Art and Barbarism: Opera’s Lost Boys

November 26, 2012

In some ideologies, the ends justify the means. Centuries ago,  the barbaric mutilation of young boys was deemed necessary to retain their soprano, mezzo-soprano, or contralto voices and create the careers of opera’s famous (and not so famous) castratis. Ann Thompson has a lot to say on this most controversial aspect of opera in her Spring class, titled “Boys Will Be Boys: Except In Opera Where They May Be Girls“. We recently caught up with Ann Thompson to find out more.

Farinelli, the most famous castrato

WIH Reporter: What is most important for us to know about your class?

Thompson: Opera is first and foremost entertainment, meant to distract, engage, delight, provoke, and otherwise break routine.

WIH Reporter: But opera has a dark side, which is the topic of your class. How did you become interested in the subject of the castrati?

Thompson: It piqued my curiosity because it is so barbaric and it goes to show what high regard people must have had for music/singing that they would go to such lengths.

WIH Reporter: What is important for us to know about the castrati?

Thompson: The impact on the boys was tremendous, especially if they did not become singing stars which was unfortunately the case most of the time.

WIH Reporter: What are some of the misconceptions that we have?

Thompson: It should be remembered that they could have sex, just not impregnate a woman.

WIH Reporter: In what ways have the castrati affected our view of sex roles?

Thompson: The castrati have not made any difference in sex roles in the past or in modern times inasmuch as humanity has always enjoyed gender bending, cross dressing, sexual role playing, make believe, experimentation of every kind – transgendering is the latest wrinkle in sexual adventurousness about which no opera has been written as of yet.

WIH Reporter: What can we learn about this issue that mirrors ourselves and the opera culture?

Thompson: What we learn from all this is: chacun a son gout- to each his own, there is no accounting for tastes and trends and preferences AND tempora mutantur nos et mutamur in illis – times change and we change with them, and finally: ars gratia artis – art for the sake of art – never mind if it’s cruel, unfair, inhumane, ineffective or even lethal (think of the infections), if it promotes beauty (in the eye of the beholder or the creator) it’s no holds barred.
WIH Reporter: What books would we find on your night table?

Thompson: Books on my night table would be related to the opera at hand – whether it was opera that I was going to or the one I was/am working on.  Some of those books could be risque, some heavy going, some hilarious – all pertain to the Human Comedy.

Ann Thompson is a part of the Houston Grand Opera Guild’s volunteer docent program.  She discovered an affinity for sharing her interest in the performing arts and has been speaking on opera and related subjects for over 30 years.  She gives the pre-curtain lectures before the HGO performances and lectures for the West University Senior Center and at Lone Star College, The Woodlands.

Her class, “Boys Will Be Boys: Except In Opera Where They May Be Girls” begins February 13, 2013.