Striking a falsetto note - Books - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

Striking a falsetto note

Jonathan Sale winces at two studies of 'sopranists'

The World of the Castrati - The History of an Extraordinary Operatic Phenomenon by Patrick Barbier, Souvenir Press, pounds 18.99 Opera in the Flesh - Sexuality in Operatic Performance by Sam Abel, Westview Press, pounds 7

"Cannons without balls," was how a French wag put it. Like being castrated, listening to castrati sing was an acquired taste. "Nor do I dote of [sic] the Eunuchs,'' growled Pepys after first hearing the high, limpid notes of two singers whose private parts had been customised at an early age.

Others, though, did dote on the tall, plump men with voices frozen in a boyish purity. The cry of "Evviva il coltello!'' (Long live the knife!) was the Italian opera-goer's tribute to a castrato taking a triumphant curtain-call.

Women flung themselves on these sexless sex symbols - well, not quite sexless. The removal of the testicles did not prevent some form of activity. "Sopranists'' might not have been hung like a horse, but they were not necessarily gelded like a gelding. In the film Farinelli, Il Castrate the great singer lures a woman into bed but rolls over and delegates the crucial part to his brother; in fact, although many "half-men'' may have been firing blanks, they were still firing.

What they couldn't do was father children. Castration in Europe has been so widespread that it is a wonder the Continent is populated at all. The Greeks and Romans traded in castrated captives who were seen as more docile than the untrimmed variety. Some religious cults demanded this supreme sacrifice from their priests. The Middle Ages used the practice as a form of torture and, on the principle of an eye for an eye, as a punishment for rape.

It gets worse. (The World of the Castrati is, you will gather, a book that will drive its male readers to sit with legs crossed protectively over their tender parts). Like female circumcision today, castration was allegedly for the good of the victim. In the ultimate example of invasive surgery, it was carried out as a cure for - and prevention of - wholly unrelated conditions such as leprosy. The mutilation had a mortality rate of up to 80 per cent; most would prefer to take their chance as a leper and lose other extremities first.

Not that they had much choice about it. Most castrati came from poor families, for whom a son with a good career in a church choir or opera was an enormous financial boon. The talent scout for the musical academies would also, as it were, take his cut. The theory was that (a) the operation was essential ("There's a lot of leprosy about at this time of year, son") and (b) the boy gave his permission for the loss of his optional extras ("Sign here, my lad"). In just one French diocese, more than 500 French lads were castrated in 1676 alone. Out of seven sons in one Italian family, four were emasculated. In Naples, any peasant with four sons was allowed to have one of them "rounded off'' to serve the Church - whoops, I mean for medical reasons.

It even took place by mistake, instead of another (minor) operation. Apologising to the parents, who had planned a military career for their son, the doctor would explain that they were losing a general but gaining a prima donna.

An eight-year-old undergoing the treatment never received anaesthetics; he might be drugged with opium or half-throttled to knock him out briefly. With luck, he would have a surgeon - without luck a village barber ("Anything off for the weekend, sir?"). An incision was made in the groin, the testicles were pulled out and sliced off.

Pope Clement VIII authorised castration "for the glory of God''. If he is not in Hell now, preferably with an inclement pitchfork piercing his private parts, there is something amiss with the Infernal entry qualifications.

Other popes treated the operation with hostility, and often hypocrisy. If a musical kid hobbled in with a sick note from his doctor to explain his condition, why shouldn't the Papal Chapel snap him up? Pope Innocent XI innocently banned women from appearing on stage - and then wondered why all these testosterone-free chaps with high-pitched voices were taking their place.

Fortunately women were unbanned in 1798. Musical schools were soon forbidden to let in any more lads who had been castrated, whether from alleged leprosy or otherwise. Handel had used the songbird Senesino in over 20 of his works; but gradually composers began writing for more perfectly formed singers. Even so, sopranists were still rattling the rafters for a further century.

It is a strange topic, from which musical historians have for understandable reasons held back. Patrick Barbier, a French professor, has nearly written a good book - but it is emasculated by wobbly writing and translation.

Sam Abel, an American assistant professor, also needs a decent translator. He has written parts of Opera in the Flesh in some post- modern dialect which requires a Berlitz course to understand it. He quotes another writer quoting Roland Barthes, which is a very bad sign. Yet when he writes in English, he produces a magnificent study of how opera fans like him get off on musical climaxes.

Since the subtitle of this "Queer Critique'' is Sexuality in Operatic Performance, he could be expected to get his underpants in a twist over castrati - and indeed he does. He is obsessed by the 1904 recordings of Alessandro Moreschi, director of the Sistine Chapel choir and the last known castrato: "This voice will not let me not listen to it.''

He is haunted by "the image of a solitary, wounded body singing its glory and its pain from the depths of its absent vitals" - a wonderful tribute to those who served high art and the Church because of a low trick played upon them as children.

For centuries the castrati were both lionised ("one God, one Farinelli'') and denigrated ("the cartoonist Cruikshank featured a 'Seigneur Nonballenas' ''), and sometimes both at the same time, by refined folk who did not wish to be too specific about the scrotally challenged singers. "My goodness,'' enthused one French lady while the lark-like Bertildo was trilling a psalm in the royal chapel, "how well this cripple is singing.''

This was a false, not to mention falsetto, note: but "cripples'' is what the sopranists became. It was enough to give anyone a castration complex.

Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week