login | register
EN  |  DE


Enshrouded in the Mist of Legends

22 MAY 2018

published in: Whitsun, General

‘Se non è vero, è molto ben trovato’. (If it is not true, it is very well invented.) – This aphorism, formulated by the philosopher and priest Giordano Bruno, serves as a useful caveat when reading the legends written about castrati. Basking in the rays of international fame, they hold a dual position in music history as heroes and great mysteries. To the rational mind, which saw the opera of the 18th century as ‘exotic and irrational entertainment’ (in the words of the famous Dr Samuel Johnson), it was a blatant contradiction that mythical heroes like Achilles and Odysseus or rulers such as Caesar and Titus were sung by ‘evirati’, the ‘unmanned ones’. That thousands of boys were purportedly ‘neutered’ every year, so as to turn their voices into phenomenal instruments, had already provoked horror and disgust since the middle of the 18th century, but also a ‘prurient interest’ (John Rosselli), which has been served by books such as Engel wider Willen (Angels Against Their Will), Der Venusmann (The Venus Man) and Die Nachtigall des Zaren (The Tsar’s Nightingale). The heroine of The Virtuoso, a novel by Margriet de Moor, succumbs to the erotic pull of a castrato voice: ‘I was by no means the only one this evening to sob in my box, to sigh and surrender to a drunkenness that renders the heart generous and the sex tender.’

The question of whether the castrati ever felt a stirring in their loins, or were even actually capable of performing sexual intercourse, is another mystery. There is a clear medical answer. Most reactions to this subject, however, have equivocated or made insinuations. Typical in this context is the joke made at the expense of Gaetano Majorano, the artist known as Caffarelli, whose palazzo in Naples bore the inscription of ‘Amphyon Thebas ego Domum’ (Amphion built Thebes, I this house). Caffarelli was alluding to how the mythical hero moved the stones for the walls of Thebes into place through the power of his singing. A prankster then added the words ‘Ille cum, tu sine’ (He with, you without). This is one of many jokes that mock the castrato as a half-man, eunuch, or capon (a castrated rooster raised for its meat), and stigmatize him as an outsider.

For a long time, however, little attention was paid to the role that the castrato played as both a social and artistic phenomenon. The practice of castration, as Piotr O. Scholz expounded in his book Eunuchs and Castrati: A Cultural History, is as old as civilization. As shown in the sagas about gods being emasculated, it had already become deeply anchored in mythical thinking. There were eunuchs in the Hellenistic, Roman and Arab-Islamic worlds. Defeated enemies were castrated. Self-castration by priests was supposed to aid them in leading a celibate life. It could be imposed as a punishment for adultery, but in times of economic crisis also function as a means of birth control, such as in 16th century Italy.

Too little attention was also given to the fact that castrati assisted in no way at all in the birth of opera as an art form. The first Orfeo, set to music by Monteverdi (1607), was sung by a tenor. The castrato first became an idol and symbol of Baroque opera at the beginning of the 18th century, through the emergence of a unique phenomenon. This was the ‘castrato de luxe’ (Martha Feldman), embodied by figures such as Farinelli, Senesino and Caffarelli. This class of singers became pioneering in the development of vocal artistry, as Feldman asserts: ‘It is no exaggeration to say that the entire classical foundation of virtuosic solo singing in the West […] owes its existence to the musical traditions and practices of castrati’. Many singers for Gluck, Mozart, Haydn and Rossini came from the singing schools of Antonio Pistocchi and Antonio Bernacchi in Bologna or Nicola Porpora in Naples. Rossini ascribed the decline of vocal artistry in the 19th century to the ban on castratos (also implemented by Napoleon). From today’s perspective, it was the move from an ornamental to a word-focused, expressive style.

In the decades before the birth of opera, castrati were heard in academies and concert halls, in the palaces of the nobility and Catholic bishops, and especially in the Sistine Chapel. The church was the most significant employer of castrati until the end of the 19th century. Even established castrati needed permission to sing opera, particularly in public performances. The contemporary image of the castrato as a ‘monstre sacré’ or Baroque pop star, as Farinelli was characterized on film by the director Gérard Corbiau, has been corrected in recent studies by John Rosselli (Singers of Italian Opera) and Martha Feldman (The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds). In ‘The Eroticism of Emasculation: Confronting the Body of the Castrato’, a scholarly article informed by gender studies, Roger Freitas describes the castrato as a ‘one-sex model’. The sexless and disembodied castrato that we imagine hearing in our heads, or its resurrected counterpart that we encounter as an object of caricature or parody, confronts us in a new and a different guise: as an androgynous youth with a latent sexuality and an irresistible eroticism to the voice, which can cause rapture and even orgasm. ‘The castrato’s virility, the phallus’, writes Joke Dame, ‘has been displaced into his voice’.

