Castrato - Castrati in Opera

Castrati in Opera

Although the castrato (or musico) predates opera, there is some evidence that castrati had parts in the earliest operas. In the first performance of Monteverdi's Orfeo (1607), for example, they played subsidiary roles, including Speranza and (possibly) that of Euridice. Although female roles were performed by castrati in some of the papal states, this was increasingly rare; by 1680, they had supplanted "normal" male voices in lead roles, and retained their position as primo uomo for about a hundred years; an Italian opera not featuring at least one renowned castrato in a lead part would be doomed to fail. Because of the popularity of Italian opera throughout 18th-century Europe (except France), singers such as Ferri, Farinelli, Senesino and Pacchierotti became the first operatic superstars, earning enormous fees and hysterical public adulation. The strictly hierarchical organisation of opera seria favoured their high voices as symbols of heroic virtue, though they were frequently mocked for their strange appearance and bad acting:

Farinelli drew every Body to the Haymarket. What a Pipe! What Modulation! What Extasy to the Ear! But, Heavens! What Clumsiness! What Stupidity! What Offence to the Eye! Reader, if of the City, thou mayest probably have seen in the Fields of Islington or Mile-End or, If thou art in the environs of St James', thou must have observed in the Park with what Ease and Agility a cow, heavy with calf, has rose up at the command of the milkwoman's foot: thus from the mossy bank sprang the DIVINE FARINELLI.}}

More modern objections to the existence of castrati in Europe might centre on the means by which the preparation of future singers could lead to premature death. To prevent the child from experiencing the intense pain of castration, many were inadvertently administered lethal doses of opium or some other narcotic, or were killed by overlong compression of the carotid artery in the neck (intended to render them unconscious during the castration procedure).

During the 18th century itself, the music historian Charles Burney was sent from pillar to post in search of places where the operation was carried out:

I enquired throughout Italy at what place boys were chiefly qualified for singing by castration, but could get no certain intelligence. I was told at Milan that it was at Venice; at Venice that it was at Bologna; but at Bologna the fact was denied, and I was referred to Florence; from Florence to Rome, and from Rome I was sent to Naples ... it is said that there are shops in Naples with this inscription: 'QUI SI CASTRANO RAGAZZI' ("Here boys are castrated"); but I was utterly unable to see or hear of any such shops during my residence in that city.}}

The training of the boys was rigorous. The regime of one singing school in Rome (c. 1700) consisted of one hour of singing difficult and awkward pieces, one hour practising trills, one hour practising ornamented passaggi, one hour of singing exercises in their teacher's presence and in front of a mirror so as to avoid unnecessary movement of the body or facial grimaces, and one hour of literary study; all this, moreover, before lunch. After, half-an-hour would be devoted to musical theory, another to writing counterpoint, an hour copying down the same from dictation, and another hour of literary study. During the remainder of the day, the young castrati had to find time to practice their harpsichord playing, and to compose vocal music, either sacred or secular depending on their inclination. This demanding schedule meant that, if sufficiently talented, they were able to make a debut in their mid-teens with a perfect technique and a voice of a flexibility and power no woman or ordinary male singer could match.

In the 1720s and 1730s, at the height of the craze for these voices, it has been estimated that upwards of 4,000 boys were castrated annually in the service of art. Many came from poor homes and were castrated by their parents in the hope that their child might be successful and lift them from poverty (this was the case with Senesino). There are, though, records of some young boys asking to be operated on to preserve their voices (e.g. Caffarelli, who was from a wealthy family: his grandmother gave him the income from two vineyards to pay for his studies). Caffarelli was also typical of many castrati in being famous for tantrums on and off-stage, and for amorous adventures with noble ladies. Some, as described by Casanova, preferred gentlemen (noble or otherwise). Modern endocrinology would suggest that the castrati's much-vaunted sexual prowess was more the stuff of legend than reality – in addition to lacking a hormonal (but not a socio-psychological) sex drive, a castrato's remaining genitalia will not develop in size. Only a small percentage of boys castrated to preserve their voices had successful careers on the operatic stage; the better "also-rans" sang in cathedral or church choirs, but because of their marked appearance and the ban on their marrying, there was little room for them in society outside a musical context.

The castrati came in for a great amount of scurrilous and unkind abuse, and as their fame increased, so did the hatred of them. They were often castigated as malign creatures who lured men into homosexuality, and there were admittedly homosexual castrati, as Casanova's accounts of 18th-century Italy bear witness. He mentions meeting an abbé whom he took for a girl in disguise, only later discovering that "she" was a famous castrato. In Rome in 1762 he attended a performance at which the prima donna was a castrato, "the favourite pathic" of Cardinal Borghese, who dined every evening with his protector. From his behaviour on stage "it was obvious that he hoped to inspire the love of those who liked him as a man, and probably would not have done so as a woman".

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