Thursday, December 2, 2010

Who can resist a man who sings like a woman?

The New York Times (“NYT”) Sunday Magazine recently published an article entitled “Who Can Resist a Man Who Sings Like a Woman?” The article profiles Philippe Jaroussky, a French opera singer who has gathered a dedicated following because he is a fully-grown man who possesses a beautiful, “female” singing voice. Below is a video of Jaroussky singing a Handel piece.

Jaroussky sings in a countertenorial voice, a voice that is “a high girlish tone produced by using the outer edges of the vocal cords” that “continually teeter[s] on the knife edge between creepy and sublime.” Jarrousky himself has stated that the voice carries an “element of repulsion.” Though understandable, I was disappointed by the subtextual gender-normative value judgments in the NYT piece. In this blog post I will try to move beyond a gender-normative perspective by discussing the historical and present significance of the countertenorial voice through a feminist analysis.

First, I’d like to tie this topic back to a previous blog post topic that I have made about how the progenitors of glam rock during the 1960s and 1970s used music (and its presentation) to push the boundaries of gender stereotypes. I think that Jarrousky’s music does the same thing. He has stated that it is potentially ridiculous for a grown man to be singing in a countertenorial voice. On the one hand, his statement could be understood from a biological standpoint. When men go through puberty, their voices become deeper, and in this sense, it may be "ridiculous" for a grown man to sing like a girl or a choirboy because of the biological improbability that a man would be able to do so.

However, I also think that Jarrousky meant that a man singing in the countertenorial voice was ridiculous when judged by societal values. In this sense, Jarrousky is pushing gender boundaries much like male glam rockers who flirted w/ female clothing, imagery, and make-up also seemed ridiculous by greater societal standards. Interestingly, the “ridiculous” juxtaposition of the grown male body and the pristine female voice in present times seems to have embodied certain societal values in older European cultures. The NYT article states that much pre-19th-century opera and Shakespearean comedy is based on the premise that women find as desirable boys who may or may not be girls. In this context, I think that the countertenorial voice is commendable for both its historic and modern gender-boundary-pushing capabilities.

The historical popularity of the countertenorial voice, however, came at a price for those who wished to master its gloried status. The history of the countertenor is shocking because of the sexual discrimination and oppression that its predecessors faced for the sake of art. According to the NYT, the countertenor has its roots in the castrato – a male singer who was castrated before he reached puberty for the purpose of preserving his pure, high voice. This practice supposedly originated from St. Paul’s edict in the Corinthians that “women should be silent in church.” Moreover, castrati often came from impoverished families who sold them like slaves. They were not allowed to marry but were objectified by women as non-reproductive lovers. Once they lost the quality of the countertenorial voice, their lives were ruined.

Sexually oppressive and violent practices premised on societal values of beauty and aesthetics are nothing new. For example, footbinding was practiced in China for over one thousand years, possibly for a number of reasons, but all for the sake of an idealization of female beauty. In the modern globalized culture, tall and thin models are held as the standard of female beauty. This may result in bulimic or anorexic syndromes for models who perpetuate the standard, as well as for people in the general population who wish to achieve this standard.

The sexual oppression that castrati faced, however, is striking because of the role-reversal of men as the objects of oppression by both men and women. One writer has stated that castrati, like women, were simply objects in a world defined by hegemonic male power. I think this is an apt insight, and the metaphor of the gilded cage symbolizing female captivity also seems to apply to castrati. The gilded bars may be beautiful and ornate, and the castrati may be placed on an elevated pedestal in high culture, but if we step back and view the bars in totality, we see that the castrati are nevertheless constrained by a cage both on a personal and on a societal/structural level.

Relating this back to the modern-day popularity of the countertenor, I think knowing the foundation of the countertenor is useful for explaining the historical reasons why some may find the idea of a grown man singing with a girlish voice jarring, to say the least. Hopefully, however, the countertenor will not be constrained by the more disturbing aspects of its past, and by applying feminist perspectives to the countertenorial voice, we can appreciate the beauty and quality of the voice without resorting to a gender-normative framework.

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