Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Castrati

This has been a difficult blog to start formally, like an essay. I tried three times.

Farinelli - the greatest castrato of all time. The voice of an angel in the body of a man:

But realities first: what is a castrato?

In Byzantium (c. 6th century), it was discovered that eunuchs retained the beautiful singing voices of their boyhood. By the 16th century in Italy, it was a common (but clandestine) practice to castrate boys before they reached puberty, for service in the church. This was not a mere chopping off of the testes, though it was often done with special scissors. Some more sophisticated, and surprisingly modern, procedures snipped the tubes through a tiny incision which was cauterised with a special rod.

Why? Because the soprano voice was necessary, but women were prohibited from singing in the church - a literal interpretation of St Paul's admonishment to keep women silent. (He actually meant they shouldn't hang around gossiping during the service!) As it was forbidden, parents usually plead "hunting accidents" and the like, as excuses for castration.

Lacking the rush of hormones, the castrati skipped puberty. They had softer skin and little body hair, but the bones were prone to osteoporosis. On the other hand, they had longer life spans than most men of the age. (Less testosterone equals less physiological stress, and their high salaries ensured the best medical care.)

Castrati had overdeveloped lung capacities and large chests. They could sustain long notes, and these notes were produced through boy-sized larynges. As the body grew, the voicebox remained the same.

The age of the castrato reached its zenith in the 18th century, when many famous Baroque composers wrote especially for the castrato voice. There are many operas from which certain parts, have since been excised or adopted by sopranos...poor substitutes.

We cannot truly know what the castrato sounded like. Today we have male sopranos, or sopranists, but these are often men who can reach falsetto scales, but at the same time the listener can hear the deeper male timbre on their lower notes.

This is not the case with the true male soprano. My best example would have been Michael Maniaci, a young American who I think has the voice of an absolute angel, and who may be reviving the role of the male soprano. (Unfortunately, his video has been removed from YouTube within the last week, probably because the theatre found someone had videoed a rehearsal, and castrati are popular this summer thanks to the Exhibition at the Handel House Museum and the run of related documentaries on BBC4.)

Michael Maniaci is a natural, or endocrinological, soprano because his larynx did not grow with his body. (I did a bit of research and found that this could be thanks to the broken X chromosome syndrome, in which his voicebox has completely different genetic material to the rest of his body - in other words, it's female.)

Michael was on this documentary which sought to recreate the voice of the castrato. How to combine the purity of a boy's voice in the head and sinuses of a man...They recorded a male tenor and boy sopranos. Digitally superimpose the tenor on the soprano scale, or the soprano on the tenor scale?
Soprano on tenor sounded too boyish, and they settled with the tenor on the soprano. "The voice" performed Ombra mai fu (written by Handel for the castrato) with a chamber orchestra.

I watched the film Farinelli: il castrato tonight. (A bit confusing, a French film about Italians in England. The brothers switched freely between French and Italian in the same conversation, but everyone else spoke French. When they first arrived in London, I thought they were staying with a French family living in exile! But it was hilarious to hear some of the English nobles speaking French with posh English accents.) I will not base my facts on the film. Although it was exceptionally beautiful, it was impressionistic and used a great deal of creative license. Interestingly, to create Farinelli's voice, the sound technicians combined the voice of a soprano with that of a tenor. (In my opinion, still sounds too womanly.)

Despite the depiction here and their Casanova-esque reputations (there was plenty of lovin' in the film), low testosterone levels would have resulted in a low libido.

Anyway, Farinelli, or Carlo Broschi, and his elder brother Riccardo, were born into a family of minor nobles near Naples. In about 1713-14 at the age of 7 or 8, Carlo was castrated to preserve his special voice, and his brother composed a great deal of music for him over the years.

He sang at royal courts all over Italy, and his reputation was such that he performed for France's Louis XV to great acclaim. It is a rare honour to receive a portrait of le roi in a diamond-studded frame!

The brothers then went on to conquer England - it was at this point that he stopped singing in the fussy continental style. Before, he was celebrated for singing 1,000 notes a minute, and sustaining one note for more than a minute. With Handel's music, he became sublime. Less became more. Instead of showing off technicality, he conveyed passion.

Ladies swooned during virtuoso performances, and as the castrati were the rock stars of their day, they were often throwing themselves at his feet. (Castrati were great objects of desire for wealthy ladies, as there was no danger of "unwanted results", ie. pregnancy.)

At the height of his popularity in England, Farinelli retired from the public eye and took an appointment to sing for King Philip of Spain who was prone to bouts of deep depression. Like David did for Solomon, only Farinelli could lift the king out of his dolor, and his 3 year contract stretched to 25!

At the end, laden with riches and the title of Cavaliere, he turned down a royal Spanish pension and returned to Italy, living his last years in peace and prosperity in a castle near Bologna. Even Mozart and the Emperor Leopold II went to visit him.

Always a kind and generous donor and patron, at his death in 1782 (nearly a decade before Mozart), Farinelli distributed his wealth where it was most needed.

