Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Everything you wanted to know about the castrati but were afraid to ask

Martha Feldman. The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds. University of California Press, 2015.

There is a great deal that is fantastic and strange about opera. The virtuosic singing, the orchestration, the high drama of the plots, the sets, the costumes, the lighting and so much more. But all of those elements, even at their most extreme, pale in comparison to the phenomenon of the castrati. It is hard to wrap our post-modern heads around the very idea that parents had their sons castrated to preserve their beautiful voices in the hopes of an operatic, or at least cathedral choir, career. But they did. And this phenomenon lasted in opera for over 200 years and continued for decades longer in the major Italian cathedrals (especially at the Vatican). How did this go on for so long and more importantly why?

Most English language sources on this topic have been disappointing until recently. In part, writers were unable to hide their (admittedly understandable) disgust at the topic. So, for a couple of centuries the topic has been glossed over with a few ridiculous caricature drawings and one acoustical recording being all most students of music history learned about these singers who were widely reported as the best singers of their time and perhaps the greatest singers to ever grace the operatic stages. 

Fortunately, we now have some new sources, the best of which is Martha Feldman’s The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds. If you are only going to go to one source to understand the phenomenon of the operatic castrato, it should be this book. Feldman remedies so much of the distorted narrative of the past by taking an interdisciplinary approach in her research. For example, when looking for answers to what procedures were performed and where, she doesn’t just quote Burney (who tried and failed to find an answer) but looks to research into Italian medical practices of the time. In her research she found several documents related to surgeons who had performed the castrations.

She also explores the social lives and financial circumstances of the castrati. She even digs into the relationship between the most famous of all the castrati Farinelli and the Italian librettist Metastasio. She also probes the problems of their legacies since they had no direct heirs. Property, mementos and important documents were mostly lost after relatives squabbled over estates and sold off anything of value. Their legacies often crumbled to dust soon after their deaths. (In spite of that, there are at least two recent biographies of castrati as well as a very old one of Farinelli. I can recommend Roger Freitas’s Portrait of a Castrato: Politics, Patronage and Music in the Life of Atto Melani, 2009.) 

Perhaps the biggest question about the castrati is “What did they sound like?” To a certain extent we will never truly know. We only have one acoustical recording of a castrato and not one of the great ones (more on that next week). But we do have descriptions from many sources detailing the glories of their singing (and in some cases mocking them mercilessly). 

And finally, we have their artistic legacy. They are among the first voice teachers to publish their methods and in doing so created much of the foundations of what we still teach today as bel canto technique. They raised the level of what was expected from singers both musically and technically. They are in many ways the first virtuosi. Instrumentalists like Paganini and Liszt would reinvent the playing of their instruments in order to compete with the glory of the singing of the castrati (and later the tenors, contraltos and sopranos they tutored). The legacy of their art lives on in the music of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti even though only Rossini wrote a role for a castrato. Their manner of singing continued after the last one (Velluti) left the stage in 1830. 

This is an essential source for anyone studying opera up through the bel canto era. One of the best things about this book is the generous inclusion of portraits, drawings and other visual resources that paint a far clearer picture of the castrati than the handful of exaggerated caricatures used in almost every book about opera. We have long needed a thorough, insightful look at this phenomenon and this is it. It’s a must-read.