend and his “vocal cords remained closer to the cavities of resonance” (16). The resulting castrato “voice differed from that of the normal male singer through its lightness, flexibility and high notes, and from the female voice through its brilliance, limpidity and power. At the same time it was superior to a boy’s voice through the adult nature of its musculature, its technique and expressivity” (17). Period accounts of the frenzied reception of select castrati and the many written testaments to the beauty, pathos, agility, and even perfection of their voices supplied ample evidence of the castrati’s status in their own time. But as interesting and possibly as disturbing is the retrospective fascination with an irretrievable art form and performer.
In multiple senses, much of opera’s history betrays an obsession with the lost. One primary creator of opera, the Florentine Camerata, desired to reinvent a contemporary art (opera) in the image of Greek drama, which they idealized as moral, communal, and interdisciplinary. The art which combined music, text, and dance metonymically stood for an integrated audience, one comprised of individuals who responded similarly to the represented issues which affected them all and one engaging their highest reasoning, ethical, and emotional faculties (Kehler, “Opera in Dispute” 151-52). Though these ideals bore only a slight resemblance to operatic praxis, critics and would-be reformers of the opera — which rapidly transformed into a commercial success in public theatres — resounded the note of complaint in lamenting its decline from its initial purity of form and sound. Throughout the eighteenth century, the castrati’s period of greatest triumph, critics bemoaned the development and effects of the star system, especially the relative indifference of audiences and singers alike to the libretto text and their collective privileging of embellished, virtuosic singing. In Italy, Marcello (388) and Algarotti (62) satirized the castrato for assuming creative licence in the opera and figured him as a ludicrously vain creature, given to superfluous and nonsensical vocal display. These satires on the castrato are underwritten by the perception of the castrated male as one from whom it is futile to expect proper judgment and taste (cf. Ancillon 9). In Britain, too, operatic detractors claimed that the castrato’s mutilated body generated an unruly mind, often manifest in decadent vocalization. Taken to an extreme, texts such as the anonymous Remarkable Trial of the Queen of Quavers, Bicknell’s Musical Travels, and Wilkes’ A General View of the Stage represent the anomalous body and its equally suspect voice as abject in sight and sound. The blatantly xenophobic Remarkable Trial calls “the harmony of pigs, or the vocal powers of a Castrato, the most unnatural disgusting ravenous noise” (13) and represents the bodies of castrati as bestial and hybrid: “They have the look of a crocodile, the grin of an ape, the legs of a peacock, the paunch of a cow, the shape of an elephant, the brains of a goose, the throat of a pig, and the tail of a mouse” (7). This venomous description of an unimaginable composite of species and animal parts uncovers two seminal aspects of the discourses on the castrato: first, the notion that he remained outside of ordinary categories of classification, and, second, the flickering, underlying uneasiness about this deliberately created gender monster. As Thomas Wilkes derisively states, “we know it is out of the power of these wretches [castrati] to feel, because they are made incapable” (67) — a state of affairs that should call attention to the act of making the monstrous.
The widespread practice of blaming the eunuch or castrato for his bodily state and social status elicited vigorous counter-arguments from connoisseurs of the singing voice, though for obvious reasons their grounds of opposition tended to be limited to the aesthetic (cf. Tosi and Burney). Lee’s Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy perpetuates such evasiveness, resembling most closely texts published from sixty to one hundred years previously, texts like those by Dr. Charles Burney and Lord Mount-Edgcumbe that aim to celebrate the art of the castrato as the apogee of singing without confronting the human suffering endemic to its production. While Burney writes approving of many female sopranos, he names Pacchierotti, Rubinelli, and Marchesi as the three greatest singers of his own time, and Farinelli — long retired when Burney met him — as the most gifted and unsurpassed of singers (General History 2:789, 902). Mount-Edgcumbe, who witnessed the performance of Velluti, the last operatic castrato to appear in London, extols the same trio of late eighteenth-century male sopranos in a lengthy footnote which mourns the loss of “first-rate” performers capable of embellishing arias: given but a “simple tema,” these singers were able to “give it the light and shade, and all its grace and expression; which required not only a thorough knowledge of music, but the greatest taste and judgement” (130). These discursive depictions of the castrati, which have more than a touch of the elegiac and nostalgic about them, reveal that the intriguing history of opera, which is itself predicated on the notion that something of value has been lost, deliberately castrated men to fulfil an aesthetic ideal and produced a voice type destined to be lost, thereby generating the “kind of nostalgia and fantasies that haunt the operatic imagination” (Poizat 119).
