Great Castrati of the 18th Century

No one paid a higher price for celebrity than the male soprano of the 18th-century, those greatest of European stars, whose fame in their own time was proportionally greater even than that of George Clooney, Madonna, Brittany Spears or of those opera singers? most direct modern descendant, Michael Jackson. Conspiracy theories still swirl that he was a castrato, gave up his balls to preserve his voice.

Even before modern media culture saturated the globe and the mind, the leading men?their numerous detractors would have called them half-men, geldings, or eunuchs?of the 18th-century operatic theatre commanded salaries as high in relative terms as those of the best paid Hollywood stars. They were feted and often ennobled by heads of state, not merely given hollow titles like that of Sir Ian or Dame Judy, but estates and power and the diverse accoutrements of vast prestige.

Answering to the highest bidders among royal theatres across Europe, from St. Petersburg to London to Naples, these stars moved about the civilized world in immeasurable luxury.  Rather than the suspiciously gold-plated statuettes handed out by fellow actors at the behest of a couple of thousand Hollywood insiders, the brightest stars of the 18th century received real gold from real kings and real queens: jewels, rings, swords, snuff boxes, and countless other artifacts of worldly glory, not to mention Old Master paintings, rare and ornate musical instruments, huge yearly stipends, palaces, and sculpted monuments to their immortality.

As is the case with our present stars, these singers were looked upon by both beau monde and rabble with a paradoxical mixture of reverence and loathing, those two sides of the coin of celebrity. Then as now, the opposing forces of disgust and admiration, awe and jealousy, fascination and repulsion fueled great fame and fortune. Like our movie star-obsessed popular culture, that of the 18th-century was similarly propped up by the tabloid press and free-flowing celebrity money.

Castration  was an officially illegal operation often carried out at the behest of poor families to preserve a promising soprano voice from the hormones that would change it and thereby prevent an operatic career. A fall from the horse or an attack by a goose were the usual stories told, and these were accepted, if at all, with a wink.  Like today?s poor kids who dream of an NBA contract, the overwhelming majority of castrati were not gifted with enough voice or talent or luck to make it in the super-competitive world of opera.  Most ended up leading a marginal existence as singers for the church or as sex workers catering to specialized tastes?or both. The failed film actors of today are more likely to make a lateral move to the porn industry than to the monastery.

Like Brazilian soccer stars, castrati were usually known by a single stage name adopted in honor of a patron or a place of birth or another famed singer. Carlo Broschi, aka Farinelli, was the most famous castrato of the 18th-century?indeed he was the most famous musician of the age, and held universally to be its greatest most affecting performer. He took his name from a Neapolitan magistrate, Farina, whose sons had sung with the Broschis and who supported the young singer. Farinelli?s three octave range (quite similar to that of the aforementioned Michael Jackson), huge dynamic scope (from a nearly inaudible pianissimo to a massive fortissimo), agility of voice that could out-duel instrumental virtuosos, and lunge power that could sustain notes and phrases at unprecedented lengths?all these gifts made him rich and famous.

Like most great male singers he made his debut in Rome in drag in a female role, and then went on to portray a string of great heroes, both mythic and historic. After conquering London in the mid-1730s he was, so to speak, optioned by the Spanish Royal house, and spent more than a decade singing his most celebrated arias every night for the melancholic King Philip V.

With his titles and immense wealth Farinelli then returned to Italy for his last decades, constructing a villa outside of Bologna and filling it with his treasures and the still bright aura of his fame. He was of course, without issue, but as one English visitor put in 1771: ?he has a sister and two of her children with him, one of whom is an infant, of which he is dotingly fond, though it is cross, sickly, homely, and unamiable.?  Like the last years of nearly all stars, those of the castrati are almost always cast as sad ones, since they are always represent the end of their own line.  There would be no Farinelli, Jr., no Farinellino: the castrato?s immortality can never be biological. The need for love and intimacy even with visitors and with children again recalls Jacko-lino.

Not all castrati were plucked from the underclass.  The notorious Caffarelli, who often treated other members of an opera?s cast as competitors to be humiliated by means of outlandish one-upman?s-ship or derisive mimicry, came from a wealthy background.  Yet his musical promise was so great that he sacrificed ? or was made to sacrifice ? his testicles for the great career he eventually pursued across Europe. In spite of the operation, he apparently cut a wide sexual swathe through the boudoirs of Italy, England, and France. There is continued debate on the real sexual prowess of castrati, but those who went under the knife near puberty seem to have retained their erectile function and the powers of pleasure that led to so many erotic conquests, or at least to the rumors of them.

Casanova describes how he fell in love with a singer nicknamed Bellino. Like Farinelli, Bellino had been singing a female role in an opera in Rome. Later, in an intimate moment, Casanova grabbed for the singer?s crotch only to discover that the soprano was wearing a false penis, and was actually a women impersonating a male castrato so as to avoid the Roman ban on females on the opera stage. One could imagine not dissimilar hijinx in Hollywood.

With the rise to prominence in the recent years of a number of brilliant countertenors, the high heroic roles of Handel?s operas have again been performed by powerful and virtuosic male singers, returning to these long-neglected or maltreated works their dramatic and musical power. But even countertenors of the caliber of the current class of the field, David Daniels, probably only approximate the qualities and skills of the castrati of yore. The only recordings of a castrato?those made in the first years of the 20th century of the papal singer, Alberto Moreschi, the so-called Angel of Rome?eerily conjure only a distant sense of the glorious voices of Farinelli, Senesino, and the other members of their illustrious pantheon.

