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Monday, October 15, 2007

Balls Upon the Brain

posted by on October 15 at 10:32 AM

Even though the “castrato” at last week’s screening of Brand Upon the Brain wasn’t a real castrato (Dov Houle, the fictional “Manitoba Meadowlark,” was lip synching to a woman’s voice—a terrible disappointment), that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about castrati all weekend. Here’s one, named Alessandro Moreschi:


You can read about them here and here.

It’s sad stuff—during the 18th century, poor families dragged their boys to village barbers by the hundreds to be castrated, hoping they’d grow up to be famous, rich stars. Most of them thought the operation produced a great singing voice, not preserved it. (Bumpkins—doing stupid shit since forever.)

Also: The pope was rumored to have kept a castrato for his “private delectation” until 1959.

Also: “As the castrato’s body grew, his lack of testosterone meant that his epiphyses (bone-joints) did not harden in the normal manner. Thus the limbs of the castrati often grew unusually long, as did the bones of their ribs. This, combined with intensive training, gave them unrivalled lung-power and breath capacity. Operating through small, child-sized vocal cords, their voices were also extraordinarily flexible, and quite different from the equivalent adult female voice… “

Also: “At the height of his career at the age of 32, Farinelli was invited to Madrid by the Queen of Spain to sing to her husband Philip V who was suffering from what now appear to be schizophrenic episodes. His singing seemed to ameliorate the King’s condition—an early example of music therapy—and he became indispensable to the Spanish Royal Family for the following 20 years.”

You can hear Alessandro Moreschi, the “last castrato” singing here.

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Posted by kill me | October 15, 2007 10:39 AM

Dammit! I thought it looked like that guy was lip-synching, but I didn't want to believe it.

Farinelli, the film, is definitely worth watching, by the way.

Posted by Levislade | October 15, 2007 10:55 AM

I just want to point out that the real singer, the beautiful Jessica Robins Milanese, has no testicles.

Posted by Gurldoggie | October 15, 2007 11:16 AM

Seriously?! That guy wasn't for real? That was probably the main reason I was into it in the first place.

That ... is really disappointing, to say the least.

Posted by louley | October 15, 2007 11:19 AM

The "Manitoba Meadowlark" - perfect!

Posted by Lloyd Clydesdale | October 15, 2007 11:26 AM

Amber: “Coach, my plastic surgeon says I can’t participate in any activity where balls fly at my face.”

Dionne: “There goes your social life.”

Posted by Original Andrew | October 15, 2007 11:30 AM

i saw a vietnamese countertenor perform @ st. julien-le-pauve in paris a couple weeks back. not quite as high as a castrati, but the combo of male vocal power & a female singing range was beautiful.

look how fucking la-di-da i am.

Posted by maxsolomon | October 15, 2007 11:53 AM

I love that recording of "the last castrato." It's really eerie. It can also be found HERE along with recordings of a Russian exorcism performed on a 16 year old girl, and the last 30 horrifying minutes at the Jonestown Massacre.


Posted by Katelyn | October 15, 2007 12:30 PM

How did you confirm that he was lip synching?

Was everything else done live?

Posted by stinkbug | October 15, 2007 12:31 PM

Thanks for writing about this, Brendan. I was curious as to how they planned to pull off a performance by a "castrato" in this day and age.

This discussion leads me to wonder how the tone, line and expressive quality of the original castrati would compare with today's classical singers? Wouldn't it be amazing to have a live, side by side comparison?

Or at least side by side lip-synching?

Posted by Sarah | October 15, 2007 1:00 PM

I thought they'd at least have a counter tenor. Lip synching seems like cheating. Ideally, we'd cut a young Italian boy.

Posted by It's Mark Mitchell | October 15, 2007 5:04 PM

Neat, thank you. It's a shame the only recorded castrato was so poorly trained. There's a Yahoo group: Castrati_History.

Posted by Amelia | October 15, 2007 7:04 PM

Moreschi's recordings which survive are rather drab and not a real representation of the true timbre of a castrato's voice type. These were done later in life (he was around 70!!!) and thus his voice had more than declined. Go watch Farinelli...a great movie that actually blended two voice types in order to closely match the timbre that a castrato would have had.

Posted by cunei4m | October 15, 2007 7:27 PM

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