I get ideas for stories from all sorts of strange places. Sometimes, perhaps usually, several things come together and connect in my mind. Something like that happened today, and I thought I would document it. So, just in case you were wondering, here’s how it happened.
I read an article in the New York Times about the French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, whose voice is reminiscent of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century castrati. I had been fascinated by the castrati since hearing about them in connection with the movie Farinelli, about one of the greatest opera singers who also happened to be a castrato. (The castrati were male singers who had been castrated at a young age so they could sing in the church, since women were not allowed to perform sacred music. They retained their high voices. Some of them became like 1960s rock stars, paid highly for their performances and adored by women who, according to the article, prized them as lovers because they could not have children.)
I read “Sarrasine,” the Balzac story mentioned in the article, several years ago, in Roland Barthe’s S/Z. This was after seeing portions of Farinelli, which I think had come on the television for some reason. I’ve never seen the whole movie, and I don’t remember reading the Isak Dinesen story mentioned in the article, “The Cardinal’s First Tale,” but I must have, because I’ve read all of Dinesen’s stories. But in Dinesen, if you encounter a castrato, you think nothing of it. Her fiction is populated by such liminal characters, such monsters.
I’m using the word monsters in a particular sense here: to me, a monster is a hybrid entity who is displayed, or is liable to be displayed, because of that hybridity (“monster” and “demonstrate” come from the same etymological root). The castrati were monsters in the same sense as Frankenstein’s monster, hybrid (male/female) entities who were also spectacles. Some of them highly paid, intensely desirable spectacles. Aesthetic objects as well as creators of great art.
In the article, Jaroussky mentions that the countertenor voice can sound repulsive. So I had to listen to him singing a Vivaldi aria on YouTube. And he was right. His voice is breathtakingly, incredibly pure. It’s one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard, but it also sounds almost inhuman because it falls outside of our usual categories for human voices, certainly in opera. And that makes it, in a sense, repulsive as well as attractive. It’s the voice that an angel, which has no gender, might sing with. (And angels are frightening, if you really think about what they are, what they represent.) To me, it’s fascinating.
There you have it. All of that is sitting in my brain, waiting for the one thing that will complete it, a character who has a story to tell, or to be told about him. (I’m pretty sure it’s a him, although I can imagine writing the story of a woman in love with a castrato.)
And that’s where my story ideas come from. That tangle of sources.