His tomb was later destroyed by Napoleonic troops in an age that no longer revered the castrato. By then, they were considered freaks. In the mid-19th century, the Catholic Church banned the use of castrati for singing church music, though the practice hung on.

The last surviving castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, a chorister at the Sistine Chapel, recorded the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria for the gramophone in the early 1900s. He was a mediocre singer, but the novelty is that this grainy recording is our only remaining link to a lost art, if I may call it such.

As we can no longer hear Michael Maniaci online, there is another sopranist called Joerg Waschinski who has sound on his website. Click here to hear him sing a composition by none other than Riccardo Broschi. He is rather a hottie, so click here if you want to hear AND see!


Chris in MB said...

That's amazing. I've heard of the practice but knew very little about it.

I'm wondering if such people were also used as signers in other cultures that practiced some forms of castration (Asian, Arab, etc).

Chris in MB said...

"We cannot truly know what the castrato sounded like"

Would they not simply sound like a woman or would some subtle differences still be noticed?

tooners said...

really interesting post here! i find this to be truly fascinating. i'd love to see this movie you talked about, but the DVD shops here don't bring a lot of foreign language films. i love foreign language films. i didn't know too much about this... i can't hardly get over that the parents allowed this to happen. i wonder if the boys had any emotional scars from this? and... seeing that married women threw themselves at these men, well, did the men have normal urges? i would think it'd be different based on the fact that they were castrated. that takes away urges.

when i read this, i thought about our male cats for some reason.. i guess because you talked about how these men lived longer. they always say it's best to fix animals because it's healthier and they live longer. so i guess the same applies here! ;)

i listened to this jorg, he's amazing - even w/ the small clip that i heard - truly amazing voice. if i didn't know it, i'd think it was a woman.

Prerona said...

was watching a show abt this on telly recently - it was really cool :)

Olivia said...

Chris - there was some little mention of the voices of eunuchs in harems using their voices, but perhaps that's another post - I think it really took off in the Baroque era.

Sounding like a woman? Perhaps a mezzo-soprano, but I think richer, due to the man's larger skull/sinus cavity, and larger chest.

Personally I think female sopranos have way too much vibrato.

Tooners - so glad you enjoyed! Thanks for sharing all your thoughts :)
If you wanted, go to and search for Farinelli - you'll find clips making up the whole movie...with Korean subtitles...ahem, so you could listen in French and Italian, but hey at least you'd be watching!

You can't put anything past people in centuries past. Castrating your boy so he could earn money singing, was certainly a step up from the Romans leaving their unwanted children out on hillsides to die.

And considering emotional scars, now that is a modern way of thinking. In the film it was shown that Carlo regretted not being able to have children. I am sure they went through terrible periods of mourning or depression.

And yes, the libido / urges were lower.

Actually, I listened to Joerg again just now, and am starting to get into his voice too!

Prerona - was it on a BBC channel? What did you learn?

Olivia said...

I forgot to mention that Farinelli's voice covered 3 and a half octaves...

Roxandra said...

I actually own the film on dvd. I loved the music and the lushness of the film. I agree that most sopranos have too much vibrato- and many of them (including the revered Maria Callas) sound as if they swallowed a dumpling on the lower notes. But there is one singer with that perfect Mozart voice who has none of the above. Her name is Natalie Dessay and she sings like an angel! Hearing her sing the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte always gives me goose bumps. I also have a recording of her singing Lakmé. That duet has to be one of my all time favourite arias for women's voices. Though I also adore Mady Mesplés version. The version they used for British airways really isn’t at all what this aria should sound like...

Rebecca said...

Hmm, my brother has a book or something about the last Castrato.
But more importantly: ITALY ARE WORLD CHAMPIONS!!! 4 TIMES!

Olivia said...

Yes, and they look like they're putting in too much effort. Can't believe I used to like Cecilia Bartoli...
I think I used to have a CD with Mady Mesple' singing Les Oiseaux dans les arbres or soemthing....

You and I know too much about ads - that aria still makes me think about BA, years afterwards!

Rebecca - yes, bella. And I am pleased they beat the French. I am afraid to go to your blog will be louder than you were last week..

MattJ said...

I think even in the one grainy recording that is available you can hear the difference betweena femal soprano, a falsetto and a castrato. Falsetto often sounds strained, I am not a big fan of female soprano. With my limited exposure to opera I find it warbling and occasionally painful.

Imagine the female soprano without the need for a vibratto, With such a powerful set of lungs behind the larynx, there would naturally be much less strain behind achieving the desired sound.

That's just my opinion, Liv is our cultural attache and she can correct the inaccuracys!


Rebecca - hate to say it but they totally didn't deserve it, they were dominated by France virtually the whole match and I was slightly saddened to see it go to penalties. I was also disappointed that Zidane lost his temper but having seen him play for so very long the chap must have said something very very serious for him to snap like that (still deserved the red of course no matter what the provocation)

Steliano Ponticos said...

Beautiful Olive. You even snuck in some genetic! I think the practice of castrating boys is quite surprising and fascinating to us. It is giving up something to have something else. A big choice that often the boy himself didn't make I imagine.