The Victorian longing for the castrato’s voice does not appear to have been widespread, for the gradual evolution of the art form increasingly provided new roles for female sopranos and male tenors, roles which, like the castrato’s, highlighted their particular vocal and dramatic strengths (Rosselli 68; Christiansen Ch. 2). Yet operatic yearning for an ideal voice and performer continued unabated and occasionally writers still nominated the castrato. The most poignant elegy I know of belongs to Vernon Lee, whose lengthy section on “The Musical Life” in her Studies recreates Burney’s Present State of Music in France and Italy (based on his 1770 travels), incorporating and expanding the ideas of the original text (Gunn 69). Unabashedly courting ghosts, she visits Bologna’s Philharmonic Academy where Burney performed some of his research, attempting to use its artifacts and his words to conjure the unrecoverable art and voice of the castrato. Burney, she stresses, concerned himself with an art that “still lived” (81), whereas she searches for fugitive remnants of it, especially the bel canto tradition of extemporized and often varied ornaments performed and created by each accomplished singer:
when we read of it [extemporization]—we, who can only read of it—we feel an undefinable sense of dissatisfaction, a wistful dreary sense of envy for what did not fall to our lot, and of pain at the thought that all that feeling, all that imagination, all that careful culture, has left no trace behind it. In turning over the leaves of memoirs and music-books we try, we strain as it were, to obtain an echo of that superbly wasted vocal genius; nay, sometimes the vague figures of those we have never heard, and never can hear, will almost haunt us.... [W]e almost fancy that we ourselves must once, vaguely and distantly, have heard that weirdly sweet voice, those subtle, pathetic intonations.120-21
In this plaintive tribute to the lost, Lee ostensibly establishes a binary between a present, implicitly unfulfilling art and an imagined past plenitude. Yet her emotionally nuanced prose functions in highly conflicted ways. In deliberating scooping out the present to render it a mere cultural shell, more ghostly and insubstantial than the eighteenth-century opera, Lee recreates the loss always associated with the singer’s opera. Her fantasy of perfection derives not simply from the “occult charm” residual in descriptions of past castrati, but also from present desire manifest as “dissatisfaction” and “envy” (Studies 120-21). Marked by her own insistence on contemporary lack, Lee composes a castrated text predicated on desires, on wants, that conflate beauty with damage and that visibly entangle her in such contradictions.
Caballaro, writing of “A Wicked Voice,” astutely notes Lee’s avoidance of the words “castrato” and “castration,” a suppression of “the operative word in this fantasy” of vocal and sexual allure (389). Both the tale and the treatise nonetheless knowingly rely on a singer “fashioned with ... subtle tools” (“A Wicked Voice” 195), one who “had to be produced almost like a work of art” (Studies 118); and both obsess about the loss they cannot bear to name explicitly, as if their own state of wanting could reproduce the conditions necessary for the castrato’s voice. Roland Barthes might say (as he does of another nineteenth-century text, Balzac’s Sarrasine) that they are “touched by the metonymic force of castration,” the amorphousness or “nothingness” that “contaminates everything it encounters” (70, 198). Unmistakably, “A Musical Life” entails several scenes that impede its own designation of the eighteenth century as aesthetically replete. The turn to Burney and living art, for example, entails privileging a text that inadvertently recorded the decadence and decline of baroque bel canto. In her conclusion to “A Musical Life,” Lee highlights his puzzlement at the decayed state of the conservatories where the castrati trained, noting that Burney did not guess “that in forty years all that musical life would have vanished, all that musical supremacy would have ceased” (139); she, on the other hand, is fully aware of the operatic demise of the castrati, but pensively relies on his travel account, instead of using mid eighteenth-century texts that attest not only to a living but to a flourishing art. Equally curiously, Lee selects Burney as a musical guide despite the absence of the highest calibre of opera from his accounts of Italy, for he inexplicably neglected to research its musical seasons and arrived after the major theatres closed for the summer. What first-hand knowledge he gained of the foremost, performing castrati, he acquired at home in London. Lee’s point in part involves representing the whole of Italy as musical, since Burney, in the absence of opera seria, witnessed the music of the church, the minor theatres, the streets and gondolas, and the drawing rooms. Yet Lee celebrates the Italian national culture as “spontaneous,” “natural,” necessary, and ultimately “universal” (97), while simultaneously mourning past and present artistic deficiencies — extending to the very content and style of Burney’s text:
Ah! if only we could obtain a sight of those notebooks in which Dr. Burney kept his journal, of those letters in which he told his friends at home of all his doings: those original sketches, taken from true life, and of which the printed work is but the curtailed, polished, enfeebled copy! As we turn over this cold, civil, pseudo-diary, trimmed and clipped so as to give offence to no one, we feel instinctively how much we have lost — what droll anecdotes, what racy adjectives, what humorous descriptions, have fallen victims to the doctor’s prudent scissors.94
In choosing a carefully modulated, professional voice to guide her back to a singing voice reputed to transcend language, communicating directly to the physical and the visceral senses of the listeners, Lee seemingly enters into a counter-intuitive and futile project. In the space created by this unassuageable longing, though, Lee forms her lush and melancholic prose, yet another aesthetic creation predicated on lack. Castration manifestly generates innumerable responses and new creations; it, according to Barthes, functions as a “predicative lack,” one which engenders discourses claiming a “recovered plenitude” (188). In destroying all unequivocal systems of representation, castration always hints at significance in excess of what can be articulated, but which both texts and individuals nevertheless long to indicate. Yet if the coincidence of (essential) lack and (interpretive) excess constitute one hallmark of the castrated text and all it touches, I am interested in a reformulation of the terms of assessment: what needs to be highlighted in reference to this castrated text is its guilt, its implication in the violence of opera’s past representations. The castrated text uses the life and body of the violated singer as a source of enchantment and endless aesthetic speculation, even though this text knows the cost of its production. It lacks the self-mastery to resist the pleasure of making the surgically altered and socially wanting castrato serve perfection fantasies, but concomitantly reveals the preoccupation with an ideal aesthetic as a form of enslavement.