In his book Greatness in Music, Alfred Einstein claimed that any work of music which no longer speaks to us will inevitably become fossilized, even if its historical importance has been proven. Only two or three decades ago, Agostino Steffani, Antonio Caldara, Nicola Porpora, Leonardo Leo, Leonardo Vinci and a host of others were among the composers whose works languished unperformed, preserved in formaldehyde. Their revival has come under the auspices of the castrato, whose aura is resurrected and used by modern-day singers. CDs released by Drew Minter and Andreas Scholl carry the name of Senesino in their titles; Carestini has been celebrated by Philippe Jaroussky, Caffarelli by Franco Fagioli, and Farinelli by Aris Christofellis, Arno Raunig, Vivica Genaux and David Hansen. Cecilia Bartoli has also taken on the castrato era with two albums: Opera proibita and Sacrificium – the latter an allusion to the sacrifice which castrati had to make for their art. The castrato resurrected? Is it really possible for countertenors to raise castrati from the dead? There is no plausible answer to this question, as there is no substitute for voices that we have never heard. Contemporary accounts, often written by composers, may well establish the basis for a ‘vocal profile’, but this remains mute in one respect: the sound which made those in the audience forget all their senses and cheer ‘evviva il coltello, il benedetto coltello’ (Long live the knife, the blessed knife!).

The phonograph record, according to its inventor Emil Berliner, permitted a dialogue with eternity. Such a dialogue was held by only one castrato: Alessandro Moreschi (1858–1922), who was presumed to be the Sistine Chapel’s last soprano. In his seminal documentary study Die Kastraten und ihre Gesangskunst (The Castrati and Their Art of Singing, 1927), the trained doctor and singing teacher Franz Haböck writes that Moreschi’s voice was ‘comparable only to the clarity and purity of a crystal’. He adds: ‘The absolute effortlessness which one physically senses in his vocalization, controlled as it is by limitless power in terms of breath, impressed on my mind the powerful image of the most beautiful wind instrument ever enlivened by human breath.’

A disappointment lies in store, however, for whoever listens to the recordings made in 1902 and 1904. Moreschi only sings affectedly pious music in the vein of the Bach/Gounod ‘Ave Maria’. He repeatedly struggles to control his vocal production and phrasing, and there is nothing that might evoke the virtuosity of Moreschi’s vocal forebears, much less the rich sound of, say, a Caruso, whose recordings were made at the same time. Nevertheless, the trained ear cannot miss that Moreschi’s voice is that of a man singing predominantly in his modal register. To most listeners, it will seem ‘feminine’ on first hearing, but according to 18th century perception, the castrato had a ‘voce naturale’. A countertenor, however, sings with the feminine part of the male voice: the falsetto.

At the Service of the Church

It was not until the end of the 16th century and during the 17th century that castration was performed solely for musical reasons. From 1562, during the pontificate of Pius IV, castrati began to sing in the papal chapel. They were also engaged at the Bavarian court chapel in Munich, then under the direction of Orlande de Lassus, from 1560. In 1587, the widely-performed practice of castration was forbidden by Sixtus V (1585–1590). His successor, Clement VIII (1592–1605), subsequently lifted this ban. Just a few years later, castrati were the only singers remaining in the papal chapel. They were needed, firstly, because of the Pauline dictum which disallowed women from singing in church. Secondly, they were the only singers who fulfilled the demands made by new music. Although high parts could be sung by boys and falsettists, the voices of the papal choir’s Spanish falsettists – the ‘Spagnoletti’ – were too weak and their upper range too limited (they were lacking the five notes at the very top of a female soprano’s range), while boys were barely trained before their voices broke. By having an orchiectomy, they retained their light, silvery sound. In addition, many castrati, even if not all of them, experienced eunuchoid growth in height and weight that led to particularly large lungs and the capacity to inhale a similarly expanded volume of air. These attributes especially facilitated the ‘messa di voce’: the gradual crescendo and diminuendo on one note which begins many castrato arias. Could this be called a mere surface trick? The Belgian composer and theorist François-Joseph Fétis stressed that the ‘mise de voix’ was ‘the most powerful means of producing vivid musical effects’.

In the first decades of the 18th century, castrati became symbolic figures of Baroque opera on account of their fantastic, unreal timbre and brilliant technique. They spread from Venice – the first city with public theatres – throughout Italy, then also Austria and Germany. Following his stops in Florence, Rome, Naples and Venice, George Frideric Handel brought them to England. There he achieved instant and spectacular success with Rinaldo in 1711, thanks also to Nicola Grimaldi, known as Nicolini, in the title role. In September 1720, Handel managed to lure the contralto castrato Francesco Bernardi, known as Senesino, from the opera in Dresden to London, where he became a firm audience favourite within the space of a few years due to his outstanding vocal and dramatic artistry. His range, slightly more than an octave, was much narrower than that of Farinelli, who came to London in 1734 with his teacher Nicola Porpora.

Even after the halcyon days of Senesino, Farinelli and Caffarelli, castrato parts continued to be written by Christoph Willibald Gluck (Orfeo) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Ascanio, Farnace, Idamante, Annius). While the number of castrati fell in the last third of the 18th century, around 200 of them were still active in Roman churches in 1780. But there was no longer any place for them in the ‘realistic’ worlds of opera buffa and Singspiel, or in romantic opera.