On the musical side. Or on the singing side, it is interesting to compare sopranos to sopranists who can sing falsettos to castrati. I agree with matt that the castrato voice even in the bad quality recording is very special. But, I think there are some female singers who do sing very much with the same intonation. Like roxandra said. I know this girl here at the conservatory and while listening to Moreschi I instantly remembered her voice.

Totally amazing. Some of the people at the lab I will be working in next year study how to model human voice form the sape of the head and stuff like that and they have sophisticated models for singing and speach etc...I would not dare ask any of them though. They do not at all seem to be interested in opera.

Steliano Ponticos said...

*from the shape of the head*

Steliano Ponticos said...

FOOTBALL COMMENT--I am very happy for Italy. I agree they were totally dominated. But it is unfair to say they didn't deserve to win. They were better defensively and Buffon was exceptional. A team with a good goally is always stronger. Hehe, what Zizou did was so stupid..

Olivia said...

Steli - thank you!

The program I watched went to a similar lab in Norway. They did use scientists who can model voices like the ones you know, using specially developed software.

Probably they didn't go to your lab because they said, "Opera? No thanks!"


Rebecca said...

AACH, my comment was erased!
Ok, in fewer words: Italy played a stronger first half and - as often happens with them - lost their focus and nerve in the second.

Italy is also a stronger team, this is recognised by all but the French. France has a few strong players (who all learned in Italy), but Italy is a stronger and more successful team.

Ok. Liv - feel free to start a conversation about crumpets on my blog to pay me back for this

Leilouta said...

I am sorry Olivia, very off topic, but when you said "I think I used to have a CD with Mady Mesple' singing Les Oiseaux dans les arbres or soemthing...." you reminded me of an Egyptian movie called "My father is on the tree" :)

Jia Li said...

you know I got a bit od deja view here...because I think I have read this before...well it seemed familer, I never heard one before.

Steliano Ponticos said...

Leilouta that is a nice movie, I know it.

Olive exactly, they would have went "Opera, what" and turned down the heavy metal they always listen to. One of those guys who work on voice and stuff like that has a very nice office and is leaving next year. Hopefully, I will have it.

The Moody Minstrel said...

(Oh, great...I'm posting here after a spam comment. WONDERFUL!) (not)

The castrati...

There's a museum dedicated to them in Italy. You can see some of the tools they used to make As a man, it hurts me just looking at them.

It's amazing how something so painful can produce something so beautiful.

Would they not simply sound like a woman or would some subtle differences still be noticed?

Olivia has already pointed out that there are differences in the way male and female skulls form, so the sinuses, etc., wouldn't be quite the same. Also, it was mentioned only briefly in the post, but castrati actually tended to develop unique physiques. For one thing, their torsos tended to become really tall and cylindrical with an oversized lung capacity. For another, their heads tended to be small and elongated. Experts don't know why such physical features would result from castration, but pretty much every portrait of a famous castrato shows the same, weird body proportions. There's just no way to replicate that.

panda_eyed said...

Great post Liv. Did you see the BBC documentary too? I think it was only on BBC4, not entirely sure though.

tooners said...

I was waiting to see what Moody had to say about this....

Wouldn't it be nice to see the museum in Italy!?

Olivia said...

Rebecca - um...I don't eat crumpets at the moment. The current passion is French Toast and maple syrup...

Look at me, I got a footie debate going on my blog!

Leilouta - *snort* that was SO random, I laughed by surprise!

JL - did you listen to them?

Steli - ohhh then next year you will be showing off about your nice office, eh? :P

Minstrel - I have been spammed a lot this week, I think I shall finally have to enforce the dreaded security code - sorry guys!
The instruments of destruction are currently at the Handel House Museum - in fact those were the ones I was describing.

Thanks for describing their odd physiology. I honestly couldn't recall the word "cylindrical" even though I used "zenith" and "dolor" for the first time!
I decided not to mention their height since I read that Moreschi was actually short.

Thank you for your informed comment.

Panda - Yes I saw it, did you? It was only on BBC4. Apparently it is known as a "factual channel" so I am glad I have Freeview!

Tooners - me too :)

Steliano Ponticos said...

Handel was a really dangerous guy.

Steliano Ponticos said...

you said eh. I will start a count for the people who say eh. Olivia =1, me =0, JL=0.

Olivia said...

Steli - you and Handel seem to have a feud going on...

Hehe, I say "eh" a lot...I always think of my aunts in Canada when I use it :P

Alfanan said...

Wow…. And... ouch!

Reading your post reminded me of my Music Appreciation classes back in college. I remember this topic being discussed in class, it was quite a discussion, I reckoned. I can only imagine how they lived back then, and how they were looked at by society.

Handel was known for his love of the Castrati (hmmm); in fact, he wrote several compositions for them. However, some of the compositions have gathered dust on the shelves, and I can’t remember why he didn’t continue working on these compositions and developed them further.

I love this post…. And I love you blog.

Olivia said...

Afanan - welcome to my blog, I am glad to see you here :)

Yes indeed, many of his works, including a few operas, can no longer be performed. The intricacies of the melody and number of notes are often impossible to perform.