The castrato voice Lee conjures in Studies bears a strong resemblance not only to the ghostly one in “A Wicked Voice” but also to that of Du Maurier’s La Svengali. Associated with a childhood of Italy’s national culture as well as the psychoanalytic childhood of imagined plenitude, this voice defies logic “as an object of jouissance detached from its usual functions of signification, communication, and the marking of gender difference. For ultimately, the principal feature of the castrato voice is not that it is the voice of a woman in the body of a man, but rather its extraordinary, literally unheard-of quality” (Poizat 116). In the respective fictions by Lee and Du Maurier, the voice exists in no materially traceable form and its non-signification allows the listener a fleeting perception of absolute sensual fulfilment, but subsequently begets a perpetual longing for the annihilation of rational subjectivity. Svengali, who discovers the lost secrets of baroque bel canto “in a dream” (30; 311), recklessly dominates women and men, converting them into instruments for his music. But like his victims, he acts from compulsion:
in his head he went for ever singing, singing, singing, as probably no human nightingale has ever yet been able to sing out loud for the glory and delight of his fellow-mortals;.... Whatever of heart or conscience — pity, love, tenderness, manliness, courage, reverence, charity — endowed him at his birth had been swallowed up by this one faculty [musicianship], and nothing was left for the common uses of life.57
The incantatory repetition of the word “singing” anticipates both Svengali’s mesmeric speech patterns that entrance Trilby and the subsequent effects of her performance on a large concert audience: “you shall hear nothing, see nothing, think of nothing, but Svengali, Svengali, Svengali!” (72-73). Significantly, then, he too has been “swallowed up” by a dangerous aesthetic. If Trilby loses her reason in his service, he loses all moral qualities in his obsessive drive to create the perfect art that rules his waking and sleeping life. The narrator attributes Svengali’s deficiencies to his Jewish blood, but the recurrence of musical enslavement within the plot works against this manifest anti-Semitism.
The problem of dissolving boundaries between reason and madness, consciousness and dreaming, also plagues Lee’s Maestro Magnus who is increasingly unable to exert himself except in search of the ghost-voice that constitutes his greatest agony and pleasure:
I recognized at once that delicate, voluptuous quality, strange, exquisite, sweet beyond words .... But I recognised now what seemed to have been hidden from me till then, that this voice was what I cared most for in all the wide world.
The voice wound and unwound itself in long, languishing phrases, in rich, voluptuous rifiorituras, all fretted with tiny scales and exquisite, crisp shakes; it stopped ever and anon, swaying as if panting in languid delight. And I felt my body melt even as wax in the sunshine, and it seemed to me that I too was turning fluid and vaporous, in order to mingle with these sounds as the moonbeams mingle with the dew.234
Magnus, like generations of opera fanatics before him, simultaneously embodies and disembodies the castrato’s voice: “exquisite, sweet beyond words,” it paradoxically transports him out of the empirical world of the five senses (Magnus literally stands in a decrepit ballroom during this scene) while inducing a sensation of physical bliss. In part this bliss involves immediacy — a hallucination that no distance intervenes between subject and object (Barthes 125). The “panting” and “languid delight” therefore not only metonymically designate Magnus’s sensations, but they also indicate his altered perception of bodily boundaries. Like so much else in the story, they simply don’t seem to exist.
For Magnus, such oneiric experiences of identity dissolution result in conscious feelings of “shame” (217), “utter impotence,” “inexplicable agitation” (220), and discomfiting duplicity: “I can never lay hold of my own inspiration. My head is filled with music which is certainly by me, since I have never heard it before, but which still is not my own, which I despise and abhor: little, tripping flourishes and languishing phrases, and long-drawn echoing cadences” (237). This highly suggestive self-characterization lends itself to a variety of readings, notably of emasculation: Magnus as a second-rate artist who merely imitates long-dead predecessors and serves the singer, adapting all composition to the abilities and limitations of his voice. Additionally, Magnus resembles “the ecstatics,” comprised mainly of “ladies, or effeminate cavalieri serventi” (Studies 93). This emotional male fan, the analogue for the present-day opera queen, would himself be recognizable as a third sex by the end of the nineteenth century, as a lover of high aesthetics, artifice, and other men (Abel 54; cf. Denisoff, “Men of My Own Sex” 149-53). Therefore, Magnus as a “love-sick hobbledehoy” (“A Wicked Voice” 200), one who awaits the inspiration of the castrato’s voice “as a lover awaits his beloved” (212), contributes to the fin-de-siécle constructions of homoeroticism in serious literature of a cautious, even anxious, character: to be enchanted by others of a third sex hints at moral and physical illness indicating (among other things) a failure of will, a failure of self-control.
