Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Transactional Castrato

by Martha Feldman
Excerpt from The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds, drawn from the Ernest Bloch Lectures (University of California Press, 2015).
The castrato called Caffarelli (Gaetano Majorano) also engaged an economy of luxury, at once material and affective. We’re again reminded of the myth of origins that Filippo Balatri told the khan of Astrakhan when asked to sing for him, wherein castrated males are hatched from cocks’ eggs and later deluged with flattery, caresses, and coins. Balatri recounts the telling as if he were letting us in on some hilarious scam, conjured up on the fly. Yet he implies a temporal progression that echoes real life: between being hatched and later showered with riches, the sterile hatchling becomes a professional soprano. Throughout his life he’s presumably been complicit in various transactions involving tokens of adulation, even erotic attraction, and purses of gold, mobilized by his gifts of song. Transactions of the kind tumble out of Balatri’s tales in close succession, especially in the verse of “Frutti del mondo”: the arias he sings for the khan for hours on end inspire reciprocation with a Tartar suit of gold, which he later dons to impress Louis XIV, which gains him entrée into the king’s Parisian court and thereafter into the upper echelons of London society—all this in a ceaseless flow of goods and song. But stirred into the mix is also money, which circulates in a cash nexus that glares in the cold light of day only to flicker, moth-like, back into the duskier world of gifts.

Farinelli c. 1750
Jacopo Amigoni
Farinelli was the reigning expert at modulating the rhythms of these movements. In 1732 he got an audience with the emperor and told him, all atremble, that it was the most fortunate moment in his life (this recounted by Burney). After Farinelli sang magnificently, “as god wished,” the emperor exclaimed in Neapolitan, “Voi siete Napoliello” (You’re a Neapolitan), and Farinelli made him laugh with a riposte that echoed the emperor’s facility with dialect by declaring in napoletano, “I am indeed one of those true pasta-eaters.”

When they met again the emperor asked him about a rumor that he’d lost money to a bad creditor, and again Farinelli broke up the room by answering that since he had earned the money with his trills, he had reason to hope they would bring him more in future. His talent for gracious banter was of a piece with gifts, for one was so graced when in the “graces” of others. The same letter in which Farinelli joked about his lucrative trills closed by enumerating ritualistically each and every gift he had received after singing for members of the court: a “highly polished and charming” silver chocolate service given “as a gift” from Inviato of Genoa along with a purse of a hundred new Hungarian coins that might foot the bill for many gold medals, a very lovely gold box from Signora Serra, a superb Parisian gold box from Count Martinez, a very heavy box of English gold from the prince of Cardona, from Count Chinxi a watch of gold from England “lovely enough to eat” . . . and on it went. Some presents had money tucked inside, and to others Farinelli himself assigned a cash value (“a gilded plaster cast from England worth eighty louis d’or”; “a silver traveling service worth one thousand florins”). All this was a mere prelude to what he brought in at his first benefit concert in London, in 1735, on a single night, but there he was in public, not at court, and “gifts”—some of them immense, especially the one from the Prince of Wales—were openly given in the form of cash. Small wonder that when previously the English had (repeatedly) tried to get Farinelli to come their shores, he had put his Neapolitan foot down until the remuneration offered was huge, and once there he complained to Pepoli that guineas flew so fast he could have bought much Bolognese land with what it cost him to live in London, even though he wasted nothing.

Farinelli in 1734
Bartolomeo Nazari
Royal College of Music
Yet with all that, with the English competing rabidly to outdo each other in gift giving and buying precious souvenirs of him—things like the duke of Leeds’ copies of operas and arias and his commission of the now-famous portrait by Bartolomeo Nazari—the English were also plaguing the singer with satires of all kinds and accusations of being an avaricious coxcomb. For the purposes of their new booming celebrity media industry, Farinelli was Caesar, Saint George, and Callas rolled into one, so much so that they fell all over each other swooning and trying to make him their own even as some of them mocked him. In the face of this, Farinelli—who had again written home with ritual precision to enumerate their lavish praise and gifts and who was later to inventory and bequeath his own riches with extraordinary care—was already explaining to Pepoli his determination to change his professional identity, for no professional work, with all the money grubbing, celebrating, and defiling it entailed, could befit one who had risen to such stature and at last sought only autonomy.

Some of these dilemmas might characterize a few prima donnas and tenors of Farinelli’s time, but none were so extensively made by things and cash, or gave cash and things such a glow in return. Yet always gnawing away was the issue of whether a castrato could fully deserve or assimilate such riches or fully enter the ranks of givers, even those he outstripped in wealth and fame. As Georg Simmel notes in his classic Philosophy of Money (1900), money is something to which outsiders cannot afford to be inattentive. The case of castrati is fitting and also unique. Stripped of procreative powers in a patrilineal world, they were often consumed with acquisitions and bequests. Senesino was less rich than Farinelli, but he was still very rich and totally preoccupied by his riches. The paranoia of his old age made him tortured over the bequest of his estate to his nephew and his nephew’s wife, and he meticulously recorded his every purchase and gift received in the diaries he kept in London, where for years he took Handel’s public by storm and made a great fortune.


Martha Feldman is Mabel Greene Myers Professor of Music, Romance Languages and Literatures, and the Humanities at the University of Chicago (webpage HERE). Publication of her book was supported by the Gustave Reese Endowment of the American Musicological Society.

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