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Institutions, Technology, and Economics

The Fact of the Castrato and the Myth

of the Countertenor
Laura E. DeMarco

Over the last generation or so, the music world has witnessed an astonishing growth in the number of singers commonly dubbed countertenors.
The major use for these newly labeled countertenors has been to sing featured, if not starring, roles in baroque opera. Most baroque opera revived
in this period has been by Handel, and it has become common practice
to cast a countertenor in roles that Handel had written for castrato (and,
in the last few years, even in roles that Handel had written for mezzosoprano). What accounts for this development, and why do we have this
sudden interest in countertenors?
The inclination upon introduction to the vocal category known as
countertenor is to assume that the countertenor voice simply centers
on the octave above the tenor voice. And, indeed, the earliest references
to it appear to have been in choral (church) music, where the countertenor sang the line above the tenor. Normally, when discussing a vocal
category in Western art or religious music, the differentiation between
vocal categories is based simply on range. Whatever the variations, the
timbre is fundamentally the same (although it may darken or lighten depending on whether it is descending or ascending) and, most important,
the vocal production is the same. It is by these standards that the vocal
category of countertenor is judged. Since the countertenor is the extreme of the upper range of a natural male voice, it is by definition a relatively rare voice and, in any generation, something of a freak of nature,
much like the comparable, relatively few sopranos who can sing in the
octave above the normal high soprano. Though rare, such voices do exist. In the second half of the twentieth century, perhaps the best example of the phenomenon of a true countertenor was Russell Oberlin,
whose voice was naturally produced and had the full body of a tenor. But
today, the brace or two of new countertenors that appear to surface
every other week make it obvious that we are not discussing the same
voice as a true countertenor. These singers are in fact male altos. Their
range is more or less that of a countertenor, although a good counThe Musical Quarterly 86(1), Spring 2002, pp. 174185; DOI: 10.1093/musqtl/gdg006
2002 Oxford University Press


Castrato and Countertenor 175

tertenor like Oberlin could descend into the upper regions of the tenor
voice (as a tenor can descend into the upper regions of a high baritone),
whereas the male alto cannot. But the sound of a male alto differs fundamentally from that of a countertenor due to a difference in the method
of vocal production. Basically, male altos are falsettists, and they sing in
While the word falsetto has been used in many ways in Western
music history, it has always implied a feigned, unnatural tone. Thus, as
J. B. Steane noted, it has sometimes been used descriptively as a pejorative; for example, a tenor who finesses his high notes with head tones
when those tones should be full-bodied is disparaged as singing in
falsetto; or a bass or baritone comes out with a high, effeminate, disembodied tone for comic effect.1 Old Italian singing treatises sometimes
subdivided voices into chest, throat, and head voices, with the latter
being referred to as falsetto. The implication was that head voice is
weakest and therefore is sung falsetto.2 Much confusion exists in this
area, but today, with our greater knowledge of the mechanics of singing
and indeed the technology to prove itwe should know that head
tone and falsetto are not equivalent descriptions of a single effect, but
completely different phenomena.3 The male alto is, in fact, a special vocal category. Most voice teachers would say that the best falsetto effects
can be made by a normal baritone voice. Since the most common range
of tone for men falls within the normal baritone range, it would follow
that the potential for training men to produce falsetto sound is enormous.4 Indeed, it is far easier to produce male altos than tenors.
The male alto is not a new voice. Male altos undoubtedly dominated church choirs before women were allowed to participate. After all,
choirmasters needed more high-pitched sound (and greater consistency)
than boy sopranos could command. Readers are generally aware of the
use by English churches of male altos in their choirs. But the practice of
employing male altos in churches was not limited to England; until the
castrato emerged in the seventeenth century and began to replace male
altos, it held similar sway in Italy.5 But in Italy their roles in nonreligious
music, and certainly in stage music, tended to be insignificant.6 The
French employed a voice known as an haute-contre in stage works. While
some have contended that the haute-contre must have been a countertenor of some sort, the general opinion is that the hautes-contres in
seventeenth-century French opera were tenors with high extensions
(something on the order of Nicolai Gedda or Enrico di Giuseppe in his
prime) and did not extend to the range of either a true countertenor or
a male alto.7 Countertenors undoubtedly did exist in French church
music from early on.


