Issue:  Vol. 46 / No. 34 / 25 August 2016

The unkindest cut


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If anyone actually thought about the matter, there would be fewer mysteries about the castrati. For more than two centuries, the high singing voices of pre-pubescent Italian boys were "preserved" (one could also say exploited) through castration of the youths, who happened to be in the wrong country at the wrong time. In Italy, its practitioners uniformly alleged that deliberate castration took place in the next province over, and today people don't want to think about it either, and so respond with beside-the-point questions, mostly about the adult singers' sexuality and gender. Were they gay? Intersex? By back-definition, they pretty much had to be genitally male, but more to the point, knowing only what we know about sexuality today, the answers to those questions must fall along the lines of "Probably some were" and "Possibly some were." The thinking is sloppy because most people really can't stand thinking about it.

Martha Feldman, author of The Castrato (University of California Press; just released in paperback), has thought about it, long, deeply, coolly and from all angles, as a scholar of her stature would. Her book, based on her prestigious Bloch Lectures, skirts sensationalism by letting history speak for itself, yet readers may find a good deal of it sensational. She dispenses with the clinical matter of "how was it done" (there were three ways) on page 7, which I'd quote except you'd stop reading.

The Church was behind it, of course. Papal injunctions against women onstage – women singing in public, for that matter – created unique job opportunities for male trebles. Only the Gordian Knot of Catholic theology could come up with the particular idea of "sacrifice" that underlay and "justified" the practice. That idea accounts for one of Feldman's densest chapters, and probably, the ghastly spectacle mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli propounded in her DVD project Sacrificium (Decca), one of her wackier ventures into a musicology that curiously lands her center stage.

Feldman's high-mindedness, by contrast, allows her to investigate this most easily sensationalized of topics with subtlety, taste and doses of scholarship that are not suffocatingly encyclopedic. For example, we learn without being anesthetized ourselves about the real-time downsides of gelding, including but hardly limited to osteoporosis in advanced age. Late life itself was not the concern then that it is today, and many of the boys, second sons not charged with carrying on a family line, were "sacrificed" for potentially lucrative employment – though it also bears remembering that even the fiendishly rigorous training the castrati underwent was no hedge against a voice gone sour.

Some castrati did become fabulously wealthy. Pride of place goes to accounts of the vocal superstars of the Baroque, the forerunners of Pavarotti, Inc. But their special qualities also made some other castrati ideal husbands (pets, really) for certain strata of aristocratic women. Feldman is not insensible to those who, for whatever reason, may also have been consigned to lowly church jobs outside the musical capitals, and worse.

Lucky as we are to live in an age with an abundance of countertenors, among them now some "sopranists," their sound is not the castrato's – a grim irony, as many of the specialist music directors that prompted their spawn are returning to the hiring of women with low voices in their place. But Feldman rightly focuses on the castrato voice, specifically its sound, unknowable as that is, since the only surviving recordings are of late-vintage castrati, and those at an advanced age. "Most of what we know about castrato voices is how little we know," Feldman begins her chapter "Red Hot Voice." But one of the true uses of scholarship is the making of educated guesses, and Feldman's are as educated as they get.

It's not news that castrato voices, at their best, were powerful and robust and bore almost no resemblance to the female voice. Feldman's chapter on the evidence, of all kinds, finds her at her best. A sample of her writing at its typically pungent is her declaration that "Use of voce di petto (chest voice), voce naturale (natural voice) and voce di testa (head voice) do not make up the whole marshland of naming and hearing registers."

Her keen ear is trained on the "fourth voice," as characterized by soprano Emma Calve describing the voice of castrato Domenico Mustafa: "He had an exquisite high tenor voice, truly angelic, neither masculine nor feminine in type – deep, subtle, poignant in its vibrant intensity. He had certain curious notes which he called his fourth voice – strange, sexless tones, superhuman, uncanny!" Feldman follows this well-known quotation with, "So far so good, but listen to [Mustafa's] answer," about the 10-year practice to achieve that sound. Feldman is as big-picture as it gets, but her laser-like focus on fascinating details (including in abundant, period visual illustrations) makes for endlessly fascinating reading.

Fourth voice; third sex. This being the 21st century, Feldman would not be allowed off the stage without her thoughts on the gender issues entailed, and she performs with no lack of head voice – if, there, more than elsewhere, to the adults-only seats. If you love singing there's every reason to read The Castrato, principally to take up Feldman's savory invitation to imagine how that sound would have gone out.

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