But the puzzles of this text compound. Lee, both a lover of opera in all its high artifice as well as a lover of her own sex, eloquently defends eighteenth-century opera culture and its raptures in a series of texts, even while she propounds a theory of active listening versus voluptuous enjoyment. If, then, in “A Wicked Voice” Lee relies on the reader to perform an interpretive reversal of Magnus’s derision of the castrato and his art, locating the disease in the perceiver rather than in the art, she by no means obviates the problem of (Barthes’s) contagion or the metonymic spread of castration as disease. In fact, she cannot. Her very critique of Magnus as narrow-minded in his conceptions of art shows up her own aesthetic limits. To the extent that she endows her fictional composer with her own longing for the dead, she does grapple with an illness, but it is not necessarily sexual, even by the illiberal standards of the late nineteenth century; it is cultural and operatic, with an elusive but still verifiable material, medical history. Ancillon’s 1718 and Barbier’s 1989 texts on castrati both document the widespread use of castration as a form of persecution and humiliation in antiquity, as well as the continued use of it in “the whole of medieval Europe” for purposes of torture, punishment, and medical cure or prevention (Barbier 8; cf. Ancillon 41-51). During the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries, churches, conservatories, music masters, parents, and even the victims continued to claim legitimate medical reasons for the emasculation of pre-pubescent boys, but by this time medicine served as a “subterfuge” for a society “that sought and lived with castration without wishing to take total responsibility for it” (Barbier 25). The pretexts, Barbier reveals, were many: “malformation from birth, a bad riding accident, a bite from some animal or a kick in the wrong place by a young friend” (25). This decisive conflation of the punitive and the aesthetically pleasurable engendered the castrated text in addition to the singer’s opera. Sometimes this text will say the word “castrato” or even discuss the act or effects of castration. At other times it will suppress such details. Regardless of its reticence or boldness, the “operatically ill” (Hutcheon and Hutcheon 30) or castrated text positions the eunuch singer as an empty vessel, one endlessly available for interpretation, but whose productive malleability carries with it a long history of physical and textual violence that might haunt the imagination along with the coveted voice.
Barthes touches on this duplicity of the castrated text at various points in S/Z, commenting, for instance, on its ability to cross all lines of gender and class and its creation of pensive figures who fail in their attempts to limit castration to its seductive, erotic functions (36, 216). S/Z, however, is not primarily about moral or social culpability. The sheer exuberance of Barthes’s writing, along with his clear invitation to all readers to proliferate interpretation, constitutes one of its strengths. Outside of historical writing, critics have been reluctant to focus on the castrated text as damaged and damaging, though many fictions involving the eunuch singer reveal their imaginative ties to violence. Lee and Du Maurier, however divided in their aesthetics, both implicate themselves and their century. To begin with Lee, she evades the issue of originary violence quite successfully in Studies of the Eighteenth Century, yet visits it and displaces it onto Magnus in “A Wicked Voice.” The unnaturalness of the castrato’s body and voice incense the composer, whose conscious repudiations vie with his erotic, aesthetic compulsion towards a portrait of the singer Zaffirino as well as towards more hallucinatory appearances. Of the portrait Magnus derisively comments, “A ridiculous ass, this singer, under his triumphal arch, with his stuffed Cupids and the great fat winged kitchenmaid crowning him with laurels.” But the mood shifts rapidly. “The effeminate, fat face of his is almost beautiful, with an odd smile, brazen and cruel. I have seen faces like this, if not in real life, at least in my boyish romantic dreams, when I read Swinburne and Baudelaire, the faces of wicked, vindictive women. Oh yes! He is decidedly a beautiful creature, this Zaffirino, and his voice must have had the same sort of beauty and the same expression of wickedness” (206). In relation to this and comparable scenes, Caballero cogently argues for the homoerotic pull of the portrait for Magnus (401), who resents his own feminized position of desiring the sexually unconventional figure whom (in Lee’s words) “no woman had ever been able to resist” (“A Wicked Voice” 202). Additionally, I propose, the complex sexual politics serve as a vehicle to call attention to moral lapses, to wickedness and vindictiveness, that Magnus, and for that matter Vernon Lee, cannot bear to address by name. If historically the castrato’s sexual ambiguity necessarily traced back to a violent creation, within the tale the particular vocal and physical beauty of Zaffirino also act as instruments of violence.
The primary scene of the novel, a scene of figurative castration and acute, physical distress attendant on Zaffirino’s reluctant devotees, occurs twice (cf. Caballero 391). In the first instance it appears as an embedded narrative of the Procuratessa Vendramin. Her tale, communicated to Magnus by her great nephew Count Alvise, pits the chaste, patrician woman against the boastful Zaffirino, who claims to be able to control the emotions and even the life of any woman simply through his song. Towards these claims the Procuratessa manifests an amused, dismissive attitude, but she becomes physically and mentally love-sick from the first time she hears him sing. Desperately seeking a cure for this dangerously ill woman, the family brings Zaffirino to her country home to sing for her, but the result is fatal. Magnus, equally disparaging of the singer’s powers, is doomed to repeat the Procuratessa’s mental enslavement and physical weakening, though not her death. Instead, his hallucinations place him at the scene of her long ago death, feeling the exquisite effects of Zaffirino’s song as she did, while granting him a double consciousness of past and present:
At the sight of that face, sensual and sullen, of that smile which was cruel and mocking like a bad woman’s, I understood — I knew not why, by what process — that his singing must be cut short, that the accursed phrase must never be finished. I understood that I was before an assassin, that he was killing this woman, and killing me also, with his wicked voice.... I heard the voice swelling, swelling, rending asunder that downy veil which wrapped it, leaping forth clear, resplendent, like the sharp and glittering blade of a knife that seemed to enter deep into my breast. Then, once more, a wail, a death-groan, and that dreadful noise, that hideous gurgle of breath strangled by a rush of blood. And then a long shake, acute, brilliant, triumphant.235
In this scene of reverse castration, the voice created by the knife figures as the knife in a gruesome conflation of the orchidectomy (the surgical procedure of castration with its threat of excessive bleeding) with the myth of Cupid’s arrows unerringly finding the heart. Though Magnus clearly endeavours to affix the blame for the violent aesthetic on Zaffirino and his “wicked voice,” the images suggest a longer, more complicated history of infamy. The representation of the operatic aesthetic as inherently vicious recalls the path of the castrato’s production: young boys suffered a range of indignities, from the betrayal of families to the actual operation, the high fatality rate following the operation, the social degradation of the eunuch who failed as a singer, and the commodification of those who did succeed. The horror of the scene derives precisely from its recognizable, operatic tactic of fusing of an aesthetic ideal of beauty and damage. Lee simply reverses the emphasis, demonstrating the irreparable harm of castration. Transforming the clichéd, fainting aficionado into a genuine sufferer, this tale tests and finds wanting the ecstasies Lee apparently subscribes to in Studies of the Eighteenth Century by posing the implicit question: what if the fan had to risk health, identity, or life itself for art, instead of a lower-class or financially needy boy, often a peasant? The wicked work of the voice-knife causes excessive emotional disorder both for the Procuratessa and Magnus, who subsequently find themselves unable to act according to consciously held assumptions. The Procuratessa stands in for one of the expendable boys, whose sexual identity permanently alters in relation to an operatic event and whose death certainly has a criminal cause but one that would be virtually impossible to prosecute. The origins are known, but simultaneously occulted behind an untraceable weapon (the voice) or a boy’s supposed medical history or even a request for castration. In the case of Magnus, the sufferer lives, yet as a slave of art rather than as its willing, self-directed practitioner. Significantly, like the accomplished castrati, he receives public accolades for his music, but, possibly also like them, he associates his work with identity loss and with shame (Barbier 15, 26). Though he does not wish to perform this particular music, he responds to the public demand for it and to his own wretched compulsion. His success coming at the expense of self-possession, Magnus demonstrates the toll society’s and opera’s aesthetics of enchantment have exacted from bodies and minds.