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In England, thanks to the presence of a choral tradition that was

not limited to the church and to the popularity of madrigals and other
quasi-art part songs, employment of such voices appears to have persisted
both in church and secular music. Indeed, stage music (including the
predecessors of opera) clearly employed male singers with such a range.
Henry Purcell and his contemporaries gave some prominence to them,
but were these singers countertenors or male altos? Given the popularity
of the nomenclature, some true countertenors must have emerged, but
most of these singers probably were male altos. Andrew Parritt contends
that the first unequivocal mention of a male alto, as distinct from a
countertenor, was in 1673, insofar as English music is concerned. He
therefore concludes that up to that point Purcells countertenors were
real countertenors. Thereafter Purcell employed both countertenors and
male altos, not only in the very same performance but sometimes in the
very same piece.8 But the law of averages works against any conclusion
favoring a profusion of true countertenors in England prior to that date.
Because of Purcells preeminence as a composer, the tradition is to associate countertenors with Purcell. One oddity emerges, though: in examining Purcells scores, one sometimes finds roles described as being for
countertenor although they are written in the range of a tenor. Unless
Purcell, for economic or other reasons, had in his informal troupe of
singers a true countertenor who could also descend into the tenor region
and sing parts in either range, such references may be a form of shorthand for the kind of singing done primarily in head voice, as some of the
old continental singing treatises defined falsetto. Whatever the solution
to that problem, the English historical tradition obviously contains some
form of continuing utilization of true countertenors and/or male altos in
English musical culture.
The proliferating use of male altos over the last fifty years undoubtedly originated in the postWorld War II early-music movement, which
initially concentrated on the period when such voices were employed in
religious works or works written in England. But whatever the popularity
of the early-music movement, it could attract only a limited number of
baritones to become male altos. It did not create sufficiently large audiences to instill any belief that a living could be earned by more than a
few singers.
The desire to employ countertenors could be better understood had
composition of twentieth-century opera given rise to a great demand for
use of the countertenor or falsetto voices. But there has been no such
clamor. Roles do exist, and for the most part they are utilized for rather
peculiar characters. For example, Benjamin Britten in A Midsummer
Nights Dream calls for Oberon, king of the fairies, to be cast as a coun-

Castrato and Countertenor 177

tertenor. But Oberon, by definition, must possess a somewhat unworldly

voice and falsetto suits him well. Britten is operating here within the
British tradition. It is at least suggestive that the contemporary English
opera composer Harrison Birtwhistle, when composing an opera about
the Last Supper, rejected the idea of casting a countertenor as Jesus because such voices dont have any dramatic qualities.10
Any attempt to justify the current flood of countertenors thus
has to focus on their suitability for replacing castrati in baroque opera.
(The present fashion of replacing mezzo-sopranos in such operas,
when there is obviously no shortage of mezzo-sopranos, appears to stem
from the fact that the roles in question are so-called pants roles. Whatever the verisimilitude gained by casting men to play male parts, it is
more than offset by the change in timbre, and it directly flouts the
intention of composers such as Handel and Mozart, for example, whose
knowledge of voice and music in general really did exceed that of modern opera producers.)
Though no one now living is likely to have ever heard a castrato
voice and the few recordings that exist are, for a number of reasons, either of dubious authenticity or of aged church castrati recorded under
less than optimal circumstances, there is considerable material available
about the castrato voice, particularly as exemplified by seventeenth- and
eighteenth-century castrati trained to sing opera when the castrato dominated the stage in Italian opera seria and operas modeled on that genre.
Those castrati have to be differentiated from the castrati who were
church singersnamely, singers whose voices and/or techniques were
not good enough for opera. Castrati were actually divided into two vocal
categories: the soprano castrato and the alto castrato. Thus, the castrato
perhaps best known to us, Farinelli, was a soprano, while the castrato
Handel employed most, Senesino, was an alto. The differentiation is a
matter of range, in much the same (but probably not the identical) way
that a female soprano differs from a female mezzo-soprano. Contemporaneous reports do vary as to the timbre of the castrato voice within either
vocal categorymore so than the difference in timbre a trained ear
might hear within most single voice types today (e.g., the difference in
timbre between Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti). But on some
aspects of that voice there is little disagreement. Of those aspects, one
may list volume, stamina, and breath. Some attribute the extraordinary
development of those qualities to the physical consequences of castration before puberty, which differentiated the castrato from both a boy
and a normal man. Thus, V. E. Negus, in his article Castrati, notes
that the larynx of the eunuch does not undergo the normal changes
that take place in the passage of a boy to adulthood. As a result, the


