52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 5 (So Far Away)
This week, I want to talk about a group of men that I honor as ancestors, even though they never had physical children. For years now, I have honored the baroque castrati as a group of honored dead on my ancestor shrine. I love them, I truly do and they’ve become an integral part of my spiritual practice of honoring the dead.
Music has always been an important part of my life. I spent the first quarter of my life as a professional ballet dancer (retired in my early twenties due to injury). That was the first way by which I was introduced to ecstatic spirituality. It was the first way I ever touched the sacred. It’s an art intimately connected to that of music. One of the first really famous ballet dancers, Marie Salle, who was herself a gifted choreographer, worked with Handel and his castrati in London. Ballet and opera evolved one from the other. There’s a lineage there and in a very small way, I was part of that. Even now, when I listen to music it takes me out of myself and brings me to a place where I throw myself far more deeply into holy work. It’s a visceral, full body experience. It roars through my blood and then carries me to the spirits and worlds I seek. It was from the castrati that I really came to understand what an important journey maker music has always been for me. Now I use it consciously in my work and often under their auspices. I am grateful.
Anyway, for those who may not know – since I do have a number of new readers –the castrati were singers, first in church choirs and then in the opera, who were castrated before puberty to preserve their voices. So, they were adult men with the chest and lung capacity of adult men, but the vocal chords of prepubescent boys. They were sopranos, mezzos (both classed as “soprano” in their day) and altos and their voices were ethereal wonders. We don’t know exactly what they sounded like. There is a recording of the very last famous castrato, but he was well past his prime during the recording, had never been an operatic virtuoso, and turn of the century recording technology lacked the capacity for recording the fullness of his voice. What we get is warped and thin. The same thing occurs with female opera singers who were recorded in the first decade of the 1900s too. All we really have are descriptions from those who heard these men. They were the rock stars of their day. One woman, upon hearing the famous castrato Farinelli sing was moved to such ecstasies by the sound that she burst out with an enthusiastic, if slightly blasphemous, “one God, one Farinelli!”
Now, we usually think of the castrati as belonging to the the baroque era but they worked roughly through the 16th to 19th centuries. In reality, even longer — the first castrated singer that I’ve encountered (thanks to the work of scholar Neil Moran) is the 5th century Brisson, who was choir master in the Byzantine court of Empress Eudoxia. We know that the Byzantines had castrati in their choirs though there is no indication of an industry that castrated boys purely for their vocal potential. That comes later in the 16th century in the Vatican states where women were forbidden from performing on stage (because of a prohibition in Paul). The last well-known castrato was A. Moreschi who died in 1922. He’s the one who was recorded. Today, their repertoire, which created opera as we know it, is usually performed by women or counter-tenors. I prefer the latter (I like lower female voices, probably because I’m a tenor myself and higher male voices. Female sopranos tend to annoy me—the quality of the sound is different from a man singing in the same range. I’d rather listen to a female contralto but in the end, I’m glad for all the vocal instruments we have). By the way, that Byzantine choir master Brisson was a bad ass. He is recorded (by the 6th c. historian Socrates) as getting into fist fights with religious heretics lol.
Anyway, I consider these men, men like Atto Melani, Cafarelli, Carestini, and Senesino to be part of my ancestral house. I honor them regularly. They have immortality like the heroes of old, and it is up to those of us who recognize the beauty and sacrality in what they did to serve the function of progeny: that of remembering those who came before us. So, I hail them, regularly and very soon, I will complete a small novena book for them too. I will conclude this with one of the prayers I give them. May they always be remembered, valued, and praised – both those who were famous, and those who broke in the process.
Prayer for the castrati
By Galina Krasskova
Your predecessors haunted the courts and choirs of Constantinople.
The enchantment of your voices was heard from Italy to Spain,
England to Germany, and well beyond even to farthest Russia.
The ghostly memory of your glory haunts every operatic stage,
everywhere in the world today and that is good. We should not forget.
We should never forget the debt our artists owe to each of you,
with every voice lifted in song, every note resonant in modern throats.
You rose up from the ashes of Rome,
glittering jewels in the crown of the world,
bright, hard, glorious, unbreakable.
You shone like the sun
with the glory of the moon at your backs:
magic, allure, erotic power.
Your voices tore open the heavens
and left frenzied desire in their wake.
No king was ever more feted.
No saint ever more reverenced.
Let us taste anew that frenzy–
pouring ourselves out in offerings to you.
White, cold and unyielding,
with hearts hungry
and less than angelic,
each of your voices a blade,
inviting longing, revealing desire,
leaving ecstasy in its wake.
I praise you today and every day.
Your names sanctify my lips.
(from the forthcoming “Viva ‘il coltello: In Honor of the castrati” by G. Krasskova, Sanngetall Press).
The closest we can get is the modern counter tenor. Here are three of my favorites.
Andreas Scholl singing Bizet’s “Habanera” (he’s known for his interpretation of Bach and his voice is exactly the same vocal range as the castrato Senesino. He also went to the same conservatory in Basel as my adopted mom. I just get a kick out of him singing “Carmen” so I chose that one instead of Bach).
Michael Maniaci singing Mozart’s “Exsultate” (written for the castrato Venanzio Rauzzini).
Philippe Jaroussky singing Gluck’s “Che faro senza Euridice” (originally sung by the castrato Gaetano Guadagni).
Jakub Jozef Orlinski singing Hasse’s “Mea tormenta, properate!”