Over the past decade some excellent CDs devoting to the repertoire of the castrati have been made: David Daniels, Andreas Scholl, and most recently the Frenchman Philippe Jaroussky?s  2007  release on Virgin Classics of a disc dedicated to the legacy of Carestini, who sang oratorios for Handel and operas for his chief rival, the Neapolitan Nicolo Porpora. Carestini also starred for two of the greatest theatrical composers before Mozart, Johann Adolph Hasse. All of these composers are represented on the recording. Jaroussky can sing fast and light; he makes the difficult sound easy, tossing off astounding passage work with sprezzatura. His voice must not have the richness of the great male sopranos of the 18th century. But it is infinitely nuanced and expressive. Detractors favoring the more powerful approach of a David Daniels might call the sound boy-like. Indeed, Jaroussky doesn?t quite achieve that paradoxically macho effect of the castrato, but there is real complexity behind the deceptively pure impression his voice makes. Though Jaroussky can and does use naivet? as a compelling musical topic, that is only a slender part of his huge affective range. On the cover he stands in a black suit without tie, hands in his trousers. He wears a black butterfly mask meant to conjure mystery, Venice, ambiguity: it is an image that plays lightly with its own theatricality.

The same cannot be said of the most recent Castrato blockbuster, Sacrificium, which appeared a couple of weeks ago from Decca ( and is in the top twenty of all records on Amazon. This time it?s a woman with an extraordinary voice?Cecilia Bartoli?who does battle with fifteen classic castrato arias, eleven of which have never been recorded before. A bonus disc includes three famous tracks, among them the outlandishly difficult Son qual nave, the surging cresting vocal lines meant to evoke a ship tossed on the waves. Written by Riccardo Broschi for his brother Farinelli, the piece became the star castrato?s most popular suitcase aria, to be shoehorned into any opera on any stage across Europe, regardless of plot or circumstance.

This insanely demanding workout is attacked at supersonic tempos by Bartoli and the Italian baroque orchestra Il giardino harmonico that backs her up. Led by Giovanni Antonini Italian soprano, the band takes a ballistic approach to 18th-century music, an attitude reflected in the cover to their recording of Vivaldi?s Four Seasons which shows a bullet exiting a shattered Stradivarius. The guys in Il giardino harmonico are the baroque music equivalent of the killer posse in a Spaghetti Western. To paraphrase Tuco in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: ?When you have to play, play don?t talk.? The effect is gritty, macho, violent, with amorous detours to the brothel for a whiff of perfume and a caress of flesh: when it comes to love?arias of seducation and longing?the band knows how to go through the motions. I?m just not sure that Vivaldi, Handel, Popora or even Broschi would be that impressed by the gallop of hooves and the spray of Winchesters in their gallant arias of martial and marital conquest.

Alongside this showstopper, Son qual nave, is the evergreen Ombra mai fu by Handel, a piece that like several others on the two discs, allows the singer to demonstrate the command over a single long held note, another remarkable musical skill of the castrati, whose hormonal imbalances often created much chest cavities, as caricatures of Handel?s leading man, Sensino, show.  What the best of these pieces prove?and there are none better than Ombrai mai fu?is that with the swells and shadings on pitch more can be expressed than in the most spectacular fireworks.  The real pay-off for castration came in the most intimate musical moments? not in the most spectacular.

As for Bartoli, her technical command is beyond impressive, it is downright unbelievable: she sings loud and fast and hits every difficult note across her three-octave vocal range. Renowned for her Rossini, Bartoli disports herself on these showpiece arias with superior bravura. These must be the hardest things she?s ever sung, and she does so without a slip, at least after the digital scalpel has been wielded by the boys at Decca. For the pyrotechnics and pathos of big-screen, 18th-century opera this disc sets a new standard.

What is less appealing than these musical heroics is the packaging. The title Sacrificium is meant to commemorate what the uncredited writer of the 150 page booklet claims were 100,000 boys sacrificed to the surgeon?s knife.  By my count that?s 200,000 testicles offered up to the gods of song, though the number might be marginally higher if you want to believe the legend surrounding the castrato Tenducci. He claimed to have had three, and kept one somehow hidden from the surgeon.

The cover of Sacrificium, shows the Bartoli?s head, with its moistened black curls falling onto the marbel shoulders classical nude, veined with cracks and streaked with carrera gray. The crotch of undetermined anatomical correctness is visbile at the bottom right corner. Most of the booklet is devoted to the ?Castrato Compendium? with entries ranging from biographies of famous singers to ?the procedure? to ?X-rated.? Among the prose are historic images of the operation and photos of castrating tools. And there are still more photo-shop nudes with a literally sculpted Bartoli, the most egregious of which comes on a page with block letters ?Evviva il coltellino!? (Long live the knife). Opera audiences would shout the phrase after a particularly compelling demonstration of the castrato?s art.  On this page the dot above the ?i? in ?Evviva? is placed itself right over the penis, the testicles bunching just below. That?s the closest we come to an anatomical confrontation with the emasculated singers of yore, whose stratospheric art came at such a cost. By having the grandiose and titillating consort so promiscuously in these pages the motivations for making Sacrificium appears ridiculous. Here is a case where music speaks much louder than words. I?m not here to quibble with excellent idea of cross-dressing with a Roman marble, ersatz or otherwise, but merely to take issue with the self-presentation of the diva as the Patron Saint of Fallen Testicles.

The drama and hype of our movie elites pales against the colorful world of 18th-century star culture. By comparison to the castrato?s down payment, a facelift is a small price to pay for fifteen more minutes of fame.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, ?All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London?, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at