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mechanism of singing remains the same as in boyhood. He notes further:

Although the voice of the castrato had a high pitch, the quality was of
a characteristic type and did not necessarily conform closely to that of a
boy. The rest of the body apart from the larynx shows a greater development in eunuchs than in normal men. The capacity of the lungs and
the force of expiration are equal to, if not greater than, that of a mature
man, so that the power of the voice of the castrato was very great.11
The stringent and taxing musical training to which castrati were subjected undoubtedly was a major contributing factor to the quality and
nature of their singing. Because the castrato did not undergo the vocal
breakdown that normal males do at puberty (although allegedly there
was some change), their training was not interrupted in adolescence.
Moreover, the training of a castrato as a boy was undertaken with the
intention of the subjects being turned into a starring singer. In contrast,
it is not possible to know today whether a normal boy soprano will ever
have a voice worth developing after adulthood. Wedded to volume,
stamina, and breath was a training in vocal production and fioritura unparalleled in the history of music. Indeed, it is difficult to read the scores
of operas written for some of the best-known castrati without disbelief.
The range of the superior castrato, as reported by contemporaries, appears to have been phenomenal, and the best seem to have employed
usable (onstagenot just solfeggio in the studio) ranges of three or
more octaves.12 While few of the opera scores written for them show
that range entirely, it is clear from inserted sample cadenzas and contemporaneous reports that they did deploy that extension. Indeed, opera
scores written for them were usually considered sketches to be filled
out.13 Even when they were not generous in specifically providing ample
opportunity for castrati to indulge their gift for floridity, composers had
to countenance ornamentation at certain points (most obviously, fermatas) or risk being unable to hire a superior castrato. The amount of
ornamentation on any particular night probably depended on the mood
and talent of the singer as well as on how he felt on any given night.
(If he is not in good voice, one option is to limit the difficulty of his
ornamentation. If he feels confident, only good taste will limit what a
singer with this level of ability does.)
Because the fioritura sung by castrati was so extravagant, musicologists writing from the perspective of the twentieth century sometimes
lose sight of the power and volume with which the castrati sang (and
indeed sang the fioritura) and imagine that the era of the castrato was
interested only in vocal flexibility.14 Winton Dean, in discussing Senesino, is one such offender. He notes that Handels scores do not extend
Senesinos music beyond a sixth and concludes that the singers limited
range was of no matter because Italian baroque opera placed no priority

