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Syllavus
Angels Wii Have Heard on High


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(I did a search for this on snopes and didn't find anything, please chow me if there is an existing discussion)

While browsing online yesterday, hopping from website to website as I sometimes do, I happened to learn about the castrati. Before yesterday I had never heard of these men and I'm finding myself both repulsed and curious. For those who don't know, castrati were men who were castrated before puberty after showing singing talent and trained throughout their lives to sing. Castrati were much in demand in the 1500's when the pope decided that he liked the vocal quality of men who had been castrated at young ages. They were an intrical part of opera in the following centuries and many boys were castrated in the hopes of them becoming successful castrati.

The last castrati was Alessandro Moreschi who died in the 1920's, and you can actually download mp3's of his singing which was recorded around 1902-1904 and later digitized into a CD.

Having never known before about castrati, I was pretty appalled to learn that boys were purposely castrated, just because someone ordained that it made their voices sound pretty. And I thought Chinese foot-binding was horrendous. [Frown]

I have to admit though that my morbid curiosity has me wondering about these poor men, doomed to be nothing but song-birds for the rest of their lives, unable to reproduce, and unable to even mature properly. This web page has some information on it, but I really wish that someone had interviewed one of these men, to get their opinion on their lives and what had been done to them when they were just boys. Were they happy? Did they feel cheated? Did they feel special? And what the heck was a castrati still doing around in the 1900's?

It all makes me quite sad thinking about it. [Frown]

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Four Kitties
Layaway in a Manger


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My only source on this is Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History (2001, Portable Press), and they think a duck's quack doesn't echo, so take with a grain of salt.

pages 125-126:

"Most of the castrati were children of poor parents. If a son showed musical aptitude, he would be sold to a musical institution. These were usually orphanages or charitable schools for the poor that saw the popularity of the castrati as a way to make money. They adapted to the times: they became musical schools that trained castrati as well as musicians and baritone singers who still had their equipment. Opera societies regularly toured these institutions in search of fresh talent.

"Parents had high hopes for their little emasculated ones, that they'd become famous and provide for mama and papa in their old age. But that nasty operation didn't guarantee results. And of course, boys who had no musical aptitude before the operation were unlikely to suddenly become good singers afterward.

"The castrated boys--even those who could sing--were taunted mercilessly for being "freaks." If they turned out to be inferior singers, the musical institutions kicked them out. And where could they go? Now they were an embarrassment to their parents and ostracized by the community.

The End of a Trend
"All good things must come to an end, and so all of a sudden the castrato was as unfashionable as last season's bell-bottoms. Now they were has-beens--and freaks. As of 1825, the year of the last operatic castrato performance, the newspapers were advising their readers to steer clear of these 'travesties of nature.' In 1903, after more than 300 years of the deplorable practice, Pope Pius X formally banned castrati from the Papal Chapel. The last professional castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, died in 1922. Recordings of his singing have been remastered and teh CD, called 'The Last Castrato,' is available online."

Four Kitties

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StarlandVocalBand
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This (second article on the page) is a pretty good overview of existing histories of the castrati, and it talks about some of the sociological issues you mentioned.

I have read accounts of Alessandro Moreschi's life that suggest that he was "naturally" castrated by a childhood injury, and I have read other accounts that suggest that his parents were so desperately poor that they saw this drastic and cruel step as the only hope to save the family. If someone else has definitive information on this, I'd love to know about it!

I know that at least one operatic castrato wrote (or caused to be written) an autobiography, but I can't find a link on Google. Further information if I find my notes from my 17th century music class.

A really good alternate-universe novel about castrati--set in an imaginary England where the Protestant Reformation never happened--is The Alteration by Kingsley Amis.

The movie Farinelli is an entertaining, but highly fictionalized biopic about a real-life castrato.

This book got good reviews from some people I trust, but I haven't read it; the book I have read on this, The Castrati in Opera by Angus Heriot is long out of print but may be available through inter-library loan from your local library.

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Elkhound
It Came Upon a Midnight Clearance


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quote:
Originally posted by StarlandVocalBand:


I have read accounts of Alessandro Moreschi's life that suggest that he was "naturally" castrated by a childhood injury, and I have read other accounts that suggest that his parents were so desperately poor that they saw this drastic and cruel step as the only hope to save the family. If someone else has definitive information on this, I'd love to know about it!

