July 12, 2006

Disturbingly Fascinating

As a lifelong, very passionate lover of all things operatic, I have to admit that despite its very odd nature, I find this story and the prospect of the knowledge that might be gained quite fascinating:
The body of the world's most famous castrato singer, Farinelli, has been exhumed to try to find out how his virtuoso voice developed.
Scholars in the northern Italian city of Bologna will measure his skull and bones and perform DNA tests.

Farinelli was among thousands of boys castrated to preserve their high-pitched voices as they grew up.

Castrati singers were popular in Europe from the 16th Century until 1870 when the operation was banned.

The castrato's voice was prized for its combination of pitch and power - an unbroken male voice able to reach the highest notes, delivered by the powerful lungs of a fully-grown man.


Farinelli, born Carlo Broschi in 1705, was the most famous castrato of all.

Notoriously temperamental, he was buried in Bologna in 1782 dressed as a knight from the days of chivalry.

His remains will be examined at Bologna University by scholars who will try to find out more about his vocal mechanism, and the effects of his intensive musical training schedule on the shape of his body.

The team of scientists includes an acoustics expert, who is expected to study remains of vocal chords and larynx to discover what gave castrati such vocal range and power.

DNA tests will be conducted to try to determine what he ate and what diseases he had.
Note that on the same BBC page, you can listen to a recording made in 1902 of the "last castrato," Allesandro Moreschi.

A film was made in 1994 about Farinelli, unsurprisingly (and rather unimaginatively) called "Farinelli." I remember enjoying it, but don't recall many details. I think I shall try to watch it again soon.

Despite the somewhat macabre elements associated with this story (at least for a layman, who often finds that the details of these kinds of procedures fall into the category of more information than I needed), they might learn a great deal that is valuable and instructive. That's a very good thing, and I am exceedingly glad that others are willing and even happy to do the work.