Gender-Bending Rock Stars: Counter-Tenors, Castrati and the Wild and Crazy Baroque

by Leanne Ogasawara

One God, One Farinelli…

Stepping onto the stage, the singer draws in a long breath as he gazes out across the audience. For a moment, he is blinded by the light of innumerable candles. So lavishly lit, it is a miracle that the theater didn’t burn down more than it did over the years. Over a hundred boxes rise up in six tiers in front of him; each box with a mirror affixed on the front reflecting the twinkling light of the two candles placed on either side. The singer can just make out the bejeweled king and queen sitting in their royal box with its gigantic gold crown hovering above. This was the Teatro di San Carlo in the Kingdom of Naples, considered during the 18th century to be the greatest opera house in the world. And on this night, people had come from far and wide to hear Farinelli sing— Farinelli, the famed castrati singer, who drew great crowds and commanded princely sums wherever he performed.

But what a price he had paid to stand on this stage.

The deplorable practice of mutilating young boys to preserve their adolescent voices began in Italy as early as the 12th century. But castrati voices are something we associate most closely with 17th-18th century Baroque music.  At that time, women were not allowed to sing in church or on stage in the Papal States, and so the practice began of seeing men singing the roles of women. But this was not like in Japan in Kabuki theater, where you still see men exclusively performing the roles of women; for in Italy these were not men dressed up as women –but rather were those who had undergone castration as children. The church alone cannot explain the huge popularity of their voices throughout Europe. In Naples or London, for example, women had never been banned from appearing on stage, and yet castrati regularly appeared alongside female sopranos.And they were wildly popular. Rock stars, is how we would describe them today.

Most castrati came from the lowest classes. Impoverished parents were persuaded to part with boys with particularly promising voices. After the procedure was performed (not surprisingly, many children died), the boys were installed in conservatories, where they were fed and clothed and made to devote countless hours learning to sing and play music. Dutch novelist Margriet de Moor, in her novel The Virtuoso, tells the story of a castrato singer named Gasparo. Born into terrible poverty, he willingly underwent the castration process, when he was on the older side–nearly at puberty. In the story, it was only upon arriving at the “clinic” where he was to be castrated that he receives the first pair of shoes he has ever owned. In the novel, Gasparo becomes the most famous singer of the time–not just in Naples, but in Rome and London.

Farinelli was an unusual case; not born into poverty, he was the second son of a well to-do family in Apulia. The family moved to Naples in 1711 so that Farinelli and his brother could study music. Things took a tragic turn when the boy’s father unexpectedly died, leaving the family in financial straits.  This was when the decision was made that the younger boy should undergo castration. The church had always threatened excommunication with anyone who submitted their children to this abuse. So families had to come up with excuses for why this has happened to their child– for example, that the boy had fallen off a horse or had been injured by an attack from an angry goose.

Studying under Naples’ greatest maestro, Nicola Porpora, Farinelli’s rise to stardom was rapid.

It should be remembered that going to the opera was a very different experience during the Baroque period. Mahler (or was it Wagner?) would put a stop to all of this, but during the Baroque period going to the opera was more of a social event. People gambled and ate, they conducted love affairs, engaged in heated conversation about philosophy; there was brawling –all while the action was going on on stage. People simply didn’t sit quietly facing the stage like we do now. But by all accounts, when Farinelli sang, people sat still to listen. Women and men found themselves falling madly in love with him– even kings found they wanted him around at court. Farinelli, after a spell in London where he performed at a theater under Porpora’s direction –a theater that was Handel’s major competition–  ended his days as a member of the Spanish court in Madrid, where he served as musician to the king. Depressed and suffering from insomnia, the Spanish king thought that only the celestial voice of Farinelli could save him.


One wonders what it was about this “angelic voice” of the castrati that proved to be so captivating? Europe was obsessed– with only the French seemingly immune to their art.

Nowadays, in Europe especially, you sometimes see the hero in Baroque operas cast by countertenors, who are filling the roles once played by the castrati.

This is still rare in the United States.

The first time I heard a counter-tenor was in Europe– at the summer music festival in Aix-en-Provence. We had such lousy seats–impossible to see anything pressed against a column on the far right. I was hot and bored, when suddenly, I heard a voice floating up to where we were perched, and I thought I was going to faint. That voice totally bowled me over–video of that moment just below.

It turns out that the countertenor, Philippe Jaroussky, has quite a fan club among women my age. I should know, I belong to one of the fan clubs! He thinks it could be because we are mothers with sons who want to adore and feel protective of his childlike voice. That is what he said in the documentary Heavenly Voices. It is a possible explanation, I guess. But it’s not just that, right? In the wonderful biopic about Pavarotti out now, there is a clip where Pavarotti talks about how in contrast to the soprano and the baritone (which are natural ranges for female and male voices), the tenor is not a natural way for a man to sing. It takes intense training to achieve an outstanding tenor voice. And obviously, this is even more so for a countertenor–especially for those geniuses who go beyond the falsetto voice for a more complex and resonant sound. It can be enchanting; the gender displacement surprising and exciting. And I think this kind of surprise and sense of wonderment is something that defines the entire Baroque period.


