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The Virtuoso Singers: The Prima Donna and the Castrato Essay

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Updated: Nov 14th, 2021

The first thing that comes to mind is the word vanity. But for the many members of the privileged class, have only one thing in mind and it is perfectly combined with excellence. They argue that what they wanted is to find a way to produce the best music as well as the best means to offer songs to their Creator. They will stop at nothing to get what they desire. Still, they had to negotiate a few obstacles. The first one is the low value given to women in medieval times. This led to the rise of the castrato. Later on, this practice faded away giving rise to a new kind of virtuoso singer, the Prima Donna. Together the male castrato and the female Prima Donna revolutionized European opera, changing the rules of the game so to speak. The so-called “cult of the performer” transformed how composers make music and how the general public views singers.

Castration

Castratos are male singers who went through the ordeal of castration before the onset of puberty. The main goal is to preserve the male child’s high voice and preventing it to develop into that of an adult man, one with a distinctively low timbre. While the castration succeeded in preserving the high voice similar to a woman, the adult vocal cords added another bonus which created a male castrato singer that combines the voice of a young boy with the vocal strength of a man. It is an out-of-this-world and honestly speaking it is the sort of thing that modern men and women find disturbing. In fact, the Pope issued orders to ban this kind of practice (Kelly, 2004). But it seems that demand for this type of singer was so great that no one can really put a stop to the practice of male castration even as late as the 19th century.

At the height of their popularity castratos dominated Italian opera (Rosselli, 1992). Unfortunately, the popularity and influence of castratos led to the castration of a significant number of young boys who were undoubtedly aspiring to become the next superstar. A more detailed analysis of the significance of castratos is provided in the following historical account:

Males castrated before puberty … are more likely than ordinary males to grow to an unusual height. Some – not all or even most – attained an unusual vocal power, range, and length of breath because an enlarged thoracic cavity combined with an undeveloped larynx allowed a mighty rush of air to play upon small vocal chords. The resulting tone, in the best singers, was felt as extraordinary, at once powerful and brilliant, it did not sound like what we hear from most counter-tenors (Rosselli, 1992).

It is easy to understand why castratos are paid more substantially than other singers. It is the combination of quality and quantity, their extraordinary voice coupled with the high demand for their kind of singing. As many family’s desire that their kids belong to this elite group of artists, the popularity of castratos spread all over Europe. A few of them are treated like rock stars of the modern music industry. An example was Senesino, a superb singer of Italian descent. In 1720 alone, he earned an astonishing income of 3,000 guineas (Kelly, 2004). This kind of treatment can sometimes get into the heads of castrati. According to one account, Senesino used his star power to disagree with composers even if these composers are celebrities in their own right (Kelly, 2004). This is expected of those who play a critical part in any organization. In this case, castratos play a major role in the music industry of their time.

Their extraordinary skill can easily mean the evolution of 19th-century music (Williams & Grout, 2003). This simply means that with their ability to mimic women’s voices as well as their unusual range, composers are given more room to experiment and explore. The castratos transformed opera because the parts that were supposed to be sung by women were given to them instead. Aside from that, it must also be pointed out that there was a dearth of women singers during this period. Thus, both female and male roles in opera were given to castratos (Kelly, 2004). There was a time in Rome when the public would make loud protests when they hear the news that a female soprano will be used to perform a certain part of the opera; obviously, they wanted everything done by castratos (Nicassio, 1999).

Castratos have their share of shrieking fans and rabid critics. For some people castratos are freaks and for the enlightened members of society, they represented the ultimate decadence of a decadent and corrupt social order (Nicassio, 1999). Since many castratos ended up singing in churches, religion took a beating, “…they made a useful stick with which to beat traditional religion, that most unenlightened of social institutions” (Nicassio, 1999). Without a doubt, this contributed to the decline of the tradition of castrating male singers in the latter part of the 19th century.

There are two major reasons why castratos became mainstays in opera houses and churches even as late as the 19th century. The first one concerns the quality of their voice – which music aficionados and casual fans find haunting (Andre, 2006). The second reason is the social and cultural roadblocks that prevented real women to become a part of the opera and church functions, specifically those that required the service of singers. Going back to the church restrictions that women cannot sing in church functions, the best alternative should have been the use of choir boys but it seems that church officials complained about the speed at which choir boys are trained and replaced due to changes brought about by puberty (Rosselli, 1992). This means that employing castratos ensure the availability of voice talents that can sing like choir boys on demand.

In the latter part of the 19th-century women, singers began to make their presence felt in Europe’s opera houses (Kelly, 2004). It can be said that their time has come. As a result, during the same period, Europe witnessed the slow decline of castrati. This can be attributed in part to the constant criticism of the Pope with the practice of castration for art’s sake. These forces combined to deal a mighty blow to castratos, with a dying breed and no one willing to go through the process of castration, this tradition was buried together with other practices of a bygone era.

The Female Singer

In the 17th and 18th century Europe cannot get enough of Prima Donna. Before going further, it must be pointed out that in the 21st century, modern usage of the term Prima Donna may perhaps generate confusion because it has come to mean a person who is difficult to work with. Well, the truth of the matter is that there is a clear link between the said negative reaction and the origin of the term. This is because the Prima Donnas of the early modern age are superstars, pampered and sought after. Thus, they can make demands. This includes huge sums of money, as well as the comforts needed by a superstar while doing their duty to please the privileged class and the general public.

