The Female Sublime: Domesticating Luigia Todi's Voice.

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Date: Summer 2021
Publisher: University of California Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 20,982 words
Lexile Measure: 1530L

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In 1806, an autopsy was reportedly performed on the corpse of opera singer Brigida Giorgi Band. Curiously, the purpose was not to find the cause of her death, but rather to reveal the physiological source of her extraordinarily powerful voice. Accounts of the autopsy are, admittedly, apocryphal, yet our collective desire to hear the voices of the past has only grown stronger since then. As recently as 2013, researchers exhumed the remains of castrato Gasparo Pacchierotri so that they might "understand the bodily secrets of his sublime voice," while in 2006 the bones of the most famous castrato singer of all, Carlo Broschi detto Farinelli, were unearthed in hopes that they might "disclose the secret of his legendarily sweet, powerful voice." Digging into and digging up dead bodies is certainly one way to look, for the secrets of defunct voices, though in truth, bodily remains only tell us so much. Scientists note the fusions and fissures in a skull and ribs, or the enlarged lungs and node-ridden cords, and hypothesize about the sounds that caused them and were caused by them. Still, we are left to imagine the timbres, inflections, and pronunciations that once vibrated through those dissected bits and pieces. We cannot hear them unless we have audio recordings, and even then we must peel away layer upon layer of technological and stylistic mediation to get at the sonic qualities of the voices that resonate beneath, all the while interrogating our own audile techniques. (3)

The work of uncovering secrets is based on even scanter material when we sift through the textual remainders of pre-phonographic voices, as I do in the present article. The lack of "objective" evidence of what those voices sounded like means relying on what listeners thought they heard and how they explained it in words--on textual inscriptions, or the results of "recording a listening" into writing. (4) But since voices cannot be readily transduced in words, least of all adjectives (as famously lamented by Roland Barthes), (5) the inscriptions contained in treatises and reviews reveal as much about the priorities of their writers as about the sounds of the voices described within. The voices of the past might thus seem hopelessly inaccessible because they have escaped direct capture. Yet they are tempting as sites of inquiry for that very reason.

I suggest that instead of accepting these limitations as an insurmountable obstacle to studying pre-phonographic voices, we might consider them as an invitation to consider those voices differently. That is, we need not know what a particular voice sounded like in order to excavate historical knowledge from the way listeners inscribed its sounds into text. My aim here is not to dismiss studies into the sonic and bodily realities of voice. Rather, I seek to shed light on the often overlooked interstices between the two concepts of voice I have been sketching out thus far--between voice as a set of body parts and embodied practices, and voice as a network of discourses constructed around and...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A679119003