Kangmin Justin Kim reclaims Cherubino for the lads in The Marriage of Figaro
On Opera

Gelding: the pros

Bring back the castratos? Might as well

This article is taken from the July 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It’s not often you hear opera being praised for its progressive zeal. Quite the opposite, in fact: and it’s the people who run it who seem most obsessed with its reactionary infamy — as though it were a drunken uncle at a wedding, liable to do something appalling at any moment. 

Why else go to such lengths to bowdlerise it for their ideal — albeit sadly imaginary — audiences of global majoritarians, the easily offended and general unwashed? 

This happens in all sorts of amusing little ways. I fondly recall performances of HMS Pinafore at Holland Park where the management were so horrified by the idea of Little Buttercup’s gypsy plasma they made her say the line “the bumboat woman has mystic blood …” instead. 

To date, nobody has asked Carmen to sing “Love is a child of the travelling community”, but that’s only because her Guardian-disapproved “racial slur” is safely hidden away behind some impenetrable French words.

Ingeborg Bröcheler as Giulio and Anna Devin as Cleopatra

But in one way, at least, opera genuinely was streets ahead of the social justice curve. These days in the theatre it’s pretty much illegal to have stuff like a male person playing Richard III, so the country is beswaggered with all-female productions, the girls being all gruff and butch and hearty, like one of those old cross-dressed French and Saunders jobs. 

But opera got there first, as I was reminded while watching another female Giulio Cesare strutting around the stage recently, with a blithe disregard for such irrelevancies as sex assigned at birth.

The list of boys-sung-by-girls is distinguished: think of Mozart’s horny page-boy Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, or Verdi’s Oscar in Un ballo in maschera, both written for young women. And that’s before you even get to the big ones, like Romeo in Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, created for the superstar mezzo Giuditta Grisi, or Octavian in Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier.

Okay, so Strauss rather gives the game away by so obviously getting off on the idea of a female Octavian rolling around in the hay with his mistress, the field marshal’s young wife. 

It’s an old story: London audiences of 1735 also got massive kicks out of Handel’s transgressive Alcina, where (among much other fruitful sexual confusion) the hot witch’s nympho sister Morgana pretty much clambers aboard the hero’s fiancée, who for complicated reasons is trying to pass herself off as her own brother.

Men (as usual!) get the bum end of the deal, with only a few panto-crone roles (Poppea’s nurse Arnalta, etc) and the frog-girl Platée in Rameau’s comedy. But possibilities are increasing, though despite the rise of the male counter-tenor falsettist I’ve yet to have the pleasure of seeing a gent singing Carmen: it’s surely in the pipeline. 

A low-level sex war is rumbling on, as these chaps reclaim roles that women have come to regard as their own, like Handel’s Caesar, Ruggiero in Alcina and so on. 

Those, of course, were originally sung by castratos. Is it too much to hope for a comeback for these guys, given the trifecta of opera’s voice fetishism, the current craze for self-neutering, and news from the Hay Festival that emasculation is good for you? 

Handel’s Cesare (running all summer at Glyndebourne) and the rest certainly wouldn’t have existed without them: for Handel’s plutocrat backers the top priority was to poach superstar capon Francesco Bernardi, known as Il Senesino (“the little Siennese”, though like most castrati he was notably lanky), then locked into a contract in Dresden. A promise of £2,000 a year — over a quarter mill now — did the trick.

The odds of making the bigtime weren’t that great for the thousands of little Italian boys gelded every year (ad majorem Dei gloriam, as the Church put it, neatly sidestepping the general ban on hacking people about): they were a lot more likely to wind up in a church choir in some dusty bumblefuck — well, if they survived the procedure, as plenty didn’t. 

A simple snip was clearly possible, but it was better to fill the lad up with opium, put him in a hot bath, half throttle him and gently (but not too gently) press the testes until they sort of popped.

But it was definitely worth it. The op preserved the purity of a boy’s singing voice, adding the power, control and musicianship of an adult: while the vocal cords stopped growing, the body, lungs and resonating chambers didn’t. 

It was the perfect, godlike voice: after much training (including teaching them not to make grotesque faces while singing, something that might be usefully reintroduced), the best could hold a note for a whole minute of crescendo and decrescendo, and execute thrilling vocal aerobatics over three octaves up to the mythic high C — all without the frightful gargling sounds women make (or the etiolated Anglican cooing of counter-tenors). 

There were other advantages too: those who freakishly maintained some kind of functioning equipment downstairs were much in demand, while their unusual body development led to other career opportunities, with open-minded fellows like Casanova liking their nice round hips and bottoms, and making good use of their tits.

Just a mad dream, I suppose. But opera, in common with other omelettes, surely requires the occasional sacrifice of eggs.

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