Gone and Deeply Missed Today

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Ralph
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Gone and Deeply Missed Today

Post by Ralph » Tue Jul 26, 2005 5:39 am

Why castrati were pop stars of their time
By Louise Jury, Arts Correspondent
Published: 26 July 2005

Many were great artists, some were great lovers, and scandal seemed to follow them everywhere when they were at the peak of their fame. But the very thought of the operatic castrati today is enough to make a grown man wince.

A new exhibition, however, is hoping to overcome the public's squeamishness on the subject by telling the stories of the band of castrati singers who worked for the composer George Frideric Handel.

It will show that for all the pain caused in the 17th and 18th centuries, when up to 4,000 boys a year were castrated in the service of art, the rewards could be immense. They earned fortunes far in excess of what Handel himself earned and more than other singers of the time.

One castrato, Caffarelli, a notoriously difficult man to work with, accumulated sufficient wealth to buy himself an Italian dukedom on retirement.

They were like the pop stars of today, according to Sarah Bardwell, director of the Handel House Museum in London, which is mounting the show next March. "The best castrati were superstars, admired by audiences, appreciated by composers and adored by female fans," she said. "Their voices had a tremendous emotional impact on the audiences of the day. In some ways, pop singers like Chris Martin of Coldplay or Tom Chaplin of Keane are the castrati of today. They, too, have legions of fans and can use the highest register of their voices to deliver songs that go straight to the heart."

So famous were the castrati of Handel's time that, while there were some cartoons which mocked them, many more engravings, paintings and accounts of their performances survive as testimony to their hero status.

The legendary Italian lover Casanova famously fell in love with a castrato, although the object of his attentions actually proved to be a woman in disguise.

The seven who worked regularly for Handel were Senesino, Nicolini, Bernacchi, Carestini, Caffarelli, Conti and Guadagni.

Guilio Cesare, which is being performed at Glyndebourne, was written for Senesino, whose likeness was captured in an oil painting, which will be on show at the exhibition.

The original scores of pieces they sang will be among the items at the museum in Mayfair, alongside surgical instruments used to perform the castrations.

Nicholas Clapton, the show's curator and author of a biography of the last known castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, said castration usually took place when boys were eight or nine. They were placed in a warm bath and drugged with drink and opium.

Castration before puberty prevented a boy's larynx from being fully transformed by the normal physiological effects of puberty. As a consequence, the boys retained the vocal range of prepubescence and developed into adulthood in a unique way.

The result was a quality of voice unknown today when the parts are normally sung by women or by countertenors. Clues to the castrati sound survive in a single recording, dating from 1902, of Moreschi, which visitors will be able to listen to during the exhibition.

Many were great artists, some were great lovers, and scandal seemed to follow them everywhere when they were at the peak of their fame. But the very thought of the operatic castrati today is enough to make a grown man wince.

A new exhibition, however, is hoping to overcome the public's squeamishness on the subject by telling the stories of the band of castrati singers who worked for the composer George Frideric Handel.

It will show that for all the pain caused in the 17th and 18th centuries, when up to 4,000 boys a year were castrated in the service of art, the rewards could be immense. They earned fortunes far in excess of what Handel himself earned and more than other singers of the time.

One castrato, Caffarelli, a notoriously difficult man to work with, accumulated sufficient wealth to buy himself an Italian dukedom on retirement.

They were like the pop stars of today, according to Sarah Bardwell, director of the Handel House Museum in London, which is mounting the show next March. "The best castrati were superstars, admired by audiences, appreciated by composers and adored by female fans," she said. "Their voices had a tremendous emotional impact on the audiences of the day. In some ways, pop singers like Chris Martin of Coldplay or Tom Chaplin of Keane are the castrati of today. They, too, have legions of fans and can use the highest register of their voices to deliver songs that go straight to the heart."

So famous were the castrati of Handel's time that, while there were some cartoons which mocked them, many more engravings, paintings and accounts of their performances survive as testimony to their hero status.

