Features Opinion Published 16 January 2012

A Modest Proposal (with apologies to Swift)

The castration solution.

Robert Barry

As we embark upon the year which Mayan prophets and movie moguls alike assure us stands a good fist of being our last, there lie undoubtedly two great problems facing mankind. First of all, there is the base fear which unites such unlikely bedfellows as the Club of Rome and the British Green Party; that neo-Malthusian dread that sees the Earth’s population rising at such a rate that soon no-one will be able to enjoy the delights of organic quince or frolic like lambs in their own spacious country estate.

Last year saw the birth of the seven billionth squirming little human being, following a year on year increase since the Black Death. Of course, as everyone knows, it is not we in the West who must be restrained in our relentless rutting but those poorer nations who simply can’t keep themselves under control. And where the discrete warnings of academic biologists and United Nations working groups fail, more drastic measures may be required.

Which brings us to the second serious problem gripping the globe: the difficulty of staging a really good production of some of the great classics of baroque opera. At a certain point in history, somewhere between Rodelinda and the Risorgimento, the castrato fell from favour, and by the dawn of the twentieth century the world’s supply of young men willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of a voice capable of inspiring angels to jealousy was wearing dangerously thin.

Today we are left with few options, none of them entirely satisfactory. Sure, we can have male countertenors singing falsetto (or in ‘head voice’) but it too often lacks the volume and visceral power of the chest voice. And many will turn, instead, to women singers, but this will oftentimes only complicate matters. There is, after all, a rather distinctive place carved out in the repertoire for the ‘pants role’ which will frequently require (as in The Marriage of Figaro or The Rosenkavalier) the woman dressed as a man to at some point disguise his/herself in turn – as a woman. Such are conventions – and where would the opera be without its conventions?

An elegant solution thus presents itself, capable of trouncing both mischievous little pigeons with but the one delicately put pebble. A programme of compulsory castration for all prepubescent boys of clear, pure singing tone born in any country above a certain mark on the bar chart of global demographics should provide early music societies the world over with a pool of talent positively bubbling over with high Cs. No more will our Ercoles and our Orfeos sound strangely weak; bid adieu to all doubt over the true sexual identity of Julius Ceaser. And let’s look forward together to the dawning of a new age of well-managed population density and fine singing – no matter how¬† brief it may be.


Robert Barry is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine



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