For a budding female opera singer, it all begins with the impresario. In today’s world, an impresario can wear many hats such as a talent manager, a producer, an entrepreneur in the entertainment industry, or an organizer of a concert or show. The aspirant can develop her skills and when reaching the level of a mature Prima Donna, the impresario comes in. It has been presumed that all the Prima Donnas of Europe had contracts with an impresario (Glixon, 2006). Unfortunately, only a few complete contracts saw the light of day, and yet the few survived to help explain the world of Prima Donnas. In one example, impresario Girolamo Lappoli had a contract drawn up for Anna Renzi, the leading 17th century Prima Donna on the Venetian stage the following principal clauses were stipulated:

  • Signora Anna is obliged to sing in one or more operas that will be performed this carnival in the Teatro Novissimo;
  • Signora Anna must attend each rehearsal of the operas;
  • In exchange Signor Geronimo will have to pay to Signora Anna 500 Venetian silver scudi;
  • In the case of illness, if she has done part of the performances, she is entitled to half of the 500 scudi;
  • In the event that Signor Geronimo Lappoli failed to mount the production, he will still be required to pay the 500 scudi to Signora Anna;
  • Signor Lappoli is obliged to provide the costumes that she will need for her performances;
  • Finally, Signor Lapolli is obliged to give and consign to Signor Anna an opera box for her use for the entire Carnival (Glixon

The clauses of the contract provided ample details to help understand why the term Prima Donna is currently used in a disparaging manner. There is no need for a historian to explain that 500 Venetian silver scudi are a substantial amount. The amount is magnified by the fact that Signora Anna was only obliged to work during the duration of the carnival. Moreover, if the impresario cannot mount a successful production and if the opera was cancelled the Prima Donna gets her full share without even having to break a sweat. But there are more perks given to her, she can demand an opera box that she can personally use during the entire duration of the carnival. Clearly, the Prima Donna is the equivalent of a rock star or star athlete in the 21st century.

For those who are used to watching celebrities on TV, most are well aware that they earn multi-million-dollar pay checks. So, it may not come as a surprise to them upon learning that Prima Donnas are also able to generate this kind of earning power. But it must be made clear that even as late as the 19th century, there was no equality between man and woman. They were not allowed to vote, they were not encouraged to study, and of course, they are not supposed to be getting favors like Prima Donnas. This prompted one historian to remark that Prima Donnas was a puzzling phenomenon in the 19th century and remarked, “In the midst of an era that was attempting through various kinds of indoctrination (social, cultural, political, and educational) to restrict woman’s access to the public domain, the Prima Donna stood indomitably on the operatic stage demonstrating musical prowess, financial independence, sexual freedom – and eliciting in return praise and monetary reward” (Rutherford, 2006). They are way ahead of their time.

By virtue of her talent, the Prima Donna was able to break free from the shackles of traditions and various social norms. Prima Donnas are not blind to their power and influence because some of them lent their support to the women’s suffrage movement (Rutherford, 2006). Perhaps one of the best descriptions of their impact on music was summed up in the following, “These bewitching, infuriating, transcendent performers … accompanied by adoring retinues and shimmering with aura and glamour, power, and glory. Audiences rioted, men fought duels, girls yearned to emulate them…” (Nicassio, ). As a result, they are both admired and despised. For many women, they were inspirational characters and for the rest of the general public, they are seen as the epitome of what can go wrong if women are given too much freedom and clout.

Their popularity and significance to the opera, to the music, and the arts can also be measured by how they were able to influence or demand the kind of music writing that can perfectly complement their unique skills. There are times when Prima Donnas were paid more handsomely than the composers. Aside from that, there were Prima Donnas who also became composers (LaMay, 2005). This suggests that aside from using their popularity and clout to influence social issues, Prima Donnas were also making history when it comes to writing music.

Conclusion

Vanity and striving for excellence are two concepts that can best justify the excesses of the Prima Donna and the castratos. In the case of castratos, it is vanity to allow a child to experience the horrors of castration just to preserve his angelic voice. In the case of the Prima Donna, it is vanity to give her all the comforts and all the perks just to entice her to sing. But at the same time, the term excellence applies to both virtuoso singers. It is their striving for excellence and the desire to produce heavenly music that inspires them to attempt the unimaginable.

References

  1. Andre, N. (2006). Voicing Gender: Castrati, Travesti, and the Second Woman in Early-Nineteenth Century Italian Opera. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
  2. Glixon, J. (2006). Inventing the Business of Opera. New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. Kelly, T. (2004). First Nights at the Opera. CT: Yale University Press.
  4. LaMay, T. (2005). Musical Voices of Early Modern Women. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company.
  5. Nicassio, S. (1999). Tosca’s Rome: The Play and the Opera in Historical Perspective. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  6. Rosselli, J. (1992). Singers of Italian Opera. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Rutherford, S. (2006). The Prima Donna and Opera, 1815-1930. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  8. Williams, H. & D. Grout. (2003). A Short History of Opera. 4th ed. New York: Columbia University Press.
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