[/QB]

My late Mother was a voice teacher, and I remember reading about the castrati in various of her professional journals and books. This is from memory:

In midaeval through early modern periods, it was not considered proper for women to sing in public, especially not in church (except for nuns, and they sang from behind the grill where they could not be seen); hence, to sing the soprano and alto parts, they used boys and later castrati. These boys were often orphans or from poor families.

Technically, castration was illegal; officially it was always put down that the boy was in some accident (usually an animal attack of some sort) that damaged him down there, and the castration was incidental to repairing the damage.

As a result of the operation, castrati tended to exhibit a growth-pattern similar to Marfan's syndrome, except that they had very large chest-caveties. (Essentially, they were capons.) This gave them greater lung-power than unaltered people; accordingly, songs written for castrati tended to have very long phrases. Castrati tended to have broader ranges than women. These two elements (broader range, greater lung-capacity) were why castrati continued to be used after women were allowed to sing in public.

In opera, castrati were generally assigned the heroic male roles; this is one reason that much pre-Mozart opera has fallen out of the repotoire. (When such works are performed, the 'male' lead is usually sung by a soprano as a 'pants role', which isn't quite the same thing.)

In the late 18th and early 19th C., when 'naturalism' in art became valued, the castrati fell out of fashion. The laws against castration were enforced more strictly.

As a previous post said, the last European castrato died in the early 20th C.; he was VERY old--over 80, I believe.

I seem to remember reading--although I can't remember the source--that there are sill some eunuch singers left in China and India.

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tlqeeeee
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In a complete departure from her usual vampires / witches, Anne Rice wrote a wonderful novel about castrati, entitled "Cry to Heaven,"

It IS a novel. It's also fairly erotically charged, I would estimate to about the level of the vampire / witch books. I don't know... I've never really seen the eroticism in the vampire /witch books... maybe Im just dense. "Gry to Heaven" never struck me as more charged than THOSE.

But it WAS an excellent novel about castrati.

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Jason Threadslayer
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quote:
Originally posted by Elkhound:
In midaeval through early modern periods, it was not considered proper for women to sing in public, especially not in church (except for nuns, and they sang from behind the grill where they could not be seen); hence, to sing the soprano and alto parts, they used boys and later castrati.

The FSSPX still do not permit women to join the choir: Can women be permitted to sing in the choir in church?

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ufonium2
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I may be mistaken about this, but it was always my understanding that only highly-skilled boy sopranos became castrati. It seems a little risky to castrate your kid in hopes that he would become a great singer, especially if he was of average or lower ability before the procedure. So, unless the procedure "failed" somehow, I don't think there would have been many incedences of going through all that only to find out you suck as a singer.

I doubt there would have been much stigma associated with being a castrato, especially in musical circles of the time. Composers wanted to write for it and people wanted to hear it. It was a job, and somebody had to do it.

If you haven't heard them, listen to the recordings mentioned above. The sound is very strange, even considering the advanced age of the castrato and the primative recording equipment used.

uf "eek" onium2

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Koshka
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quote:
Originally posted by ufonium2:
I may be mistaken about this, but it was always my understanding that only highly-skilled boy sopranos became castrati. It seems a little risky to castrate your kid in hopes that he would become a great singer, especially if he was of average or lower ability before the procedure.

I can't find my copy of _When The Fat Lady Sings_, which has a chapter on the castrati, but IIRC singing masters did try to get their top students castrated. There's some classical composer who barely escaped the operation, I believe. Of course, that's assuming 1) the singing master or the kid's parents were objective judges of his singing voice, 2) that he would remain motivated after the operation, and 3) that there would be a job opening 10 years or so down the line, after the kid has finished growing up. (Can you imagine going through that operation and then finding out no one wants to hire you because their current castrati aren't ready to retire?)
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kushiel
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Just have to throw in my recommendation for 'Cry to Heaven' - wonderful read, my favorite of Anne Rice's.

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StarlandVocalBand
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quote:
Originally posted by Jason the Jinx:
The FSSPX still do not permit women to join the choir

But that's just to give the priests more boys to choose from [fish]

No, seriously, the FSSPX are determined to turn the clock back to 1903.

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tlqeeeee
The Red and the Green Stamps


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quote:
Originally posted by ufonium2:
I doubt there would have been much stigma associated with being a castrato, especially in musical circles of the time. Composers wanted to write for it and people wanted to hear it. It was a job, and somebody had to do it.