The legendary Italian lover Casanova famously fell in love with a castrato, although the object of his attentions actually proved to be a woman in disguise.

The seven who worked regularly for Handel were Senesino, Nicolini, Bernacchi, Carestini, Caffarelli, Conti and Guadagni.

Guilio Cesare, which is being performed at Glyndebourne, was written for Senesino, whose likeness was captured in an oil painting, which will be on show at the exhibition.

The original scores of pieces they sang will be among the items at the museum in Mayfair, alongside surgical instruments used to perform the castrations.

Nicholas Clapton, the show's curator and author of a biography of the last known castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, said castration usually took place when boys were eight or nine. They were placed in a warm bath and drugged with drink and opium.

Castration before puberty prevented a boy's larynx from being fully transformed by the normal physiological effects of puberty. As a consequence, the boys retained the vocal range of prepubescence and developed into adulthood in a unique way.

The result was a quality of voice unknown today when the parts are normally sung by women or by countertenors. Clues to the castrati sound survive in a single recording, dating from 1902, of Moreschi, which visitors will be able to listen to during the exhibition.
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Post by Lance » Tue Jul 26, 2005 8:59 am

One wonders if there might be some "volunteers" to bring back this facet of the past. Not me, as much as I love the past! I'll simply enjoy the famous Moreschi recordings.
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Post by Allen » Tue Jul 26, 2005 8:59 am

Has anyone read the novel "Cry to Heaven" by Anne Rice?

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/de ... s&n=507846

A very, very good book about castrati singers. Filled with historical details. Most enjoyable.

Ralph
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Post by Ralph » Tue Jul 26, 2005 9:34 am

Lance wrote:One wonders if there might be some "volunteers" to bring back this facet of the past. Not me, as much as I love the past! I'll simply enjoy the famous Moreschi recordings.
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Maybe CMG should offer a prize for someone willing to become a castrati. Think of the publicity we'd get! :)
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Post by Corlyss_D » Tue Jul 26, 2005 1:11 pm

Allen wrote:Has anyone read the novel "Cry to Heaven" by Anne Rice?

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/de ... s&n=507846

A very, very good book about castrati singers. Filled with historical details. Most enjoyable.
Thanks, Allen. I never heard of it but I'll check it out.
Last edited by Corlyss_D on Tue Jul 26, 2005 6:19 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Ralph
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Post by Ralph » Tue Jul 26, 2005 1:14 pm

Corlyss_D wrote:
Allen wrote:Has anyone read the novel "Cry to Heaven" by Anne Rice?

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/de ... s&n=507846

A very, very good book about castrati singers. Filled with historical details. Most enjoyable.
Thanks, Allen. I never heard of it but I'll check it out.
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Me too! Thanks.
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Auntie Lynn
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Post by Auntie Lynn » Tue Jul 26, 2005 8:46 pm

I am reminded of Voltaire's observation about castrati: "About a third of them died, about a third became fabulous singers and the rest became Heads of State..."

Brendan

Post by Brendan » Tue Jul 26, 2005 9:14 pm

I keep saying castrati were but the precursors to the new era of bio-mechanized pre-installed instrumentation of the future. Holes in the (extended and metallic) nose insead of a flute, piano four-hands played by one person, valves in the bowels for trumpeting or bassooning and electronic synthesizers implanted in the throat or ears. I expect to see a one-person orchestra doing Mahler's 8th within two decades.

But no one seems excited about the prospect. Can't imagine why.

Ralph
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Post by Ralph » Tue Jul 26, 2005 9:31 pm

Brendan wrote:I keep saying castrati were but the precursors to the new era of bio-mechanized pre-installed instrumentation of the future. Holes in the (extended and metallic) nose insead of a flute, piano four-hands played by one person, valves in the bowels for trumpeting or bassooning and electronic synthesizers implanted in the throat or ears. I expect to see a one-person orchestra doing Mahler's 8th within two decades.

But no one seems excited about the prospect. Can't imagine why.
*****

Oh, we had that last season at Carnegie Hall. He was very good.
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