Secrets of the Castrati: Carlo Farinelli
On the 24th of January 1705, legendary 18th century castrato opera singer Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi, known by the stage name Farinelli was born in Andria (Apulia) into a family of musicians. In his career, he used the surname of his benefactors, the brothers Farina. Considered one of the greatest performers in the history of opera, his voice was capable of achieving seven or eight notes more than a standard performer. Aged 15, he made his debut in Porpora’s serenata Angelica in Rome. Farinelli’s reputation extended from Italy to Vienna and London, and he was venerated for his pure, powerful, proficient voice, his skill in fancy vocal bravado and musical expression. In Spain, he famously sang the same songs every night for nearly 10 years to lighten king Philip V’s depression. After his death, he stayed on in Spain as an impresario and public figure, but returned to retire in Italy as a wealthy man. He died in Bologna at the age of 77.
A castrato (It.m, pl.: castrati) is a type of classical male singing voice which can achieve the levels of soprano, mezzo-soprano, or contralto. This grade of performance was reached by pre-pubescent castration or it could result from an endocrinological deviation of a male which means that he could not reach sexual maturity at all in his lifetime. By carrying out the controversial procedure before puberty, a boy’s larynx would not be able to mature. Many boys in the past centuries came from poor backgrounds and were castrated by their families in the hope that they would bring financial gain to their parents, and this was the case with Farinelli too, once his otherwise well-off family reached a material deadend. Based on the findings of modern endocrinology, the castrati’s sexual prowess was exaggerated, as the castrati were lacking vital hormones which meant that their remaining genitalia would not develop properly in size. “Emasculating a boy before puberty causes primary hypogonadism, a condition characterized by a number of abnormalities in development as adulthood is reached. These include an infantile penis; an underdeveloped prostate; a lack of beard growth; a lack of the usual male distribution of axillary hair and of hair on the extremities; pubic hair distributed in the female instead of the male pattern; more developed subcutaneous fat than in the normal male, with fat deposits localized in the hips, buttocks, and breast areas (some castrati developed large fatty breasts that looked like female breasts); fatty deposits that occurred sometimes in the lateral portions of the eyelids, creating facial distortions; and skin that often appeared swollen and wrinkled.”(Enid Rhodes Peschel and Richard E. Peschel, ‘Society Medical Insights into the Castrati’, American Scientist, Vol. 75, No. 6, November-December 1987).
Because of their distinctive appearance and the ban marriage, they were more or less on the periphery of society, except for their excellence in a musical context. Generally,there was a lot of stigma surrounding castrati. As their bodies grew, their lack of testosterone also meant that their joints did not harden in the usual manner. So their limbs got unnaturally long, as did the bones of their ribs. Critics mocked them for their histrionics, weird appearance and bad acting. In his 1755 Reflections upon theatrical expression in tragedy, Roger Pickering wrote about Farinelli’s visit to London: “Farinelli drew every Body to the Haymarket. What a Pipe! What Modulation! What Extasy to the Ear! But, Heavens! What Clumsiness! What Stupidity! What Offence to the Eye! Reader, if of the City, thou mayest probably have seen in the Fields of Islington or Mile-End or, If thou art in the environs of St James’, thou must have observed in the Park with what Ease and Agility a cow, heavy with calf, has rose up at the command of the milkwoman’s foot: thus from the mossy bank sprang the DIVINE FARINELLI.” This was mockery at its harshest, highlighting the stark contrast between the voice and the appearance of the famous singer.
However, at the same time, people were magnetically attracted to these extravagant personages. In The Angel’s Cry: Beyond the Pleasure Principle in Opera, Michel Poizat, by training a Lacanian psychoanalyst, based an entire book on the metaphor of the phallic voice, trying to make light of the sexualisation of the castrati: “In this interpretation, the purity of the “vocal object,” its power to generate ecstasy, depends on ‘the autonomy of the voice . .. detached from its usual functions of signification, communication, and the marking of gender difference.’ (…) That is, the castrato created the greatest jouissance because his singing transmitted the least information, in terms of both language and sex. (…) against the background of early modern views of sexuality, the castrato appears not as the asexual creature sometimes implied today, but as a supernatural manifestation of a widely held erotic ideal. Recent work in the history of sexuality has shown the prevalence in the early modern period of the “one-sex” model, in which the distinction between male and female is quantitative (with respect to “vital heat”) rather than qualitative. (…) castrati were prized at least in part for their unique physicality, their spectacularly exaggerated embodiment of the ideal lover. ” (Roger Freitas, ‘The Eroticism of Emasculation: Confronting the Baroque Body of the Castrato’, The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 20, No. 2, Spring 2003).
This erotic attraction is underlined by Casanova, who wrote of his inexplicable pull towards one of Cardinal Borghese’s favourite gay castrati lovers, even as he referred to him in no complimentary terms: “his breast was as beautiful as any woman’s; it was the monster’s chiefest charm. However well one knew the fellow’s natural sex, as soon as one looked at his breast, one felt all aglow and quite madly amourous of him. To feel nothing, one would have to be as cold and impassive as a German…”(J. Casanova. 1961. The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt, trans. A. Machen, vol. 2, p. 1303. Dover.) A wonderfully prejudiced compliment, fit for the unscrupulous expert of seduction!