Humanities Day features Feldman’s keynote on role of castrati, faculty presentations on many topics from Baudelaire to Islam

The Division of the Humanities once again will showcase a wealth of artistic and intellectual talent at the 32nd annual Humanities Day, on Oct. 23. Alumni, students, parents, and community members can feast on the breadth of scholarship at the University by participating in a day of lectures, exhibits, performances, and tours.

The research of Martha Feldman, an eminent music historian, will be highlighted in the keynote address. Feldman's talk, "Castrato De Luxe: Blood, Gifts, and Goods in the Making of Early Modern Singing Stars," will be followed by University organist Tom Weisflog's kaleidoscopic presentation of masterworks on the newly restored E. M. Skinner organ in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

In her presentation, Feldman, the Mabel Greene Myers Professor in the Humanities, Music, and the College, will examine the complicated role of the castrati in a patriarchal society.

"Specifically I'm interested in a variety of social exchanges, their kinship alliances, and the ways they were entangled in the circulation of money," said Feldman, pointing out that the patterns of male domination and patriarchy in Italy made the role of castrati particularly ambiguous.

The patriarchal system of passing wealth through a direct male line meant castrati-boys who were castrated before puberty to preserve their high, unbroken singing voices-were "literally and figuratively cut out" of aspects of society because they could not perpetuate their family line. Castrati shed blood in order to obtain their wealth, yet lacked the ability to create a bloodline to sustain that wealth for future generations.

While no audio or video of castrati is available, Feldman's lecture will include video footage of singers using techniques developed specifically for castrati. "The incredibly difficult ways of marking and articulating notes were highly luxurious aspects of singing that were won with intense training and literally blood, sweat, and tears," says Feldman.

Feldman's research on castrati and their role in European society has brought her numerous fellowships and will culminate in her forthcoming book, Castrato in Nature.

Faculty presentations at Humanities Day will include a talk titled "How Islam Began" by Fred Donner (Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations), based on his recent book, Mohammed and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam. W.J.T. Mitchell, (English, Art History, Visual Arts), will discuss his forthcoming book, Cloning Terror: The War of Images 9/11 to the Present.

Other presentations will include a celebration of Mexican independence by Robert L. Kendrick (Music), who will discuss how certain operas by Purcell, Vivaldi, and others stray from the historical record in order to project Enlightenment concepts of love, honor, and political sovereignty.

Literary discussions will range from poetry to joke telling. David Wellbery (Germanic Studies) will discuss how poets employ lyric form to deepen theunderstanding of time. Ted Cohen (Philosophy) will present "Metaphors and Jokes: Instruments of Freedom." Francoise Meltzer (Comparative Literature) will do a close reading of a poem by Baudelaire, and Alison James (Romance Languages and Literatures) will present a talk titled "Fact and Fiction in Recent French Literature." Sascha Ebeling (South Asian Languages and Civilizations) will examine the topic of"War, Trauma, and Humanism in Literature from Sri Lanka."

Several scholars will look at archaeology and its relationship to history. Jonathan Hall (Classics) will consider the arguments supporting literary traditions around Romulus and the foundation of Rome as well as the apostle Peter's execution and burial. Edward Shaughnessy (East Asian Languages and Civilizations) will preview an upcoming exhibition of ancient Chinese bronzes opening at the Art Institute of Chicago in November.

To register or see a full schedule for the 2010 Humanities Day, please visit:

—Hannah Hayes

This story first appeared in Tableau magazine