There has historically been stigma associated with eunuchs, which are the same as castrati minus the voice.
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Elkhound
It Came Upon a Midnight Clearance


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quote:
Originally posted by Koshka:
. There's some classical composer who barely escaped the operation, I believe. Of course, that's assuming 1) the singing master or the kid's parents were objective judges of his singing voice, 2) that he would remain motivated after the operation, and 3) that there would be a job opening 10 years or so down the line, after the kid has finished growing up. (Can you imagine going through that operation and then finding out no one wants to hire you because their current castrati aren't ready to retire?)

You're thinking of F. Joseph Haydn.

As for not getting a job, if he had a good voice he could probably get SOME sort of job. He might not be with a big cathedral or major opera company, but he could get something in a smaller parish and/or a minor company.

In Germany, castrati who failed as singers were generally tossed out, according to what I read, but in Italy castrati were usually given a good general education and those whose voices didn't turn out 'up to snuff' were found something in the church that they could do.

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Avril
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I'm going off memory here, but in my music class I was taught that castrati didn't only sing, but were left in castles to guard the women when the other men went off to war. They were the only men that could be trusted with this job. So I suppose in theory a lousy singing voice wouldn't have barred one from every occupation.

I listened to a recording of the last one, and there were people yelling in Italian in the background, "Long live the knife!"

Opera is apparently really, really important to some people.

Avril

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Morgaine La Raq Star
The "Was on Sale" Song


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For those who are interested in music clips, you can find some at Amazon.com. Knowing it's a man, it sounds very odd. I can only imagine seeing this grown man 'hitting the high notes' was quite odd.
The recording is in pretty poor shape BTW.


Morgaine

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Tootsie Plunkette
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For the movie Farinelli Il Castrato the voice was produced by digitally combining the voices of a man and a woman.

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Jason Threadslayer
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quote:
Originally posted by Avril:
I'm going off memory here, but in my music class I was taught that castrati didn't only sing, but were left in castles to guard the women when the other men went off to war. They were the only men that could be trusted with this job.

That's what eunuchs were used for since ancient. The Roman Empires and Chinese used eunuchs for civil servants, Moslems used them to guard their harems, etc. The advantage of eunuchs were that they were immune to bribery by a woman and were limited in their political power because they could not establish a dynasty.

Some Roman Emperors (Elgabulus?) liked to keep eunuch as sexual playthings.

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Tootsie Plunkette
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quote:
Cut off in my prime,
Surrounded by beautiful women all the time -
A eunuch's life is hard,
A eunuch's life is hard,
And nothing else!



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--Tootsie

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TuxedoCat
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I believe there is or was also a similar practice in India - I'll have to dig around to find cites.

Mystery readers should check out "Death and the Chaste Apprentice" by Robert Barnard. (Putting this in this thread is somewhat of a spoiler, but the story is great anyway.)

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prost-kate sporks
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quote:
Originally posted by TuxedoCat:
I believe there is or was also a similar practice in India - I'll have to dig around to find cites.

You're referring to the Hijra caste, which are boys who voluntarily get castrated and end up being feminized due to the lack of testosterone. Unlike castrati and eunuchs, they live as women. You can read more about them here.

In that link, there is also some discussion of the history of castration.

kate sporks

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Johnny Slick
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I don't want to sound like I'm endorsing castration in any way, but in addition to the lung capacity and range issues there's a tremendous different in tone between a boy soprano (which is what the castrati tried to preserve in their own bodies) and a grown woman soprano. The boy soprano tone, even compared to a seasoned veteran woman, is going to sound more pure. I can't say what the actual harmonic differences are, but anybody versed in classical choral music can VERY easily tell the difference between a recording of the Vienna Boys' Choir and a top-level adult choir. The latter will have a better sense of phrasing and the like (though there's not as great a difference as you'd might think). The boys' groups, though, sound more like musical instruments. It's WAY easier to hear the harmonics produced by the chords they sing, and - and I'll say that a lot of this is just a "blend" thing that's likely fixed by the Vienna kids singing together for hundreds of hours a year - you don't hear individual voices stick out nearly as much.