Lee’s depiction of both the Procuratessa and Magnus as ailing, mentally and physically, due to the amorphous turn their identities take ultimately indicts the aesthetic itself as diseased. For entire societies to long for a voice at once divine and sensuous and for a body literally cut to fit a desire for the exotic constitutes at the very least a moral perversion. But by allowing the longing to play itself out visibly, tyrannically, by giving a present body a form of suffering analogous to that of the ghosted castrato, Lee exposes the brutality that underlay eighteenth-century opera as well as her own desire to hear its inimitable voices. Her revenant castrato bears with him a social and moral history inseparable from past misprisions and aesthetic ideals knowingly based on the pain of others.
Castrato Redux: Trilby
The impulse to return to a former musical age again receives explicit treatment in Du Maurier's Trilby in its envisioning of Svengali’s rediscovery of bel canto (30; 311). Performed through Trilby’s mesmerized body, “It was the apotheosis of voice and virtuosity! It was ‘il bel canto’ come back to earth after a hundred years — the bel canto of Vivarelli [Farinelli], let us say, who sang the same song every night to the same King of Spain for a quarter of a century, and was rewarded with a dukedom, and wealth beyond the dreams of avarice” (310-11). In Trilby as in “A Wicked Voice,” however, this nineteenth-century singing proves multiple in nature, comprising a preferred public aspect and a less attractive, somewhat obscured aspect. The preferred bel canto, as Rudolfo Celletti explains, uses the timbre, ornamentation, and expressiveness of the singing voice to enter “into the magic world created by the Baroque imagination and to reproduce it. . . . [T]he goal is a fixed and unalterable one: ‘poetics of wonder’ — amazement translated into intense, overwhelming emotion” (4). Trilby, who is given the stage name of La Svengali, creates this poetics of wonder, mesmerizing her audience even as she has been mesmerized. As described by the novel's musical authorities, La Svengali has a voice so beautiful and well-trained that even people lacking in musical appreciation “cry with pleasure at the mere sound of it” (248). Her voice, reinstating the lost sounds of castrati singing, surpasses fantasy.
But from the first introduction of Trilby and more particularly of Svengali, the novel highlights bel canto’s double association with the base and the beautiful. Prior to her mesmeric transformation, Trilby’s attempts to sing sound “grotesque” (22), even to her closest friends, the three British painters who have taken up residence in Bohmenian Paris and who find her irresistible (22). And, significantly, the trio of Taffy, the Laird, and Little Billee finds aspects of her life equally appalling, such as her experienced sexuality and her occasional work as a nude model. If the text as well as the male protagonists reiterate the “natural” beauty and charm of Trilby, nonetheless the overwhelming response to her naturalness takes the form of an imposition of culture, intended to recuperate what nature left unfinished. Her unconstrained bodily movements and her visceral enjoyment of such things as food and cigarettes receive a wary reception from the Englishmen, reflecting their concern with feminine propriety, and her conduct awakens in the men the related desires of possessing and of cultivating her. Similarly, her extraordinarily rich and immense speaking voice, in conjunction with her strong, leathery lungs and her capacious mouth, throat, and chest, frustrates Svengali because of her lack of musicality. There is a sense in which nature has miscarried, having placed a perfect vocal instrument in a tone-deaf woman. In order to elicit this voice for cultural and personal use, Svengali resorts to subterfuge and to mesmeric practices that physically deplete Trilby and estrange her from the very vocal art her body produces. His aesthetic impositions onto Trilby, thus, repeat and fulfill what the Englishmen began: first within their idealized paintings and later in practice, Trilby is made to bear the imprint of their bourgeois morality — she is made ashamed, repentant, and constrained in her physical movements. This last trait, in particular, ominously portends the future, for the physically constrained, Victorian lady becomes, in Svengali’s very different reform project, a rigid, singing automaton.
