The worst thing about being a male eunuch is the rehearsals. Castrati must spend hours on pre-warm-ups, warm-ups, travel to and from various churches and halls. The adherence to a busy schedule and strict routine is maddening.
You are supposed to maintain the passion to be the best, a drive to succeed, push for excellence, all when you don’t have the balls for it.
To us, the gift of a wondrous pre-pubescent voice merely becomes a forgettable byproduct. Like most in the possession of a natural gift, we learn to unlearn its virtues. Most of us even forget how lovely we sound to others, as we spend our time bitching about the choirmaster’s demands. Tuneless and without gaiety, we complain to each other and bond on this alone. The one time we feel in harmony.
Ernesto Tomasini, long past his glory days of song, came to our local church once to deliver a motivational speech. From the pulpit in a now bland alto he confessed to us confused pre-teens, “I regret not having been castrated, I would have perfectly happily given up my masculinity for my art.” We didn’t know whether he was making a morbid joke or was just that deluded in his fanaticism for the castrati of old.
Your masculinity, dear Ernesto, is exactly what drives you to make such entitled statements.
Granted, as he left the stage we shot daggers at him, but no one went as far as to cut him down to size.
In contemporary times, we are a rare bunch. Some of us are still deliberately created. A fanatic father who fancied his historical predecessors (in name only) constructing the end of a lineage. Men bearing the famous eunuch names of Broschi, Moreschi or Majorano.
These contemporary men who wished to bring a classic artist into the world; a martyr class for the arts. More assured than dollars and time spent on a child at a piano who may just end up chasing girls, they proceeded with the sharpest tutelage.
No wonder most of us possessed such an acerbic wit.
The lack of proper endocrinological function in these castrated boys would lead to some physiological changes that assisted our renowned sound. The rib cage would bulge, unmarred by the hardening of bone that comes from correct androgen hormonal balance, allowing extended notes to be held. The vocal cords would remain stunted in their growth, halting the formation of an adult male. It was an imperfect science of crafting the perfect singer’s body.
Others, like myself, were erected by accident.
St. Paul, the most famous of Apostles, was initially a persecutor of Christians… before seeing the light of how fun organisational bureaucracy could be. In his direct angry letters to the Corinthians, he clearly outlines an edict for the ages, mulier taceat in ecclesia, “women should be silent in church.”
Under a roof as devoutly splendid as the Sistine Chapel’s, adhering to the big daddy Apostle Paul was a must. So up until 2017, only males were to sing in the church’s choirs to preserve piety in the performance. But who was going to nail those vocal ranges of a contralto or mezzo-soprano that women did so deftly?
By the 1600s, we were essential to the success of any opera in Italy. Without us, you wouldn’t even get a write up in the local paper. They needed a famous face, puffy and pious, glossed in makeup, staring back from the poster. An Italian opera without a boy’s bloated frame clad in women’s dress, gangly limbs flopping alongside was an omission of the finest treasure of all. Yes, we were known to possess an inhuman artistic wonder no other could compare to.
One of the other boy’s fathers, a proud Italian-Australian man said to me once. ‘You are the lucky ones! People are automatically moved when you sing!’
He, of course, was referring to ancient times when we were lauded in opera seria for our especial voice. ‘You deliver visions of heroic virtue!’ He continued, gesticulating with pinched fingers.
He didn’t mention how we were mocked openly for our odd appearance and uneducated stage presence. The latter felt the only thing I knew to be automatic.
Over time we became more of a myth to those not in the know, as the practice was becoming unfavourable in a more humane world. Like messa di voce, where a note begins very softly and subtle, rises to an orgasmic climax and then fades away into obscurity, thus was our path.
By the 1800s in Italy, though publicly we were paraded for our virtuous voices, the creation of our lucky caste was hidden from even the most erudite private eye.
The most respected musicologist of the times, Charles Burnley writes:
“I enquired throughout Italy at what place boys were chiefly qualified for singing by castration, but could get no certain intelligence.”
Everyone passed the buck it seemed. They wanted the beauty without the barbarism.
He goes on to lament the fact that the castration didn’t even lead to an angelic voice most the time, ‘at least without one sufficient to compensate such loss.’ The practice made worse to him by the fact he found many cases where the boys simply sounded awful, their voice a moot point.
Thanks Uncle Charlie, I’ll stay in tune for you.
So here I drive, in 2020, (a year that rings like a sci-fi future has arrived) to an audition, myself part science experiment, partly fiction.
Today I will audition for a role in Il pomo d’oro, ‘The Golden Apple’, to compensate for the lack of one in my throat. I will try for the part of l’Elemento Del Foco, ‘the Element of Fire’, to mock the tiny ember of my own desire.
As well as my own castrati brethren, I will compete against the Jarousskys of the world, sopranists and countertenors mimicking our sacrifice. Men with their vas deferens still intact who have perfected the art of imitation of what came so unnaturally to us.
My Father’s words ring truer than ever. I can picture him as he says it. A scrapbook clipping that appears every time I utilise my talent. I watch him as a 7-year-old, as he drags on a cigarette and tries to re-order a deck of bent cards by suit. As much interested in unique metaphors as praise, he scowls at me.
‘Play the cards you’re dealt, boy.’
A tired cliche, fit for all the tired tropes I live.
I hope I get the part. I’ll sing my heart out for my Father, his drunken wrist & cruel blade.
What else am I gonna do with this gift?