Castrato and Countertenor 179

on range (particularly altitude).15 Of course, he finds no difficulty with

assigning castrato roles to countertenors.16 Although I have not made a
point of examining scores written by Handel and performed by Senesino
outside England, I suggest that the entire history of castrato-centered
operas refutes Dean on the major question of the characteristics necessary
to sing a leading castrato role. I would also point out that Handel wrote
two operas in London for the soprano castrato Caffarelli, neither of which
shows a vast range for Caffarelli. And yet, we know from other sources
that Caffarelli must have had a usable range of three octaves or so (up to
a soprano high E). Is Dean suggesting that Handel had a constitutional
aversion to high notes for men (something he does not display toward
women) and/or was so limited in his understanding of singers that he
missed the opportunity to exploit major elements of his singers talents?
Perhaps the answer is simple: if Handel knew his singer would ornament
in any event, whatever the composers wishes,17 there was no need to
make further provision for him in the score. In short, the score would indicate at what point(s) in the vocal line the composer would prefer that
the singer confine his ornamentation and would show the basic pattern
of the framework for such ornamentation.18 Since Handels relationship
with Senesino was rather precarious and Caffarellis willfulness was legendary, that seems a legitimate compromise. Those singers and others of
their ilk who dominated Italian opera of that period were in constant
demand and probably earned the highest salaries by far of any singers.
However appreciated, the prima donna was not prima at that time. The
status of castrati was much like that of rock stars in our era.
Whatever the castratis talent for fioritura, they carried the dramatic
burden of the opera, and the martial roles were sung by them. Contemporary accounts of their voices almost invariably stressed the size of
those voices. An examination of Adriano in Siria, written for Caffarelli
by Luigi Pergolesi in 1734, confirms not only the singers technique and
breath, but also his power. In the aria Sul mio cor, he sang sustained
notes in every register, whether after octave leaps or descents and
whether or not he had been singing extended trillsall without any
discernible opportunity to breathe for bars on end. Indeed, once, after a
long passage that provided no place to take a breath, he concluded by
trilling on sustained notes while the orchestra played forte.19 Other arias
in that opera also demonstrate equivalently the skills of its castrato hero
and the dramatic nature of his voice, not to mention a range that in one
aria, Torbido in volto, carries him from high C to low B-flat and back
again several times.
I have mentioned Senesino and Caffarelli because Handel used
them, and it is in performances of Handels works that most efforts to
insert male altos into castrati roles have been made. But Handel is not


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the only baroque composer whose Italian operas were staged in London.
Caffarelli sang other composers operas in London, as did Farinelli, who
liked to demonstrate the extraordinary dynamic range between his pianissimo and fortissimo.20 Farinellis fortissimo must have been of considerable size. A story making the rounds during his stay in London reported
that Farinelli had drowned out a trumpeter in the pit to whom he had
taken a dislike.21 Whether the story is true or not is of no importance.
The point is, there was no doubt he could have done so. Senesino, of
course, was an alto castrato, and his voice would not always have been
as reliable in high notes as that of a soprano castratowhether or not
on a good night he could reliably make such ascents. Similarly, however,
as a well-trained alto castrato he could presumably go lower than what
was written for him, probably even lower than the soprano castrato. The
other characteristics sampled above for other castrati were probably also
true of him; there is ample evidence of the volume of his voice.
If we look at such proof as we havecoming as it does from the
scores of castrato-centered operas, contemporaneous information on the
nature of the castrato voice, awareness of the training to which the castrati were subjected, and even the physical characteristics of eunuchs
produced in the prepuberty stage of male growthwe can only conclude
that substitution for a castrato of either a true countertenor or a male
alto is absurd.22 The common response to such a conclusion is that no
adequate modern replacement for the castrato voice exists and that
therefore, unless substitution of some kind is made, we must shelve the
entire repertory of castrato-centered operas, including those written by
composers of considerable preeminence in other forms of music. (One
would have to dismiss the operatic works not only of Handel, but of
Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico Scarlatti, and the
Italian works of Luigi Cherubini, among others. And that is not to say
that an investigation of lesser-known Italian composers of the period
lesser known because the vast majority of their works are castratocentered operaswould not disclose that they were very skillful composers.) In short, say supporters of substitution, half a loaf is better than
no loaf at all.
If we accept the argument that a substitute is necessary, it remains
illogical to choose the countertenor or male alto as an acceptable compromise. Indeed, he is the worst solution. The true countertenor or male
alto has a range that only approximates, but is usually not equivalent to,
that of a good mezzo-soprano. Moreover, most starring castrato roles
(other than in Handels work) were written for soprano castrati. Even
Alfred Dellers rangeand he appears to have had better high notes
than most male altosis thinner on top than in his normal alto range.