Porpora was guided by the principle that art begins where technique ends. For Stendhal, the essence of this art lay in the ‘wonders of extemporaneous embellishment’. He judged it a ‘dreadful revolution’ to force singers such as Pacchierotti, Marchesi, Crescentini and Velluti into the straitjacket of performing ‘come scritto’ (as written). Vocal eloquence, spontaneity and originality, in his view, were condemned to dangle from its gallows.

The big revolution not only transformed social hierarchies and moral rules, but also aesthetic conventions. The castrato had found his role as a romantic hero, an ‘eroe amante’, in an idealized and unreal art world. After a little shy of two centuries, his time on stage came to an end with Gioachino Rossini’s Aureliano in Palmira (1813) and Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Il crociato in Egitto (1824). Giovanni Battista Velluti (1780–1861), the last castrato with status and fame, sang in both these operas.

An oddly well-founded dismissal of ornamented singing can be found in Richard Wagner’s essay ‘On Actors and Singers’. In it, the composer vehemently objects to his muse, the dramatic soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, being cast ‘into the same category as the female castrati of our opera’. Female castrati? The apparent absurdity of this paradox is easily resolved. Wagner is opposed to female singers who carry forward the ‘canto fiorito’ of castrati. But while working on Parsifal, he considered casting a castrato in the role of Klingsor. It was in fact the so-called ‘musico’, however, that had inherited the mantle of the castrato at the beginning of the 19th century. The term denoted mezzo-sopranos and contraltos who, as Théophile Gautier effusively declared about the contralto Marietta Alboni, had the voices of ‘Romeo and Juliet in the same throat’. They were thus voices with an androgynous timbre which crossed gendered boundaries. By the middle of the 19th century, there was a new approach to casting: the linking of roles to gender.

All Art Succumbs to Petrifaction

The annals of theatre history show that works with castrato parts were being consigned to the dustbin of music history as early as the late 18th century, and were gone entirely by the Romantic era. Handel outlived the last stage performance of one of his operas (in 1754) by five years. It took some 170 years until the performances of the so-called ‘Handel renaissance’ in Göttingen, in which the sound specific to castrato parts, as well as their set of signifiers, were distorted. This revival of Handel’s operas involved updating them (and Baroque opera in general) under the rubric of a realist or expressionist aesthetic. The verdict given by the musicologist Paul Henry Lang testifies to the animosity against the artificial and affected elements in Baroque opera. In his monograph on Handel, he wrote: ‘The opera buffa was a natural rebellion against the unnatural; musicians and the public alike felt a profound and intimate relationship between voice and sex, vocal color and character; between the masculinity of the male voice and the femininity of the female there is no middle ground, and even less a neutral ground. […] Even the countertenor is strange to us’.

A ‘natural’ rebellion against the unnatural? A ‘healthy’ masculine vocal instrument? Here an aesthetic judgement is supplanted by a moral prejudice: the fiction of sexual normality. It was the English composer Michael Tippett who, after 1950, restored the sound of past centuries with the countertenor Alfred Deller; and beginning in the late 1960s, historical performance practice attempted to reconstruct the detailed sound of cantatas, litanies, masses and vespers that had been written for choirs with castrati. For most audience members, the countertenor remained an exotic phenomenon until the 1980s – not to mention an erotically dubious one. Since the Handel revival following the 300th anniversary of the composer’s birth, this voice type has become established in the Fach system.

There remains the question of why contemporary listeners are so taken with the melodious appeal of these amphoteric, non-binary voices. It was probably a historical change in mentality, particularly with regard to moral norms (such as the acceptance of gay culture), that contributed to the success of the countertenors. While Alfred Deller grew a beard as proof of his masculinity, and Jochen Kowalski and Andreas Scholl still had to put up with giggles from the audience, today’s countertenors need not worry about how their sex is construed along biological or gendered lines. The fact that the countertenor has joined the soprano, alto, tenor and bass in becoming a distinct voice type is demonstrated by the more than 200 operas with parts for one or more countertenors that have been composed in the decades since 1960, the year that Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream premiered. These works – by Luigi Dallapiccola, György Ligeti, Mauricio Kagel, Peter Eötvös, Aribert Reimann, Hans Werner Henze, Salvatore Sciarrino, Olga Neuwirth, and others – were recorded by Ulrich Linke in a study on casting approaches for countertenors in contemporary opera. With the revealing title of Gott und Wolfsmann, Teufel und Schwester (God and Wolfman, Devil and Sister), he suggests that countertenors consistently embody difference, otherness, and strangeness: be it the divine or devilish, allegorical or mythical figures, or ultimately characters that get labelled ‘queer’. In their performances with manifold disguises, they are an illustration of the ‘gender trouble’ (Judith Butler) that is grappled with by practitioners of gender studies and queer theory.

- Jürgen Kesting