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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 March 2006, 09:24 GMT 10:24 UK
Singing in the pain
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

David Starkey
Starkey wields the "castratori"

Castrati were the singing superstars of the 18th Century. But, as a new exhibition illustrates, theirs is a tale with some modern parallels.

They look rather innocent in the museum display case - like a pair of old-fashioned shears. But these "castratori" were the implements used to castrate boys - who were making an irreversible sacrifice for their singing careers.

It might seem more like tears in their eyes than Stars in their Eyes, but this was the uncomfortable route to stardom taken by thousands of poor families who wanted their sons to become rich and famous musical stars.

In 17th and 18th Century Italy, about 4,000 boys were castrated each year, from the age of eight upwards, with the aim of making a fortune as opera singers and soloists with choirs in churches and royal palaces.

The castrato's voice was prized for its combination of high pitch and power - with the unbroken voice able to reach the high notes, but delivered with the strength of an adult male.

Composers were enthusiastic about the more complex musical possibilities of these voices - and music lovers turned these exotic figures into the pop idols of their day.

Female fans

"The best castrati were superstars, adored by female fans. Their voices had a tremendous emotional impact on the audiences of the day," said Sarah Bardwell, director of the Handel House Museum, which is staging the exhibition.

Farinelli
Castrato singers such as Farinelli were adored by female fans (Courtesy of the Royal College of Music)

These singers, known by nicknames such as Nicolini, Senesino and Farinelli, and often notoriously temperamental, travelled around the courts and capitals of Europe, pulling the crowds wherever they performed.

And as with today's celebrities, cartoonists lampooned their extravagant appearance, lavish lifestyles and their reputation for tantrums and stormy personalities.

Historian David Starkey draws several parallels with modern pop singers - not least the way young stars are the products of their parents' ambitions.

"The full horror of it is in that display case - those crude surgical instruments.

"But imagine his parents doing it. It's horribly like the child star of today, forced into this artificiality, forced through the shocking mill of Hollywood - to deliver that ineluctable, strange, desirable thing of star quality."

Mutilation

And he says that there are echoes in modern culture of this link between changing physical form as part of performance.

Alessandro Moreschi
Alessandro Moreschi was the only castrato to have his voice recorded

"We're very familiar in modern times with the association between mutilation and art - the idea of human beings changing themselves, the idea of the natural, physical body being something for you to transform," said Dr Starkey.

"This is the idea that art is something sublimely unnatural - and probably the supreme example of this is the art of the castrati.

"It is unnatural in every way, depending on an operation that is an abomination to every man, and yet if it worked, delivered something that, in the opinion of some of the greatest composers of all time, was the supreme human voice - founded on utter and supreme inhumanity."

And rather like many modern pop stars, he says that the androgyny and sexual ambiguity of the castrato singers was part of their appeal.

'Long live the knife!'

A further connection between the 18th Century singing stars and their modern equivalents is that the museum, in the Mayfair house where George Handel lived, was also where Jimi Hendrix lived in the 1960s.

Nicholas Clapton
Exhibition curator, Nicholas Clapton, says castrato sounded like "Pavarotti on helium"

Handel's era was the heyday of the castrati, but the fashion for their musical style faded - and increasingly women began to take the roles originally performed by the castrati.

The last premiere of an opera to feature a castrato was in 1824 - and the last performance of a castrato in London was in 1844. By 1870, the Italian government had banned such castration in the cause of art.

The last-ever performing castrato, and the only one recorded, was Alessandro Moreschi, who was supposedly applauded by crowds with the call "Eviva il coltello" ("Long live the knife!").

The voice of Moreschi, who had become conductor of the choir of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, was captured in 1902 by a gramophone company, when the singer was aged 44.

Described by the exhibition curator, Nicholas Clapton, as sounding like "Pavarotti on helium", these castrato voices had an eerie mix of power and innocence.

The vocal range was of a pre-pubescent boy, but the singer had the lung capacity of an adult - giving it a quality that was different from a woman, a boy or a male "falsetto" voice.

Rather grimly, only a small number of those boys who had been castrated became star performers, with the majority failing to make a career in music - even after this toughest of career choices.

Handel and the Castrati, Handel House Museum, 25 Brook Street, London W1K 4HB. Exhibition: 29 March to 1 October 2006.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

They should make it compulsory for all boy bands, maybe that will put most of them off forming in the first place.
Orange Juice, London

Ouch
Paul Quick, Chelmsford, Essex

Painful reading indeed, although the voice was superb.
Abid Hussain, Manchester

Never before has a news story made me physically recoil... what a sacrifice that must have been, you'd never catch me anywhere near that harsh looking device
Toby James, Ashford, Kent

Is it me or did that clip hurt?
Steve Jackson, Madrid

A real testament to the lengths that people will go to seek fame and fortune. Society has not changed that much.
John Lugo, London

Just shows you that we don't have it bad these days.
Billy Birkins, Coatbridge

There is something really eerie about that recording, it isn't pleasant at all, it lacks the warmth of a female vocal - to think that voice is coming from a 44 year old man is heartbreaking.
Chandra, London

Strangely moving recording. Moreschi's voice has a quite haunting quality.
Mark, Sheffield

Absolutely haunting. Sent chills down my spine. Very sad that such steps were taken to achieve this sound.
Claire, London

It makes your flesh creep to think that this could have happened in the name of art. Put in context though, with eunuchs, tail docking for dogs and genital mutilation, it shows that we humans have a fairly unique knack for extreme cruelty based simply on tradition. I raise a smile for the nice comparison with modern-day celebrities.
Steve Brereton, York

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