Janice Cheon ’16 Explores Gender and Sexuality in the Baroque Period During Brace Presentation

A selection from Claudio Monteverdi’s opera “’L’incoronazione di Poppea” resonated throughout the School Room in Abbot Hall as Janice Cheon ’16 stood before the audience last Monday afternoon for her Brace Fellow presentation.

Her presentation, entitled, “Gender and Sexuality in Baroque Opera and Modern Performance,” aimed to promote change in society’s heteronormative mindset by encouraging the Andover community to reflect on the Castrati legacy. The Castrati were male singers during the Baroque period who were castrated before they went through puberty to retain their high and unbroken voices.

“Fortunately, in recent years, our society has opened up to more conversations about gender and sexuality, and also we have become more accepting toward the L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. community,” said Cheon during the presentation. “I believe that Baroque Operas that still exist on the shadows of Castrado may help us understand a time when gender and sexuality fluidity was treated as the societal norm.”

While Cheon highlighted the outstanding singing of the Castrati, she also related their success to the “one sex and gender model,” which was a widely accepted explanation of the differences between sexes.

According to Cheon’s research, the “one sex and gender model” was the belief in one continuous spectrum of sex. Adult heterosexual men and women were on opposite ends of the spectrum, and people who freely expressed their genders were in between. The Castrati were located in the middle of the spectrum as adolescent males.

“Since all genders were regarded as matters of degree on the one gender continuum… differences in sex were more quantitative than qualitative,” said Cheon. “The effect of castration [of the Castrati] was to preserve a boy’s charm, his beautiful face and voice,” she continued.

Following the dawn of the 18th century, however, the Enlightenment filled Europe with the notion of humanism, stressing the importance of individual men. Cheon described a new explanation of sex that proved the previous gender and sex model wrong.

“Women and men were now regarded as two polar opposites. Sex as well as gender was fixed as stable, and crossing the divide between adult mankind and adult womankind was unnatural and regarded as sacrilegious,” said Cheon in her presentation.

Eventually, the practice of castration was regarded as barbaric and unacceptable, and Castrati was excluded from European society. Nowadays the bass baritone, countertenor and female singers replace the Castrato performance to continue the Baroque Opera.

“I want to show my belief that modern production of Baroque Opera should strive to combine… original opera with modern vocal technique and some of modern culture as well,” Cheon said.

Toward the end of her presentation, Cheon encouraged members of the Andover community to reflect upon the historical changes of gender and sex perception. Cheon hopes that the instances of modern Castrato performances will help facilitate the ongoing debate upon the transforming standards and roles of sex and gender.

“I am a violinist, a big fan of music and a big fan of opera. I have always enjoyed Baroque and Classical Operas more so than the huge romantic and 20th century operas that opera fans usually enjoy. I also discovered the CD, on my own, of Philippe Jaroussky, and I was blown away by the stunning quality of his voice. He is a French counter tenor, absolutely a gorgeous singer and a fabulous person. This basically sparked my interest,” said Cheon.

Although unsure at first, Cheon said she felt prompted to do more research into opera and Baroque music after discovering this CD. She then contacted both the Brace Center and the music department for some guidance and support with her project.

“Both institutions were open and receptive to this idea. So I think it was a great way for me to investigate more of the style of music that I play and also understand this whole one sex model – I was not even aware of it when I started the research, and I grew from that. I am very happy that I went in this direction,” said Cheon.