“The World of the Castrati” by Patrick Barbier

This is a very, very complete book, and a fascinating look at the castrati as singers, as religious creations, as social phenomena, and as human beings. It’s engagingly written (and well translated I hope although not having the original version, I can’t say for sure) and treats the subject in a very accessible fashion.

The book begins by answering the basic questions. What, strictly speaking, is a castrato? What did the operation consist of? When was it performed, and how? Was it as openly advertised as myth would have us believe today? (No). Was it as dodgy and uncertain as we would believe today? (Yes.) Was Naples actually the “castration capital?” (No.) What effect did it have on the body? What did this strange custom actually create? How was it regarded in society, and by the castrati themselves?

Regarding the “mechanics” of the voice, I was intrigued to discover that my own impression of the endocrine castrato voice — that it is too bright, too limpid, acoustically uncomplex, and a bit like undersweetened lemonade — is indeed precisely what the resulting voice is, when testosterone is removed from the equation. (One listener of the time described it as “light, dry, and sour” yet very affecting. I’m more a fan of red wines than whites, though.)

Not only does the larynx remain youthful, as with a woman, but the position of the larynx in the throat also does not shift downward, as it does precipitously in adult men and moderately in women. This leaves it much closer to the upper end of the resonating chambers of the head, resulting in an excessively (in my opinion) bright and penetrating “ringtone”-like voice very different from the voice of a woman or even a child, factoring in the incongruous lung power of an adult man.

This, as it turns out, is precisely what I dislike about the voice as demonstrated by Jorge Cano, Radu Marian, and the very old recordings of the last castrato Alessandro Moreschi. The voice is so sharp, so thin, and so pungent as to strike like auditory ammonia. The other male voice often mentioned in this class, Michael Maniaci, consists of a youthful larynx housed in the body of an otherwise perfectly normal man, giving it resonance and acoustic complexity that the other voices lack.

The book then moves to the question of vocal training and what it consisted of, introducing the concept of the conservatories and the truly mindblowing amount of careful nurturing that the young boys were subjected to. A strange metaphor to use, but for children who had been handed to the voice factories of the time to fulfill one singular purpose in life from as young as seven years old, it must have felt like a subjection. Much of the castrati’s legendary vocal prowess and longevity, it appears, stemmed not from any otherworldly effect of their mutilation, but from the relentless training that could last up to fifteen years, for hours each day. Castration resulted in a high voice, but it did not create a genius. That took what it always takes even today: natural gifts, hard work, and luck.

The castrati are treated as an operatic and social phenomenon as well, with individual names brought up in a way that both illustrates the strangeness of the resulting phenomenon and shows the singers themselves to be very real human beings with all the failings and strengths that humans of any kind can feature. The individual personalities of each well-known castrato leap from the page, from the tantrum-prone but magnificently gifted Senesino, to the brilliant, quiet, and kind Farinelli, to Marchesi and Caffarelli, textbook examples of spoiled and adored superstars and prone to extravagant behavior that would leave the National Enquirer gaping even today. The book looks as closely as it can also at the private lives and opinions of these extraordinary people and doesn’t stint on illustrating their other issues, such as the deep resentment and suspicion with which many of them regarded their fathers — the people who had handed them over to be mutilated in pursuit of money and fame. The book also looks over the geographic variations in the acceptance (or not) of the castrati. Italy created and adored them. France, as it turns out, was outright hostile to them while England was alternately bemused and bewitched. And the book does not avoid examining their undeniable appeal to women as magnetic superstar singers possessed of titillating gender ambiguity, with whom a prurient dalliance would have absolutely no consequences at all.

Also treated is opera itself — the ultimate dazzling spectacle, created from the outset to leave audiences overwhelmed — and how it influenced and was influenced by the castrati, the divas of the day, and the other voice types that are so much more adored today, the tenors and bassos. Opera, it appears, was much closer to the idea of a rock-and-roll spectacle in the time of its creation, with raucous audiences and assignations in the private boxes in mid-performance, hecklers, drunks, gambling, and incongruous stage entrances that would leave Madonna green with envy. David Bowie descending from the ceiling riding a glittering UFO to the blare of trumpets would have been just about on par with Luigi Marchesi, it turns out!

The book concludes by examining the twilight of life for the individual singers and the gentle descent of the best of them into philanthropy and charity, and the twilight of the castrati as a class themselves with the final papal declaration that concluded at long last that mutilating children was an unacceptable alternative to welcoming women to sing in church. The fact that the best-of-the-best of the castrati are no more numerous than today’s litany of revered natural high male voices is a tragic irony left unaddressed, as the book was not strictly speaking a book on voice itself, but on the history of this one odd, brutal custom.

Many myths about the castrati are broken in two or illuminated more fully, and the entire book is a very attractive read into what often strikes people as the damned strangest period of music in the history of the world. It’s not terribly expensive in paperback form, and is not hard to find used in good condition. My copy was found from a used bookseller through Amazon.com, and cost roughly twenty dollars, including shipping.

Following will hopefully be a review of Heriot’s “Castrati in Opera,” as well as acquisition of “Les Dieux et Divas de L’Opera,” although the latter may make a bit of a dent in my checking account as it’s hard to come by on this side of the Atlantic.