Castrato and Countertenor 181

True countertenors are so rare that to rely on them to mount castratocentered operas would mean that we would have to leave the operas on
the shelf almost as completely as if we were awaiting the reemergence
of the castrato. Even if we find a true countertenor, he is unlikely to
have the abilities of a Russell Oberlin.23 There are no special schools
busily producing true countertenors, as there were for castrati. We must
never forget what composers of the baroque period were attempting to
achieve with the castrato voice. Those operas concentrated on mythic
and/or heroic plots and, to the extent that serious nonheroic operas were
written (so-called pastorals), they often included at least some heroic
passages.24 The role of the heroic, martial, larger-than-life character in
baroque opera was almost always cast with a castrato, whatever else he
may have expressed. Male altos, on the other hand, and certainly every
true countertenor other than Oberlin,25 possess voices without any dramatic qualities whatsoever. When they attempt to sing loudlyand
loudly is a relative termnone of them can muster a force close to that
of a spinto tenor. Considerable strain is heard, and no one could accept
that sound as heroic.26 The bellicose words the singer is enunciating frequently clash hilariously with the voice expressing them. This result falsifies everything that baroque operas were trying to convey. Indeed, the
musical meaning of falsetto during the baroque era refers to a false
voice, and false in the sense of incongruous is what these contemporary
substitutes sound like.
How, then, are we to stage castrato-centered operas today? While
that is not entirely within the purview of this article, it is my belief that
while we are confronted with inherently inadequate choices, they are
far better than the use of countertenors and male altos. The first option
is to use a female singer. When Handel had to replace a castrato who
was ill (or had not shown up), he almost invariably chose a woman. In
fact, when he had to compose an opera for which no castrato was on
hand, he tended to choose a woman initially and switch to a castrato
as soon as one became available. This was also the practice in Italy with
other composers throughout the eighteenth century, even stretching
into the early nineteenth century. The first problem is to attempt to be
accurate in choosing the appropriate vocal category. If one is replacing
a soprano castrato, the choice should be a soprano and not a mezzosoprano. By the same token, to replace an alto castrato, the choice
should be a mezzo-soprano and not a soprano. (This is not to say that
the range of either a female soprano or mezzo-soprano is likely to match
that of a major castrato, whether soprano or alto.) Unfortunately, over
the last generation, whenever a woman was chosen, it appears inevitably
to have been a mezzo-soprano, even to replace a soprano castrato.


