Castrati in Opera

This article is part two in a six part series on the rise and decline of the castrati in Western music. The six sections are:

Castration and Christianity
Castrati in Opera
The Castrati Advantage
The Castrati Effect
Decline
Modern Mythology and Unseen Influence

Castrati grew to become the most important singers in Baroque opera, always in great demand and commanding large sums of money for their performances.
Castrati grew to become the most important singers in Baroque opera, always in great demand and commanding large sums of money for their performances.

The Castrati in Opera

As musical tastes moved from polyphony to monody and operas began to be performed, castrati were initially no more favored than any other voice type: roles were assigned to whomever was available, regardless of their register.[1] As it progressed on to great success in the cities of Rome and Venice, however, opera fundamentally shifted from the general monodic stile rappresentativo invented by the Florentine camerata to the alternating recitative-aria schema infamous to Baroque opera. With this change early Baroque opera lost much of its clear dramatic aim and became a spectacle of fantasy, regularly presenting stock mythological stories with extravagant scenery, dazzling mechanical special effects, and sometimes even scenes boasting hundreds of extras and large exotic animals.[2] More like a circus than a Greek drama, Baroque opera aimed to astound and coloratura castrati and sopranos together dominated the art form with their virtuosic ornaments and divisions.[3]

By 1680, the leading and often the secondary roles were regularly cast as castrati rather than female sopranos or any other voice type.[4] The reasons for their rise to favor are many: Castrati already dominated church music, the main performance venue of the time and where, of course, female singing was prohibited.[5] Also, in a society where noblemen were considered above the common man, soprano (literally “above”) voices were considered nobler and superior to lower voices.[6] This preference also extended somewhat to women performers, but in addition to their ban in the Papal states,[7] young girl singers were difficult to train and therefore scarce: The only conservatory that accepted girls was the Ospidali in Venice (and there they performed behind screens and were discouraged to go into a professional performing career), and it was (for obvious reasons) more difficult for a female pupil to board with a teacher.[8] Castrati had the additional advantage of having much fewer distractions than any other voice type—their castration left them but one goal in life—and unlike all other singers, their early training in conservatories did not experience the incredibly disruptive event of puberty. Their light mechanism and exhaustive training allowed castrati to sing the fast and light music that was in style better than most other singers.

By the first few decades of the 18th century opera had become the main social focus in Italy and networks of theaters opened up from town to town. Soon Italian opera was popular in Germany and England (it never really was in France) and certain castrati opera singers became fabulously wealthy international stars. The success of these primo uomos enticed some young castrati from their church gigs, causing them to take frequent leaves for shows. Some retained their church appointments, but others broke precedence and began to make their livings solely from their opera engagements. Churches attempted to compete for the best castrati by raising their pay and showing great leniency with their stars’ frequent absences.[9]

Notes

[1] Roselli, Groves.

[2] Barbier, 69-70

[3] In Venice, because of an emphasis on eroticism, women performed on stage along side the castrati, both often playing transgender roles. (Rosselli, Groves.)

[4] Tenors were often cast as old men, kings, or even lecherous women! (Jack Sacher, Opera: A Listener’s Guide (New York: Schirmer, 1997),123.)

[5] Roselli, Acta Musicologica, 147.

[6] Roselli, Acta Musicologica, 148.

Falsettists, however, did not benefit in this practice since their voices were considered “fake”.

[7] John Rosselli. “Castrato,” Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed Oct. 12, 2005), <http://www.grovemusic.com>.

[8] Roselli, Acta Musicologica, 158; Barbier, 58.

[9] Roselli, Acta Musicologica, 164+.

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