True Or Falsetto? When Opera Singers Were Castrated To Hit The High Notes

Artaserse - Opéra National de Lorraine
Artaserse - Opéra National de Lorraine
Manuel Brug

In the 17th and 18th centuries, opera performers could take any role they wanted. Sopranos were kings, countertenors their lovers; although, in an old theater tradition that went back to the Greeks, wet nurses were always played by men, and the character was re-written if no male could be found to play it.

Only in papal Rome was the stage taboo for women, offering plenty of opportunities for singing eunuchs – or castrati. While castration to the service of music was banned by the Church, castrati were members of the Sistine Chapel choir and cast in opera productions.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the boom of Baroque opera – with countertenors singing falsetto. Formerly an English specialty, this type of singing has also now been perfected in other countries: Italy, Spain, Russia and Romania.

Competition is tough, as new stars vie to make a niche and repertoire for themselves by selecting composers like Monteverdi and Meyerbeer, Rossi and Rossini, or reviving lesser-known ones who wrote parts in their operas for high voices. The arias they record on CDs often become hits on the classical music market.

Despite the many productions and recordings featuring such voices over the past 20 years, however, there has been little investigation into the social history behind castrati. What values were assigned to “male” and “female” virtues in Baroque times, and how were gender issues and sexual orientation dealt with? What was tolerated or considered scandalous? Could a castrato have sex?

A new book by Helen Berry, The Castrato and his Wife – about the 18th century opera singer Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci, a popular megastar in his day, who fell in love and married, but who was unable to consummate the short-lived union – goes a long way to answering these questions.

There is, however, still much more light to be brought on this darkest chapter in the history of opera: on castrati in the Roman opera during the High Baroque period, and the role of the Vatican in that decadent situation.

“Flamboyant cross-dressing”

Italian opera singer Cecilia Bartoli, a coloratura mezzo-soprano, was one of the first in her 2005 concept album Opera prohibita to delve into the period. Then, four years ago, Croatian-born countertenor Max Emanuel Cenic decided he wanted to sing in one of the most famous operas: Artaserse by Leonardo Vinci (1690 –1730, not to be confused with Leonardo da Vinci). In the February 1730 premiere of the opera in three acts during carnival season in Rome, only men sang: a tenor and six countertenors, also singing the two women’s roles.

A year earlier, in 2007, William Christie conducted Stefano Landi’s Il Sant’Alessio (1631), in which there were nine roles for castrati. Philippe Jaroussky, the most successful countertenor in the world today, sang Saint Alexis, and Max Emanuel Cenic the part of his wife.

In a just released CD of Artaserse, the two stars sing together again, with young Romanian-born Valer Barna-Sabadus singing the role of Artaserse’s bride Semira so grippingly that one forgets the sex of the singer is the presence of this astonishing voice.

And now a full stage production, receiving rave reviews, knocks down the last taboo about having countertenors sing female roles in modern opera: the Opéra National de Lorraine in Nancy, France, is currently performing Artaserse in a spectacular rendition with nearly the same stellar cast as on the CD.

Director Silviu Purcarete and designer Helmut Stürmer open the piece showing their male performers made up, but not yet in costume. The performers then don their costumes and as Francis Carlin writes in his Financial Times review, the lavish feathered outfits move from “flamboyant cross-dressing meets Pierre Cardin (Act 1) to grand siècle in Act 2 and all the way back again for the third act.”

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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