Here I am talking about countertenors, but a countertenor is not a castrati. We have no idea what the castrati actually sounded like. Well, there is one early 20th century recording–but it is very bad rendition by a mediocre singer who cannot be thought to represent what these voices sounded like during the Golden Age of the castrati, when the singers underwent such arduous training.

It is difficult to imagine what they sounded like.

The castration process when performed on young boys before the first signs of puberty and had a profound effect on their bodies (beyond the obvious). The hormonal effects led them to become unusually tall with large barrel-shaped chests, infantile larynxes, and long, spindly legs. In this very interesting (and sad) article in Nature, the remains of a very famous castrati singer, Gaspare Pacchierotti (1740–1821) were examined, and in addition to the above characteristics (height and chest size due to the elasticity of their bones), the researchers also confirmed what has long been written about castrati singers that their voices carried great strength because of several respiratory muscles not found normally in other singers. This would have allowed them not only to sing with tremendous power but it would also explain how they were able to sing so long without breathing–something for which they were famous for. These singers, therefore, had a great range and could sing in the upper registers with a power that female singers could never attain.

For the film Farinelli, for example, they attempted to capture something of the quality by digitally mixing the voice of a countertenor (Derek Lee Ragin) and a coloratura (Ewa Godlewska) . Each singer recorded separately so that during the digital mixing an attempt could be made to bring out the timbre.  They then digitally enhanced the sound so to sustain the very long notes which could not be sustained by today’s singers.

Have you seen the movie?

I loved it and was delighted to learn that Cecilia Bartoli, who has served as the artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival since 2012, was dedicating this year’s four day festival to the music of the castrati. I became even more interested in going when I learned that for the first time since 1735, audiences would be able to listen to and compare Alcina by Handel back to back with his fierce competitor Porpora’s Polifemo, originally performed in London by Farinelli at the competing theater company that was giving Handel such a terrible headache. Handel was a difficult man at times. A huge row with the castrato superstar Senisino had caused a breakaway group from Handel’s company, forming the Opera for the Nobility. Senisino was joined on stage under Porpora’s artistic direction by Farinelli and these two opera companies–Handel’s and Porpora’s–would set London on fire; with one woman uttering the famous words, One God, one Farinelli…

Jurgen Kesting, in his essay to accompany the Whitsun festival says that a decade ago, the music of Nicola Porpora, Leonardo Leo, and Leonardo Vinci–all so reliant on the sound of the castrati– languished unperformed. Suddenly today we are seeing this music resurrected. Kesting wonders, “Is it really possible for countertenors to raise the castrati from the dead?” We will never know the truth of what those voices sounded like. And yet, we can find ourselves moved by the extraordinary effect of the melodious qualities of non-binary high voices. This is a truth in the form of one voice or one musical interpretation and has little to do with the Baroque practice and probably if more than anything speaks to the incredible vitality of fresh vision of opera in Europe. Long live opera in Europe! I was not alone in thinking the music was exciting either–the audiences in Salzburg– went wild for the performances, especially Polifemo!! Just wow!


Photos: Felsenreitschule during the Polifemo performance (audience LOVED it!) and Philippe Jaroussky from someone in the fan club who was in the audience –(opposite side where I was sitting)

Notes on Baroque Audiences


To Read:

Margriet de Moor’s novel (thanks, Brooks!), The Virtuoso

Anne Rice’s novel, Cry to Heaven

Play about Farinelli’s relationship with the king of Spain: Farinelli and the King

Wonderful article by Alex Ross on the Democratization of Baroque Music in the New Yorker. As Ross says, Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo won notice for his appearances in Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten”—he will sing the role at the Met next season. It came to LA a few years ago and was fabulous!

Great article in this month’s New Yorker (thanks, Brooks!): A Millennial Countertenor’s Pop-Star Appeal
Jakub Józef Orliński brings a swooning sultriness—and a bunch of break-dancing moves—to the Baroque-music revival. By Rebecca Mead

My Report from Salzburg from last summer

Ellen T. Harris’ George Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends

Also (want to read) The Castrato and his Wife, by Helen Berry & The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds, by Martha Feldman & Jane Glover’s Handel in London

To Watch:

Farinelli, the movie

Heavenly Voices: Legacy of Farinelli

Rock star Jakub Józef Orliński, when Gen Y takes over opera

Bejun Meha in Guth’s Messiah (Thanks, Brooks!)

My favorite: Iestyn Davies sings ‘O, where are you, dearest beloved?’ from Rodelinda

Jakub Józef Orliński – “But who may abide the day of His coming” from G.F. Handel Messiah

To Hear on CD:

Porpora & Farinelli – His Masters Voice

Philippe Jaroussky – Carestini The Story of a Castrato

For next year: Whitsum Festival 2020 / Program