As a former big fan of a capella music (I still like it; it's just that it's so hard to find other people who want to go into clubs and perform it), I have to say that, while I can think of several all-male groups that had that incredible hear-the-chords sound (as well as a couple mixed male-female groups), I don't know off-hand of any all-female groups that achieve that sound. In short, it just doesn't get any better than Take 6.

John Craven

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Four Kitties
Layaway in a Manger


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John, I'm biased on this, but several colleges have female a cappella groups that are darn good. The reason I'm biased is that I was a NightOwl at Vassar for 3 years -- it's the second-oldest female a capella group after the Smithereens at Smith. There were 12 of us, we rehearsed about 10 hours a week, and in addition to our classics and pop stuff we did some really incredible 6- 8- and 12-part harmonies.

I have some CDs of Vassar a cappella groups, Vassar has five or six groups -- some co-ed, some male, some female -- you may be able to get them online through the college store if you're interested.

Four "class of '89" Kitties

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Johnny Slick
Angels Wii Have Heard on High


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Sorry, Fourkitties. I didn't want to sound like I don't think that women can sing, or that I don't think that women can sing really, really well... it's just that, when I think of the absolute *pinnacle* of choral sound, I think of the Vienna Boys Choir, not the choir that sings with the London Symphony Orchestra (which is also very good), the St. Olaf's choir, the Mormon Tabernacle choir, or anything else. Maybe it's just a personal preference thing, I don't know... but there's no debating that a really, really good boy's choir can sound VERY clean.

I sang in some 8-12 member groups in college as well. Most weeks we'd rehearse 6 or 7 hours a week as a group, another 3 or 4 in sectionals, and then we'd spend another 4 or 5 hours learning our parts. We sang jazz, not classical, but much of what is called "vocal jazz" draws as much from modern classical music as it does from early swing or the blues. I'm biased too, but we were very, very good at least one year (I wish I had a recording of us, argh). As good as the VBC? To the extent that you could even compare us, heck no.

John Craven

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Four Kitties
Layaway in a Manger


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Hey John I agree it's a matter of taste, and the VBC are truly amazing. I have to say I was NOT hugely impressed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's performance at the Hatch Shell in Boston this past 4th of July, but I had very high expectations.

BTW, right now I sing in a non-audition community choir (it gets me out of the house). We have 60 or so active members at any one time: 30 altos, and 30 everybody else. But we're enthusiastic! The group ranges in age from 17 to 92. And the Polymnia Choral Society is celebrating its 50th season this year -- not bad for a non-profit!

Four "next concert December 7, tickets available" Kitties

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Speaker for the Dead
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[NFBSK WARNING]

I've heard that to castrate a boy at some period in the time of eunuchs (this could have been Ancient Rome or much later, I'm not sure) they would *ahem* oil up a wooden phallus and.. er.. put the child on it until he passed out from the pain, and then they'd snip him.

Could easily be legend, but...

[/NFBSK WARNING]

Are there any records of how the children were cut?

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BeachLife
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Why in the world would they do that?

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StarlandVocalBand
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That doesn't seem like a particularly convenient way to do that particular operation. Why not use any of the surgical approaches so carefully documented in contemporary Roman medical writings?
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Belletrist
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quote:
Originally posted by Speaker for the Dead:
Are there any records of how the children were cut?

I am writing this from memory, but in order to castrate a young boy to preserve his voice, he would be knocked out with opium, submerged in lukewarm or icy water, and then operated on using a sharp instrument (usually a knife). Primary surgeons were farmers and butchers. Often it was considered enough simply to "compress the carotid arteries to interrupt circulation briefly and send the boy into a comatose state." If the boy survived, he would be entered into conservatory for intense training. Interestingly enough, castration did not guarantee a beautiful voice, either. Some boys' voices became raspy, shrill, or hoarse, and some lost their voices altogether.

Here is a link to read about the different methods of castration in various countries: Castration and physical consequences (slightly NFBSK).

Silver "natural soprano" Ice.

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Syllavus
Angels Wii Have Heard on High


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quote:
Originally posted by Silver Ice:
[QBHere is a good link to read about the different methods of castration in various countries: Castration and physical consequences (slightly NFBSK).

Silver "natural soprano" Ice. [/QB]

*insert vomiting smiley here* I'm glad I didn't read that during lunch... [Eek!] *shudders* The things we humans do to one another.

