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The Castrato

Reflections on Natures and Kinds

Martha Feldman (Author)

Available worldwide

Hardcover, 496 pages
ISBN: 9780520279490
February 2015
$60.00, £47.00
Other Formats Available:
The Castrato is a nuanced exploration of why innumerable boys were castrated for singing between the mid-sixteenth and late-nineteenth centuries. It shows that the entire foundation of Western classical singing, culminating in bel canto, was birthed from an unlikely and historically unique set of desires, public and private, aesthetic, economic, and political. In Italy, castration for singing was understood through the lens of Catholic blood sacrifice as expressed in idioms of offering and renunciation and, paradoxically, in satire, verbal abuse, and even the symbolism of the castrato’s comic cousin Pulcinella. Sacrifice in turn was inseparable from the system of patriarchy—involving teachers, patrons, colleagues, and relatives—whereby castrated males were produced not as nonmen, as often thought nowadays, but as idealized males. Yet what captivated audiences and composers—from Cavalli and Pergolesi to Handel, Mozart, and Rossini—were the extraordinary capacities of castrato voices, a phenomenon ultimately unsettled by Enlightenment morality. Although the castrati failed to survive, their musicality and vocality have persisted long past their literal demise.
Note on Textual Transcription, Translations, Lexicon, and Musical Nomenclature

PART ONE. Reproduction
1. Of Strange Births and Comic Kin
Appendix to Chapter 1
2. The Man Who Pretended to Be Who He Was

3. Red Hot Voice
4. Castrato De Luxe

PART THREE. Half-light
5. Cold Man, Money Man, Big Man Too
6. Shadow Voices, Castrato and Non

List of Illustrations
Martha Feldman is Mabel Green Myers Professor of Music, Romance Languages, and Literatures and the Humanities at the University of Chicago. She is the author of City Culture and the Madrigal at Venice and Opera and Sovereignty: Transforming Myths in Eighteenth-Century Italy and coeditor of The Courtesan’s Arts.
"Rich in scholarship and filled with subtle analysis." —Colm Tóibín London Review of Books
"This is a remarkable book. . . . An impressive achievement."—Nicholas Clapton Early Music
"Meticulously researched, beautifully written and richly illustrated . . . In this book, as erudite as it is gripping, there is little to criticize."—Cultural History
"Feldman's high-mindedness . . . allows her to investigate this most easily sensationalized of topics with subtlety, taste and doses of scholarship that are not suffocatingly encyclopedic. . . . If you love singing there's every reason to read The Castrato."—Tim Pfaff The Bay Area Reporter
"Working in from the broadest anthropological reflections to the most minute points of physiology and endocrinology—by way of musical and social history, the theory and practice of singing, the insights of three centuries’ worth of philosophers and psychologists, all illustrated with the rarest pictures and recordings—The Castrato is a scholarly and literary feast." —Richard Taruskin, University of California, Berkeley, and author of The Oxford History of Western Music

"After centuries of anxious myth-making, finally we have a book about the castrati that we can trust, learn from, and enjoy. Martha Feldman has given us a meditation as thought-provoking as it is wide-ranging. After this book, the topic will never be quite the same: with Feldman's imagination to guide us, the castrato's resonances, both musical and more broadly cultural, will linger in the memory."—Roger Parker, coauthor of A History of Opera

Otto Kinkeldey Award, American Musicological Society

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1. Alessandro Moreschi singing the beginning of Gounod's Ave Maria (Meditation on J.S. Bach's Prelude in C), with unidentified pianist. Recorded by the Gramophone and Typewriter Company at the Vatican Palace, April 11, 1904. Matrix no. 2187h, catalogue no. 54777. Remastered on Alessandro Moreschi: The Complete Recordings (Wadhurst, E. Sussex, England: Opal Records, 1984).

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2. Nellie Melba singing the beginning of Gounod's Ave Maria, with Landon Ronald, piano, and Jan Kubelik, violin. Recorded the Gramophone and Typewriter Company in London, October 20, 1904. Matrix number 401c, catalogue no. 03033. Remastered on Nellie Melba (1861-1931): The Complete Gramophone Company Recordings, Vol. 1 (Naxos Historical, 2002).

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3. Adelina Patti singing the beginning of Gounod's Ave Maria, with Landon Ronald, piano, and Marianne Eisler, violin. Recorded by the Gramophone and Typewriter Company, Craig-y-Nos Castle, Wales, December 1905; first published on International Record Collectors' Club (IRCC). Matrix number 547f. Remastered on The Complete Adelina Patti and Victor Maurel, 2 CDs (Marston 52011-2), CD 1. Patti performs the piece in F major instead of the composer's key of G.

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4. Emma Eames singing the beginning of Gounod's Ave Maria, with violoncello obbligato by Josef Hollman. Originally recorded by Victor Records, February 1, 1906. Matrix number c 3076-1, catalogue no. 85098. Remastered on Emma Eames, The Complete Victor Recordings, 1905-11, 2 CDs (Romophone 1993), CD 1.

