When Alessandro Moreschi died on 21 April, 1922, the world thought it had felt the last stubbleless kiss of the voice of an angel on Earth — the boy castrato. The castrato tradition dictated that the talented boy singer was castrated before he reached puberty so that his larynx was not transformed by age and his angelic voice was preserved into adulthood. Castrati sang with a range equivalent to that of a female soprano, and the absence of testosterone as they grew resulted in unusually long ribs which gave them an almost superhuman lung power.
By the time Michael Jackson was 11 years old, he was the keystone to the earning power of a Motown juggernaut with an unprecedented string of consecutive number-ones. And his voice was about to break.
This week at his memorial, his brothers and sisters gathered to support and to mourn the passing of their talented sibling. In the photos of those difficult times, it is immediately apparent that whatever it was that was different about Michael, it probably wasn’t genetic. His eldest brother Jackie is a thick-set man with broad shoulders, Tito has a solid, masculine figure, Jermaine shares the manly physiques of his older brothers and combines it with a chiselled jaw, Marlon and Randy have similar builds and Marlon usually wears a thick moustache.
The surviving images of the great castrati of history suggest that castrati do not physically develop in the same way as other boys. The absence of testosterone as they grow not only affects their ribs, it also prevents them developing the other typical physical characteristics of grown men — body hair, broad shoulders and most significantly, a manly voice. A study in mice also found that castrating mice leads to depigmentation of their skin. Although this finding is hardly conclusive, it provides an intriguing explanation for the significant depigmentation of his skin.
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The lack of women (or men) who claim to have slept with Michael Jackson seems surprising given his level of celebrity, and it appears that none of his children were naturally conceived. Michael Jackson kept his private life intensely private, which was his prerogative. But is it possible that his unusual love and s-x life was as much a result of a physical inability to engage in sexual intimacy as it was about sexual preference? He clearly enjoyed the company of children.
Could this have been the result of a preference for the simpler, more honest level at which children communicate, free of the temptations and complications of sexual desire? Perhaps children were more his physical and emotional equals than the adults in his life. They at least spoke with similar voices.
Carlo Broschi, who died in 1782, had legendary three-octave vocal range and could reputedly hold a note for a full minute. Another great castrato, Farinelli, had a voice that was likened by critics to that of a god. It seems the world appreciates the purity and agility of the castrato voice, even though they may wince at the methods behind its creation. Whatever it was that altered the trajectory of Michael Jackson’s adult life, it almost certainly happened before he reached puberty.
Money and superstardom are powerful motivators to do extreme things. We will never know what conversations took place in the rooms backstage in the months leading up to Michael’s puberty, and whether the possibility of him losing the voice that had made him and a lot of other people fabulously wealthy was discussed at all. But it might have been. And if so, was there a solution proposed?
Could it be that the explanation for Michael Jackson’s unquestioned uniqueness lay in a hidden childhood shame? Whether or not it was the case, he undoubtedly sacrificed a lot for our entertainment, and, as he always said, the world was not willing to accept him for who he was. The question remains, was he the great castrato of our time?
Jack Ellis is a graduate in Composition of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and studied Phase Composition at the Royal Conservatorium, The Hague.