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Speaker for the Dead
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Hey! The method I heard is in Silver Ice's link under "Modern India."
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Ghost on Toast
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Oh boy am I ever going to make myself look stupid right now, but castration - I thought that was just the removal of the *ahem* lower two bits of that area and not the *umm* main instrument.

Becasue if the main *umm* part was still there, a man could not reproduce but could have intercourse so why let him guard the ladies? Unless the desire wasn't there...

Now I feel dumb....but anyone?

{ETA: Just looked at that website. Ouch. Glad I ate a while ago and not recently....}

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Nonny Mouse, on Santa's laptop
Once in Royal Circuit City


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And I assumed adult castration immediately wiped out a guy's sex drive - and incorporated that belief into my first book! It only took a little info about MTF transsexuals to disabuse me of that notion, but the damage was done.

All I can say is that that's how it works for certain alien races I invented. We Humans are just weird.

Nonny

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When there isn't anything else worth analyzing, we examine our collective navel. I found thirty-six cents in change in mine the other day. Let no one say that there is no profit in philosophy. -- Silas Sparkhammer

Posts: 10141 | From: Toronto, Ontario | Registered: Apr 2000  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a moderator
Filberta Cashew
The Red and the Green Stamps


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I did a little poking around the 'net myself after looking at this thread. Now this is disturbing.

Or, of course, there's always rotten.com's eternally helpful, if graphic, library pages.

I'm having sympathy pains, and I never had the equipment in the first place!

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die daagliks phosdex
Monster Mashed Potatos & Grave-y


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Interesting parallels between castrati being labelled as "freaks" and "travesties of nature" and Religiopolitical Right persecution of homosexuals as "freaks" and "aberrations," courtesy of my weblog.

[ 23. April 2005, 08:59 PM:   snopes ]

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"Nie lees die hoofopskrifte--lees die daagliks phosdex in plaas ..."

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GranolaSuicideSpawn2
The Red and the Green Stamps


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Syllavus, your post kind of puts a new light on the UNH controversy doesn't it? http://www.tnhonline.com/news/2005/03/22/LettersampCommentary/Discrimination.At.Mub.Event-899170.shtml

Wherein a feminist group staged a "patriarchy slam" in which men were barred and asked to leave (despite that it was supposed to be a public event)and the women wore scissors around their necks and sang humorous songs about castration.

When some people complained and noted that a fraternity would not be able to hold rallies wearing scissors and discussing cutting women's genitals, the University responded by saying that fraternities have done a lot of harm to women so it wouldn't be the same.

Then it was explained that there is history of women being harmed and mutilated, but no history of it happening to males. Except there is. A big one. From slaves who weren't considered fit to breed, to the singers in Italy, (to the widespread practice of circumcision), there is millenia of male genital mutilation. But somehow it's still supposed to be "different" when women sing songs about it than if men did the same.

ETA: I don't think castrati can get erections, and thus couldn't have intercourse very well. AFAIK they can't climax either. However, it may be different for someone who was circumcised after puberty as before. (The singing castrati had to be done before puberty to preserve their high voices.)

There is an interesting and in-depth portrait of a castrati in Anne Rice's "Cry to Heaven." The main character is a singing castrati whose voice ends up changing somewhat anyway, so he didn't get to remain a singer. Of course it was too late for his balls.

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Koshka
Deck the Malls


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quote:
Originally posted by GranolaSuicideSpawn2:
ETA: I don't think castrati can get erections, and thus couldn't have intercourse very well. AFAIK they can't climax either. However, it may be different for someone who was circumcised after puberty as before. (The singing castrati had to be done before puberty to preserve their high voices.)

Of course, I'm housesitting for friends right now and my books are all at home. However, there were a couple cases where castrati could function to some extent sexually. I recall reading about one castrato who would don his fanciest (female) stage costumes and go visit his current lover. Her husband would assume his wife had made a friend with really good taste in clothing and never worry about the time they spent together.

It may depend on just how the operation was done. I would think it would have been easier to take the testicles and leave the penis alone, since scar tissue over the end of the uretha would cause complications.

(And switching species, some friends of mine took their dog in to the spay/neuter clinic when it was young, and the last convention meeting at their house featured that dog trying to hump another attendee's leg for the whole meeting.)

Posts: 244 | From: Omaha, NE | Registered: Oct 2001  |  IP: Logged | Report this post to a moderator
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