Separating the exploiter from the exploited, however, presents difficulties in the case of Svengali, since he conforms to a veritable encyclopedia of Jewish traits as compiled by anti-Semitic Europe. Associated with filth, deceit, coercion, economic opportunism, and occult power, Svengali as abject names a material condition as well as a historical form of social powerlessness. As Jules Zanger, Daniel Pick and Neil Davison argue, the end of the nineteenth-century in England witnessed exacerbated anti-Semitism partially in response to the increased number of Eastern European Jews and to the development and aftermath of the Dreyfus case (Zanger 33; Pick, “Powers of Suggestion” 119). In Davison’s stark words, the novel includes
a nexus of fin-de-siècle racial theories about ‘the Jew’ as complete human anomaly — a group of megalomaniacal, genetically and morally inferior, sexually ambiguous yet femininely potent beings whose power, if unleashed, could lead to an implosion of modern, liberal Europe. ‘The Jew’s’ ‘sinister’ dark appearance, historical plight-yet-cultural-threat, and third-sex status was thus made through Svengali imaginatively visual and thereby satisfyingly comprehensible to a wide public: Jewish racial power, Jewish effeminacy, queer Jewishness, and the threat of Jewish degeneracy indeed all form the central social implications of the novel, and ... together become the thread that made the work unique to the host of tales of hypnotism and sexual intrigue that surrounded it.75; my italics
Such abjection encompasses the musicianship of Svengali as well, for while the narrative designates it as magical, this “magic” grows out of his conspicuous failure to perform music of “the highest and best of all” (56-57). Though a superb pianist and an outstanding performer of Chopin’s music, Svengali delights in “making unheard heavenly melody of the cheapest, trivialest tunes” (57), often on his lowly penny whistle. This penny whistle metaphorically substitutes for his singing voice, since he is “absolutely without voice, beyond the harsh, hoarse, weak raven's croak he used to speak with” (56). Anti-Semitism further dictates, though, that his voicelessness feed off the voices and bodies of others less powerful than himself — most destructively, Honorine Cahen, a lower-class Jewess whose voice and spirits both break under his tutelage, and then Trilby O’Ferrall, whom he apparently works to death. If Svengali is honoured as the most talented artist in the novel, his genius being his one feature that recuperates him socially, he is also endowed with musical ambitions that render him as vicious and exploitive as the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Italians who emasculated boys for the opera, and who justified violation in terms of aesthetics.
On the surface of things, Du Maurier holds Svengali responsible for the devastation of Honorine and Trilby, the first whom he ejects into the Parisian slums when her voice fails and the second who resembles the eighteenth-century castrato entirely sacrificed to art, an instrument made to serve his aesthetic vision. The narrator’s explicit correlation of Trilby with the famed Farinelli encourages a parallel association between Svengali and the entire corrupt opera industry of the previous century, positioning him as the mercenary parent, castrator, and music master. Adding specifically nineteenth-century fears to the musical portrait, the novel figures Svengali as the newly powerful conductor, whose baton and command over an entire group of performers alarmed Britons (Winter 309-12). For Svengali directs not only his band but also Trilby, “conducting her, in fact, just as if she had been an orchestra herself” (Du Maurier 305). In the illustration Du Maurier provides to accompany this portion of the text (entitled “Au Clair de la Lune”), Svengali stands with his baton raised menacingly just a few feet from Trilby (306). Although she towers above him, the disciplinary significance of the baton is unmistakable: he is the era’s feared conductor- mesmerist who creates will-less automatons. While Gauld, Laurence and Perry and, more recently, Winter caution against a reductive view of mesmerism in Britain, noting its many advocates and its permeation of high and low culture, Winter supplies ample evidence that the musical mesmerist tended to excite suspicion. For period audiences, Svengali’s facility as a conductor likely served as yet another signal of his culpability and Trilby’s vulnerability. But, I contend, while the novel’s biases are obvious, it, like Lee’s short story, seems haunted by the figure it seeks to discredit and satirize (cf. Pick, Svengali’s Web 11, 147, 222).
In one of the oddest passages in the novel, the narrator, ostensibly describing art critics and painters disgruntled by their lack of success in comparison to Little Billee, shifts to an extended analogy of a failed castrato:
A poor devil of a cracked soprano (are there such people still?) who has been turned out of the Pope’s choir because he can't sing in tune, after all! — think of him yelling and squeaking his treble rage at Santley — Sims Reeves — Lablache!
Poor, lost, beardless nondescript! why not fly to other climes, where at least thou might’st hide from us thy woful crack, and keep thy miserable secret to thyself! Are there no harems still left in Stamboul for the likes of thee to sweep and clean, no women’s beds to make and slops to empty, and doors and windows to bar—and tales to carry, and the pasha's confidence and favour and protection to win?209-10
The peculiarity of this analogy lies less in its glossing of the visual arts than in its applicability to Svengali. The rage of du Maurier’s cracked soprano against Santley, Reeves, and Lablache — respectively a famous operatic baritone, tenor, and bass — mirrors that of Svengali prior to his mesmeric success with Trilby, for he also suffers from a form of voicelessness, literal and figurative: ‘”He had ardently wished to sing.... [But] He was absolutely without voice, beyond the harsh, hoarse, weak raven’s croak he used to speak with” (56). Like the failed castrato who was to be ashamed of his displeasing speaking voice, resulting from the mutilation in which he had no say, Svengali the Jew receives the blame for society’s biased readings of his race. Moreover, like the castrato Svengali suffers from a social voicelessness: as an entertainer he meets with tolerance, even acclaim, but his speaking voice evokes condescending pity or disgust. The suggestive similarities between these figures, though, work to implicate the contemporary society of each in the construction of the abject. If only a singing voice separates a celebrated castrato from a “contemptible” eunuch (Ancillon 39), or an inspired musician recreating the magic of bel canto from a despised “Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew” (Du Maurier 356), the location of abjection or idealism itself comes into question.
