Castrati : the history of an extraordinary vocal phenomenon and a case study of Handel’s opera roles for Castrati written for the First Royal Academy of Music (1720-1728)
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Castrati were without doubt, an extraordinary phenomenon in the vocal world. Four centuries of history exist from the first evidence of their presence in music, dating from the 1550s, and the death of the last castrato Allessandro Moreschi, in 1922. A tradition almost solely practiced in Italy, the castrati experienced their halcyon days in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. At first, they were recruited and castrated as young boys to sing in the soprano sections of the church choirs. They enjoyed an extensive training in specialized conservatorios and grew to be the most accomplished vocalists the world had known thus far. Inevitably, their art was noticed by opera composers of the time. They flourished and were celebrated in Italy and abroad. Their vocal technique and artistic skills dictated the bel canto style for nearly two hundred years. At the end of the eighteenth century, the growing awareness in moral philosophy, and a series of political shifts in Europe put an end to the overwhelming success of the eunuchs. Yet their influence on opera composition of the time and of the subsequent decades was of immense consequence. An important question should be raised when performing the opera roles written for castrati nowadays. Who will sing the castrato roles? As a logical solution, women or countertenors should adopt these roles into their repertoire. A study of opera roles written for castrati by a baroque master in the genre, Georg Friedrich Handel, sheds some light on the music for these rare birds. The castrato role-study encompasses Handel’s operas written for the First Royal Academy of Music (1720-1728). By disclosing some particular aspects in the music and the drama, it becomes clear what voice type should be singing these roles in present day Handel opera production.