Suffering for art

An Irishman’s Diary: Painful reflections from a night at the concert hall

‘On the same basis that a shock will often cure hiccups, I mentioned the ultimate example of how prized high-pitched male voices once were: the castrato.’ Photograph: iStockphoto

‘On the same basis that a shock will often cure hiccups, I mentioned the ultimate example of how prized high-pitched male voices once were: the castrato.’ Photograph: iStockphoto

Sat, Apr 27, 2013, 06:00

I made the mistake this week of bringing my teenage daughter to a classical music concert that featured, among other things, a counter-tenor. It was a mistake partly because she had never heard a counter-tenor before and partly because, due to a combination of her age and gender, she is currently prone to uncontrollable giggling fits when subjected to certain external stimuli.

The spectacle of a large, adult male producing a very high-pitched voice – complete with the exaggerated, Mr Bean-like facial expressions that classical singing requires – was one such trigger.

For a long time afterwards, my daughter was afraid to breath in case it would set her off. She also appeared to be taking an unprecedented interest in the history of 18th-century baroque music, burying her face in the programme notes in a vain attempt at self-distraction.

The worst thing was, she was threatening to start me laughing too. I hadn’t heard many counter-tenors myself lately, to be honest, so I was somewhat out of practice. Besides which, inappropriate frivolity, whether at a classical concert or a funeral (and the atmospheres are often very similar) is notoriously infectious.

So between songs, adopting a severe tone, I tried to explain to her that higher male voices had always been an important part of the western musical tradition. And when that didn’t work, I decided on something even more sobering. On the same basis that a shock will often cure hiccups, I mentioned the ultimate example of how prized high-pitched male voices once were: the castrato.

Now, ordinarily, I might have hesitated to broach such a subject to delicate ears. But as it happened, she was already somewhat familiar with the general theme.

We recently had our eight-month old kitten, Pete Briquette, neutered, an event the details of which had caused some trauma to the younger members of the household. Thus it was that I was able to explain how, as recently as the late 19th century, it had been common practice in Europe to preserve male soprano voices by doing to their owners “what we did to Pete”.

Sure enough, this had the desired effect. For several crucial minutes afterwards, my daughter was too appalled to laugh at anything, even 18th-century opera lyrics. The remaining Handel and Mozart songs passed without incident.

The downside of mentioning the castrato phenomenon as a giggle-control mechanism, of course, is that you start dwelling on the subject yourself. Maybe it was just the music that made the second half of the concert seem more sombre than the first. Or maybe it was the memories of a book from a couple of years ago, certain details of which have stayed with me, that now came flooding back.

Like thousands of other castrati, the subject of the story was an Italian, Ferdinando Tenducci. But, rather infamously at the time (the 1760s), he married a very young woman – an Irish one at that – called Dorothea Maunsell. It was around this relationship that Helen Berry’s book, The Castrato and his Wife , revolved.

As a male reader, however, I find it’s the details of the operation that live longest in the memory. In the 13-year-old Tenducci’s case, it was carried out by an itinerant butcher, without anaesthetic. And I’m very glad for the singer, in retrospect, that at least he made a lot of money
from his career: £700 for his first London season, a fortune then.

The operation didn’t always guarantee stardom. (I know this from our kitten. He wasn’t much of a singer to start with, it’s true, but if anything his voice has disimproved. He miaows like a rusty door-hinge now). For the majority of castrati, a place in a choir was as much as they could expect.

Anyway, the most haunting part of Tenducci’s story was a detail attributed to a man who roomed with him in Dublin and once noticed him transferring a red velvet pouch from one pair of trousers to another. Asked what it was, the singer said that the pouch contained the remains of his testicles, which he still carried with him everywhere.

As the author explained, the Catholic practice of preserving relics was part of Tenducci’s tradition, and the expensive pouch was a mark of reverence for once-living tissue. But there may have been another motive too, a poignant twist on a scene from the rock comedy Spinal Tap . As Berry put it, tenderly: “The physical weight of the pouch within his breeches may also have been comforting, providing a psychological boost to Tenducci’s self-esteem.”

fmcnally@irishtimes.com