How to Hear an Unheard Voice: Explorations in Improbable Listening


In the absence of sound, interior listening mediated by imagination, intellect, memory, wonder, desire, and virtually involuntary physical impulses, helps us imagine voices we cannot hear. This talk wonders how these can be deployed in conjunction with hard acoustic and anecdotal evidence in an effort to recover something of the lost voices of castrated male singers, who from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries laid the foundations of Western art singing. How might an acoustic phenomenon made up of exceptional timbre, emission, and resonance be rediscovered in the mind’s ear? Two bodies of evidence are critical. The first is the early recorded singing of the only castrato who made recordings (Alessandro Moreschi, 1902 and 1904) and of other early recording artists. The second is made up of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writings; some pedagogical, some critical, autobiographical, or anecdotal. Castrato voices emerge as having had a unique timbre and registration, with (among other factors) greater access to “chest-dominant” sound than in “normal” voices and greater fluidity in their head-dominant sound, and a special predisposition to flexibility throughout both registral areas. Hearing the voices of castrati in the mind’s ear, as acoustic and not just stylistic phenomena, offers a way into their fascinating performances.