Taken to its novelistic extreme, the problem of blurred boundaries produces two bodies, two persons, each lacking the sum of necessary skills that comprise bel canto and each mysteriously contributing to its performance in an apparently single body. In this uncharted arena of the impossible and the incomprehensible, perfect vocal performance is generated and, implicitly, negated. La Svengali’s singing voice bears some resemblance to that of speaking voice of Trilby, which is “rich and deep and full” and “immense” (16, 22), but in performance she enchants because her songs merge the charm, sweetness, vivacity, and seductiveness characteristic of her when “clothed and in her right mind” with the musical genius of Svengali (96). Conflating their identities entirely, the narrator ascribes to La Svengali the arrogance and even the words previously assigned to Herr Svengali. “It was if she said: ‘See! what does the composer count for?.... The ‘Nussbaum’ is neither better nor worse than [the nursery rhyme] “Mon ami Pierrot’ when I am the singer; for I am Svengali; and you shall hear nothing, see nothing, think of nothing, but Svengali, Svengali, Svengali!’” (310; cf. 72-73). Initially spoken by the man himself while in the company of the Laird and Trilby, whom Svengali has mesmerized in order to cure her neuralgia, the incantation of his name takes on a new significance in the concert hall filled with an eager audience. This audience craves the enchantment promised by the Svengalis, even the trio of Englishmen who distrusted the Jewish musician and endeavoured to protect Trilby from him. The aesthetic trumps the moral as they luxuriate in the perfection fantasy provided by the “faultless” and “infallible” singing voice that is and is not Trilby’s (307); they immerse themselves in the extremities of joy and sorrow awakened by the Svengalis’ songs, preferring to be moved by sonority, rather than to comprehend the source of its power. Freed of denotative constraints, La Svengali, their female “archangel” (307), begs examination of the reputed transcendent and of the pernicious longings that inform musical aesthetics and reception. These longings precede the operatic voice of Trilby, which Svengali creates to fit both his and the public’s image of a vocal ideal; they also produce a Svengali, who embodies social inferiority, terror, and mystery or enables dreams of artistic repletion.
If the novel manifests sympathy for Trilby and satirizes (however gently) the hypocrisy of the Englishmen, it fails to sustain this critical stance in relation to Svengali. Instead, he becomes equated with the extremes of absolute horror and absolute beauty, either of which may be emphasized, neither of which society consciously owns. Though Svengali suffers neither the physical manipulation imposed upon the eighteenth-century castrati nor the evident violation to which he subjects his own victims, he serves as the novel’s monster — at once lacking and divinely talented. Perhaps, then, Trilby’s most profound, if inadvertent, warning concerns the danger of becoming implicated in an exploitive aesthetic in the very act of criticism. The text’s assumption that race in and of itself signifies inferiority reanimates an inherently destructive and hierarchical mode of perception. This emergence of a relocated but still prejudicial discourse within a predominantly satirical, corrective text demonstrates the ease with which society perpetuates discourses without a valid basis and the problems of both spectatorship and criticism, which often assume they can take on social issues without becoming implicated in them.
However, as I have illustrated, one form of the castrated text involves haunting, and both Trilby and “A Wicked Voice” recur to the question of coercive aesthetics as if compelled. The plot events and images that complicate and proliferate interpretive possibilities — for example, Du Maurier’s cracked-voice castrato or Lee’s voice-as-knife — nonetheless suggest that somewhere in the text’s history lies trauma that will impede the conscious drive towards idealism. The castrated text does damage, but it also bears marks of its own woundedness.
As Pick instructively observes, though Svengali and other monsters such as Hyde and Dracula “are forbidden a full subjective presence or even a chance to speak convincingly of themselves, anywhere in the text,” it is “precisely the genius of such stories to cast into question the dichotomous terms and assumptions offered in their own narratives, to show the degree to which the monsters’ very presence was desired and conjured by the supposedly hapless victim” (Svengali’s Web 222).
The complexities and contradictions of Trilby have been remarked by critics such as Pick (Svengali’s Web), Davison, Titus, Grossman, and Denisoff (“Men of My Own Sex”), the first two of whom explore issues of power and race, and the latter three of whom examine aesthetics and sexuality.
A number of critics discuss the physical allure of the castrati as lovers: Leonardi and Pope (Ch. 1), Barbier (Ch. 7), Heriot (Ch. 5), and Todd Gilman (51-58). For period accounts, see Michael Kelly (36) and Casanova (1: 266; 2: 26; 7: 251).
In Singers of Italian Opera, John Rosselli warns against a reductive equation of Italian opera with the Camerata, asserting theirs “was only one among several strands that went to make up the early opera in musica—literally ‘musical work’. Others were lavish interludes sung and danced between the acts of plays given on great occasions at court, the semi-improvised plays with songs called commedia dell ‘arte, the new vogue for dramatic utterance by a lone singing voice in place of polyphony, and the further vogue for pastoral” (4). For a full discussion of the "origins" of the opera, see Charles Burney's General History of Music and Donald J. Grout's A Short History of Opera, David Kimbell’s Italian Opera, and Ellen Rosand’s Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice.
