The Castrato and His Wife, By Helen Berry

When stars really suffered for their art
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The Independent Culture

Guisto Ferdinando Tenducci (1735-1790) was an international superstar, the Pavarotti of his day. But his voice was no manly tenor. He sang soprano because his testicles had been removed – without anaesthetic of course – by an itinerant barber-surgeon, Pietro Massi, in the hills near Siena when the singer was 13 years old. Pig castrating shears were the usual instrument.

The operation was, according to Helen Berry, "shrouded in secrecy", because castration was highly illegal. The Church, nothing if not two faced, excommunicated anyone it caught castrating boys but that didn't stop it employing the victims in its choirs. In Tenducci's case, however, the truth came out for unusual reasons.

He eloped with, and married, Dorothea Maunsell in 1766. Fifteen years his junior, she came from a good Irish family. Tenducci met her through teaching her singing while appearing in Dublin. Her outraged father did all he could to stop the liaison and declare the marriage invalid.

Eventually, once Dorothea had met someone else (or several others) and borne at least one child, there was a divorce trial. The outcome depended on whether or not Tenducci's "amputation" could have left him with enough erectile function to have achieved penetrative sex. If not, the marriage was unconsummated and the grounds for annulment inarguable.

At the high profile trial witnesses were brought to testify to the "completeness" of Tenducci's castration, including the illiterate strong arm employed by Pietro Massi to hold down his victim/patient during the procedure. Grisly as the details are, it means that we have a reasonably accurate historical account of this particular operation.

Berry's compelling book, however, is about more than the horrors of castration. It offers real insights into the life and work of a highly talented performer who made continual journeys across Europe to sing in the concert halls and opera houses of London, Edinburgh, Paris, Rome, Dublin and others. It presents an entertaining glimpse into 18th-century showbusiness, although Tenducci didn't always play fair. He deserted more than one tour to evade pursuing debt collectors.

Although Berry's indignant judgments about 18th-century attitudes are a bit trite and revisionist in places, she makes some thoughtful links between the Catholic church's attitudes to sexuality in Tenducci's time and its stance today on, for example, gay marriage.