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.