The exact history of castration in connection with the music industry remains unknown. As Leonardi and Pope observe, we “have no first castrato, and a cultural silence surrounds his creation” (25). This absence of reliable facts constitutes yet another form of lack which troubles the writing on opera.
I address Barthes’ important text on the castrato, S/Z, only in a cursory fashion in this paper. I offer a more extended treatment in “Narrative Returns: the Production of Domino.”
For an extended discussion of the voice as the object of a psychoanalytic drive and an attempted return to childhood, see Poizat, especially the chapter entitled “The Objectified Voice and the Vocal Object.”
In direct contrast to Poizat, Brigid Brophy postulates that "the reign of the castrati was actually the period of utmost triumph for the female voice" (qtd. in Christiansen 27). My own reading lies closest to that of Poizat, who, along with gender theorists such as Marjorie Garber, highlights the vulnerability and unique power of a “third” sex.
The shame could reference a Jewish anxiety. If, as Caballero posits, Magnus stands in for Wagner, whose anti-Semitism has been read as a product of his own fears that he was the illegitimate child of the Jewish Geyer, Lee might be launching a vicious attack on the composer. Thomas Mann has a similarly ambiguous portrait of Wagnerianism in his short story “The Blood of the Walsungs.” The Wagner connection also operates in Trilby. See endnote 15.
“A Wicked Voice” supplements the portrait of Balzac’s love-sick opera fan in Sarrasine (in which the title character becomes obsessed with La Zambinella) and anticipates the setting of Thomas Mann’s homoerotic Death in Venice, including the emphasis on the stagnant lagoons, “moral malaria,” and physical malady. See also Archenholtz’s A Picture of Italy (trans. 1791), which asserts that “Venice is rotting in her canals” (1: 58), a degeneration the text links with an archaic form of government, widespread violence, and deviant sexuality.
Caballaro explores this tension at length in his excellent article on “A Wicked Voice.” For information on Lee’s complex approaches to sexuality and aesthetics, see Burdett Gardner’s largely biographical The Lesbian Imagination (Victorian Style). Gardner reads the erotic and aesthetic as intertwined, the formerly often sublimated into the latter (226, 264, 301). Though clearly attracted to women physically, Lee apparently eschewed intimate sexual relationships. For more recent discussions of Lee’s expressions of attraction and repulsion towards the erotic, see Psomiades’s article in Victorian Sexual Dissidence, as well as Malz’s and Denisoff’s respective articles in Women and British Aestheticism. In large measure, the more recent findings bear out Gardner’s claims, though they tend to focus on the complexities of expression and sublimation. On the other hand, Jane Hotchkiss in her article on “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady” disagrees with critical assessments of Lee’s chastity. “That Lee, a preeminently introspective person, capable of remarkable self-honesty, was so out of touch with her own passions, seems unlikely; moreover, the wellspring scene in the Snake Lady tale suggest that she knew a thing or two about cunnilingus” (27).
The hypocrisy became fodder for satirists even during the height of the castrati’s success, though often the victims seemed to be held responsible, rather than the society. See in particular Marcello, Ancillon, Bicknell, and the anonymous Queen of Quavers. Marcello pillories the tendency of the successful singer to claim that he derived from "a distinguished and honored family and that a most dangerous disease had forced him to undergo that certain operation" (392). Considerably more viciously, Ancillon, Bicknell and Quavers equate the castrati with the type of beasts — most often wild pigs or geese — claimed to have attacked boys and necessitated an operation. Tracing these tales into the mid nineteenth century, Rosselli’s 1992 text on opera singers indicates that the few remaining castrati in the Sistine Chapel “had apparently all fallen victim to pigs” (39).
Linda Hutcheon and Michael Hutcheon’s conception of the operatically ill designates characters in opera whose exotic voices are connection with disease, notably tuberculosis. Our readings coincide, though, in the emphasis on an aesthetic based on physical failure and/or suffering.
Corbiau’s 1994 art film Farinelli presents an interesting companion piece to Lee’s “A Wicked Voice,” for the film’s title character (only loosely based on the historical figure of that name) deliberately targets audience members who claim or show indifference to his voice and art. And, as in the case of Zaffirino, Corbiau’s Farnelli reduces upper-class women to tears and fainting and a scornful composer — a fictional version of George Handel — to artistic impotence and to an emotionally induced collapse at the sound of Farinelli singing from Handel’s own Rinaldo.
Svengali bears a certain resemblance to the (in)famous violinist Niccolo Paganini. Dahlhaus writes that "Paganini's virtuosity was seen by many of his contemporaries as witchcraft, in a completely nonmetaphorical sense of the term, and wakened buried memories in an age which otherwise regarded itself as positivist" (Nineteenth-Century Music 139). Pick (“Powers of Suggestion”) and Davison link Svengali with Wagner and anti-Semitism. See also Alison Winter, whose Mesmerised (especially chapter 12) provides an excellent account of the concatenation of musical and occult fears.
Gauld’s book remains essential reading on the complex developments concerning mesmerism and hypnotism in Germany, France, and England. Laurence and Perry provide a fascinating and detailed account of European attitudes towards mesmerism and legal decisions regarding mesmerists and their subjects. Winter’s recent text focusses almost exclusively on Britain.
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