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5. Eugenia Burzio singing the beginning of Gounod's Ave Maria, violin and piano accompanists unknown. Recorded for Columbia in Milan between 1912 and 1916. Matrix number 11052, catalogue no. D8076. Remastered on Eugenia Burzio, Verismo Soprano: Complete Recorded Operatic Repertoire, produced by Scott Kessler and Ward (Marston, 1999).

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9. Birgit Nilsson and Jussi Boerling, excerpt from "In questa reggia" from Puccini, Turandot, recorded July 3-11, 1959 at the Rome Opera House, Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Erich Leinsdorf, conductor. Remastered on RCA Victor Red Seal, distributed by BMG (2000).

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10. Eugène De Creus, example of a messa di voce: excerpt from the final cadenza of "Loin de son amie" from Halévy, La juive, recorded September 26, 1913 by the French branch of The Gramophone Company Ltd. (previously The Gramophone and Typewriter Company, later His Master's Voice). Matrix number 2756ah, original issue number 4-32348. Studio orchestra and un-named conductor. Reissued on The Golden Age of Opera in France, Symposium Records, catalogue no. 1331 (East Barnet, Hertfordshire, England, 2005).

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11. Marilyn Horne, example of a messa di voce: excerpt from the beginning of "Dove sei, amato bene" from Handel, Rodelinda, recorded October 13, 1967 in the Sofiensaal (Vienna) by Decca, originally published 1968 as an LP entitled "Bach and Handel Arias." Henry Lewis, conductor; "Vienna Cantata Orchestra"

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12. Tito Schipa, example of a diminuendo: excerpt from "Una furtiva lagrima," from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, recorded on December 13, 1929 by His Master's Voice. Matrix no. CM 1335, HMV, catalogue no. DB3461 Remastered on Tito Schipa, 1889-1965 (Nimbus, 1990), NI 7813.

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14. Patricia Barber, "Mourning Grace," composed by Patricia Barber on a poem by Maya Angelou, from Café Blue (Premonition Records, 1994). At the higher octave the ascending scale moves into suprafalsetto, also called fourth voice or whistle tone.

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15. Emma Calvé singing Félicien David's "Charmant oiseau" from La perle du Brésil. Matrix numbers 2334, 2343, catalogue 0276. Recorded by Pathé, Hill-and-Dale recording, Paris 1920). Remastered on Emma Calvé, The Complete 1902 GT, 1920 Pathé, and "Mapleson Cylinder" Recordings (Marston, 1998), CD 1.

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17. Quartetto Vocale Romano Gabrielli-Gentili singing Capocci's "Cor meum, et caro mea," a Communion text sung with organ accompaniment for a recording made in the United States in 1919 as part of the Lyric Record series of the Lyraphone Company.

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18. Rosa Ponselle singing an excerpt from Rossini's "Bel raggio lusinghier" from Semiramide. Originally broadcast in Los Angeles on The General Motors Hour, May 24, 1936, orchestra conducted by Erno Rapee. Remastered on Rosa Ponselle on the Air, 1936-1937, vol. 2, CD 1 (Marston, 2000).

6. Vocal folds in slow motion, from UCDavis Health System, The Voice and Swallowing Center.

7. View of laryngeal cartilages from Acland's DVD Atlas of Human Anatomy by Robert D. Acland, 6 vols. (Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams Wilkins, 2004), vol. 4, "The Head and Neck, Part 1."

8. Strobe made by ENTs Dr. Daniel Martin and Dr. Jacquelynne Corey at the University of Chicago Medical Center, with tenor Harold Olivey singing in falsetto. Note that the vocal folds do not make full body contact.

13. Consonant M sung during an MRI. From Robert Caldwell and Joan Wall, The Singer's Voice: Complete Set, 5 DVDs (Redmond, WA: Caldwell Publishing, 1991-93), disc 3. Video from an MRI taken of a soprano who sings the letter M with a visibly lowered palate. The singer's mouth is closed so the air fails to escape from her mouth, instead exiting from her nose.

16. Beniamino Gigli, the golden-voiced tenor who reigned supreme at the Metropolitan in the 1920s, compares a free-floating glottis with a lowered, stiff one at a singing lesson for a German student. From the 1936 film Du bist mein Gluck. Filmed in 35mm, the picture was directed by Karl Heinz Martin, written by Lotte Neumann and Walter Wassermann, and produced by Bavarian Film, with sound mix by Tobis-Klangfilm.

This video can be viewed on YouTube at

19. Excerpt of Maria Callas singing Rossini's "Una voce poco fa" from Il barbiere di Siviglia the live Paris concert at the Palais Garnier (Théâtre National de l'Opéra), 19 December 1958, with the Orchestre et Choeurs du Théâtre National de l'Opéra, conducted by Georges Sebastian. Released on DVD as La Callas... toujours (INA on EMI Classics, 2001).

