AS operas by Handel, Vivaldi and other Baroque-era composers become increasingly popular, more people wonder about the castrati -- the emasculated singers who were often the richly paid stars of these works. Now, the Handel House Museum in London is planning an exhibition, to run from March through September 2006, that will focus on the castrati who worked with George Frideric Handel.
The 18th century master "wrote roles specifically with that voice type in mind," says Sarah Bardwell, director of the museum. "Often there were two in one opera. We're going to focus on seven of the castrati: Senesino, Nicolini, Bernacchi, Carestini, Caffarelli, Conti and Guadagni. Each is famous for the premiere of a particular opera, and each was a superstar of their day."
The voice was created by castrating a boy when he was age 8 or 9.
Typically, the boy was drugged and placed in a warm bath beforehand. Up to 4,000 boys a year went under the knife. The instrument with which the procedure was performed is known as a "Roman clamp," says Bardwell, and one will be on view in the exhibit.
The last-known castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, was recorded in 1902, toward the end of his career. Scholars agree the recording is a poor representation of the voice type.
"The voice is nothing we can imagine," says Bardwell. "The closest would be like a boy soprano, with the clout and power of a full-grown man."
The procedure apparently did not prevent reasonably normal sexual relations.
"The castrati were a woman's dream," Bardwell says. "There was no risk of getting pregnant or anything like that. As a result, there was a tremendous amount of scandal around them, and one of the sections of the exhibit will focus on the scandals."