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CASTRATI: In Search of a Lost Voice (BK)


This news item was provided by Sue Loder, Production Manager at BBC Bristol. (Editor)



Nick Clapton

The British Broadcasting Corporation is not without nerve, when required. On the 5th July 2006 they broadcast a television programme that features some beautifully-lit and composed close-up shots…. of castrated testicles. Nestling artistically in a bowl, they seem to glow softly, with tiny blood vessels tracing their pebble-like surfaces like spider tracks. Of course, this is all in the service of educating, informing and indeed entertaining their audience who have tuned in to see the latest in BBC4’s season about the “18th Century, the Century that Made Us” - a documentary produced by Francesca Kemp entitled simply “Castrati”. One hopes and assumes that the objects in question were acquired at some nearby butchers shop.

For those who might be unsure, the castrati were the singing marvels of their time - for about a hundred years they dominated the operatic stages of Europe with their amazing voices, and even more amazing salaries. Perhaps perversely, some were also reputed to have active sex lives, of a sort. But what, besides the exoticism, should attract a viewer to such a programme? The presenter is Nicholas Clapton, a countertenor and author of works on these legendary divos. “Well, it is true that most people are above all fascinated by "the operation", but I would also say that castrati are a wonderful typification of everything "exotic and irrational" (to quote Dr Johnson) in 18th-century Italian opera, and once introduced to their repertoire, many music lovers are delighted by the beauty of the repertoire which, except for Handel, is still largely unknown, and the amazing technical ability that these singers had.”

Anyone who has studied, or even just listened intently, to the great works of Handel, Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Hasse or a dozen other baroque composers, will be very well aware of the technical demands of the music, and how intensely trained and talented these singers must have been. However, what we do not, indeed cannot, know is exactly how they sounded, despite the odd, sadly incomplete, remnant of recorded voice still available. And that is the other thrust of this programme - a scientific and thoughtful attempt to re-create the lost sound of the castrati. There is good visual and endocrinological evidence to support the idea that the castrato sound was basically that of an unbroken voice in a frequently oversized adult male body. Yet whether this task is something that should be attempted can be left to the viewer to decide; the process is certainly fascinating to watch. One of the highlights on the musical side is undoubtedly a far-too-short appearance by the young American male soprano Michael Maniaci, whose extraordinarily beautiful and rare voice is, in this reviewer’s opinion, a far more acceptable modern-day substitute than any audiologically-correct but electronically-generated sound so far achieved by the scientists. In a way, I rather hope they never do succeed. Let the lost voice remain lost - and forever marvellous in our collective musical memory.

The broadcast is scheduled for screening on BBC 4 television on July 5th at 2100hrs.

Sue Loder

Editor's note: Two weeks after this broadcast, the Exeter Summer Festival programme includes Welsh mezzo-soprano Buddug Verona James' one-woman show Castradiva which celebrates the lives and music of Roman castrato singers around 1700. Details are here.


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)