This video can be viewed on YouTube at

20. Excerpt of Maria Callas singing Rossini's "Una voce poco fa" from Il barbiere di Siviglia the live Paris concert at the Palais Garnier (Théâtre National de l'Opéra), 19 December 1958, with the Orchestre et Choeurs du Théâtre National de l'Opéra, conducted by Georges Sebastian. Released on DVD as La Callas... toujours (INA on EMI Classics, 2001)

<p>Fig. 1. Image showing surgical preparation for testicular castration, from Caspar Stromayr's <em>Practica copiosa,</em> written in Lindau and completed in 1559, with caption that reads:, "Dise Figur ziagt gar Eben/ Wie die Kinder sein zu legen" (This figure shows exactly how to lay the children down.) The original is extant in Leipzig, Frankfurt am Main, at the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek. Reproduced from <em>Die Handscrift des Schnitt- und Augenarztes Caspar Stromayr in Linden im Bodensee in der Lindauer Handscrift (P.I. 46) vom 4. Juli 1559</em>, edited by Walter von Brunn (Berlin: Idra, 1925), plate 8 (p. 267).</p> <p>Fig. 2. Jacopo Amigoni. Farinelli crowned by Music (Euterpe), 1735. Amigoni suggests a mythological crowning at a moment when Farinelli was at the height of his vocal and representational powers and was still singing publicly in London. Oil on canvas. 277 x 186 cm. Muzeul National de Arta al României, Bucharest. Reproduced by permission.</p> <p>Fig. 9. Andrea Sacchi, oil painting of Marc'Antonio Pasqualini (1614-91) being crowned by Apollo. 1641. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Purchase, Enid A. Haupt Gift and Gwynne Andrews Fund, 1981. Reproduced by permission.</p> <p>No. 16. Lodovico Ottavio Burnacini (1636-1707), <em>Pulcinella,</em> watercolor, late seventeenth century. Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna. Reproduced by permission.</p> <p>Fig. 17. C. Lindstrom, Pulcinella <em>cantastorie, </em>shown singing outdoors in the Largo del Castello (now Palazzo del Municipio) in Naples, pen and ink, circa 1812. Collection Umbert Bowinkel, Naples. Reproduced by kind permission.</p> <p>Fig. 19. Giandomenico Tiepolo, drawing of Pulcinella hatching from the egg of a turkey, surrounded by Pulcinella figures. Sepia ink on paper, ca. late eighteenth century to 1800. Private collection, London. Photographic Survey, The Courtauld Institute of Art. Reproduced by permission.</p> <p>Fig. 20. Pulcinella and the Bourbons, anonymous Neapolitan painting, first half of the nineteenth century. Private collection of Giuliana Gargiulo, Naples. Reproduced by kind permission.</p> <p>Fig. 31. Poster announcing a performance by the Quartetto Vocale Romano Gabrielli-Gentili, Grand Rapids, Michigan, October 1, 1919. Presented by the Business Girls' Cooperative Club. Original print in the private collection of Luciano Luciani, Fiumicino (Rome), kindly made available by the collector.</p> <p>Fig. 32. Leonardo Marini, drawing of Maometto Gran Mogul (the Grand Mogul Mahomet), conceived at Turin for  primo soprano castrato Giovanni Manzuoli, who played the role in <em>Tamas Kouli-Kan</em> (Turin, Regio Teatro, 1772). By permission from the Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo, Direzione Regionale per i Beni Culturali e Paesaggistici del Piemonte-Biblioteca Reale di Torino.</p> <p>Fig. 33. Portrait of Senesino by John Vanderbank showing the singer as Bertarido wearing a "Hungarian" costume in Handel's <em>Rodelinda</em> (King's Theatre, 1725), about to sing "Dove sei" in act 1, scene 6. A note on the back, written by its original owner James Harris (1746-1820), attests that the portrait was originally commissioned by Richard Willoughby, Esq. of Knoyle. Collection of James Carleton Harris the 7<sup>th</sup> Earl of Malmesbury. Reproduced by kind permission.</p> <p>Fig. 34. Charles Joseph Flipart, portrait of Carlo Scalzi (Signor "Sirbace"), who is given a decidedly royal expression and bearing as he points to his regalia, which in his case includes a theatrical crown with great ostrich plume and a sheet of music. 1737. Oil on canvas, 18 1/2 x 14 inches. Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1938. No. 177. Reproduced by permission.</p> <p>Fig. 35. James Hutchinson, portrait of Venanzio Rauzzini with his dog Turk, ca. 1795. (c) Holbourne Museum of Art, Bath (A 169). Reproduced by permission.</p> <p>Fig. 52. Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767-1824), <em>The Sleep of Endymion,</em> 1793. The painting is mentioned in Balzac's <em>Sarrasine,</em> where it hangs fictitiously in the salon of the Lanty family and absorbs the attention of the narrator's female auditor. Nowadays it is housed in the Louvre in Paris. (c) RMN-Grand Palais/ Art Resource, New York. Reproduced by permission.</p> <p>Fig. 53. Alfred Edward Chalon, watercolor of Giambattista Velluti in Meyerbeer's Il <em>crociato in Egitto</em> (1825; given in London in 1826). Opera Rara Archive.  Reproduced by permission.</p>

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