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Once the proper vocal category is selected, the next issue to address is the kind of voice necessary. It must be a large voice. A castrato
cannot be replaced with a small-voiced soprano or mezzo-soprano. Here,
given the central role of Handel in this article, and the central role of
Senesino in Handels operas, we face an irony. It appears to be easier to
find large-voiced sopranos who sing fioritura adequately than mezzosopranos. Onstage are women whose voices are not large even by mezzosoprano standards. Unfortunately, Marilyn Hornes career is over. But
even if it were not, we must accept the fact that there are not a great
many sopranos and mezzo-sopranos with large voices who can sing decent fioritura.27 These singers cannot be asked to meet the standards of
the castrato, because such a feat is impossible physically. We are therefore again faced with the difficulty that there will not be a host of potential performers who could do justice to the scores and to the performance
practices they imply. This conclusion, however, is not totally bleak. If
an appetite for staging these operas exists or may be cultivated, there is
no reason large-voiced sopranos and mezzo-sopranos cannot be induced
to sing this repertory by first teaching them how to develop a satisfactory
vocal technique for expressing the coloratura. A singer like Dolora Zajick,
for example, clearly has enough power to attempt an alto castrato role,
and she has expressed a desire to sing the heavier Rossini contralto en
travesti roles.
Another solution, which certainly was indulged in in the past and
which has been championed by Paul Henry Lang, is to transpose the castrato roles down to a normal male voice, usually a bass, at least when
staging Handels castrato-centered operas.28 Anyone who supports such
an approach is aware of the considerable musical distortionand loss
of having the role sung in a completely different range. However, there
is less distortion in castrato-centered operas than in other operas because
of the composers tendency to have the castrato soloist sing without
other vocal accompaniment. However it is parsed, though, it certainly
is not what the composer intended, and it departs completely from the
baroque fixation on high-pitched voices for heroic roles. If, however, we
resign ourselves to the fact that there is no adequate substitute for the
castrato, one effect of such an approach is to create the impact on the
audience of what the power of the castrato might have been like and
what the virility of that voice might have meant to an age that had a
different understanding of the word. The operas would sound heroic to
an audience that has heard nineteenth-century opera and perhaps convince them that baroque composers were not bloodless and the music
not tepid. The bass would have to be able to make a decent attempt at
fioritura. However, there have always been such voices. When Handel

Castrato and Countertenor 183

renounced opera for oratorio and basses became more prominent in his
music, the heroic role was often sung by a bass. In Handels Messiah, it is
the bass who sings the heavy fioritura (e.g., The Trumpet Shall Sound).29
It may very well be that the best solution, depending on the particular
opera revived, is to choose between the female substitution and transposition, being aware that whichever of the two choices is made, something irreparable is lost. But at least these choices offer a valid means of
achieving the dramatic impact on the audience that these composers
1. Steane, however, goes on to describe falsetto as the treble range produced by most
adult male singers through an artificial technique whereby the vocal chords vibrate only
in part. The remainder of the definition is a marvelous illustration of the muddle that
has existed in this area for years. J. B. Steane, Falsetto, in New Grove Dictionary of
Opera, ed. Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan, 1992), 2:113 (hereafter cited as GDO).
2. See Pier Francesco Tosi, Observations on the Florid Song, ed. Michael Pilkington,
trans. John Earnest Galliard (1743; reprint, London: Stainer & Bell, 1987), 56.
3. Victor Ewings Negus, in his article on falsetto, points up the use of singing mechanics well. Because a part of the definition constitutes a physical description of how a
falsetto voice is produced and illustrates the difference from normal vocal production, it
is necessary to quote it at length: It has been shown by stroboscopic observations that
during the ordinary mechanism of phonation in a man the vocal cords are in absolute
contact at one moment during each vibration; at this moment the current of escaping
air is shut off. When the air pressure in the trachea rises as the result of this obstruction,
the membranous vocal cords are blown apart, while the vocal processes of the arytenoid
cartilages remain in apposition. An oval aperture appears between the cords, and some
air escapes, thus lowering the intratracheal pressure. Rhythmical repetition of the movement interrupts the current of air a certain number of times per second, and a note of a
certain pitch is produced. When falsetto voice is brought into use, the vocal cords
when viewed with a stroboscopeare seen to be blown apart, whereby a permanent oval
orifice is left between the edges; through this aperture a certain volume of air escapes.
The arytenoid cartilages are held in firm apposition. Either a short length or the whole
of the membranous vocal cords may be separated; the size of the aperture varies and is
found to increase as the pressure of air expelled from the lungs is raised. In ordinary
phonation the vocal cords vibrate as a whole; the vibratory masses appear to be made up
of a layer of elastic and fatty tissue, covered superficially by the laryngeal mucous membrane and supported on the deep surface by the innermost fibres of the thyro-arytenoid
muscle. In falsetto the extreme membranous edges of the vocal cords appear to be the
only parts in vibration; the mass corresponding to the inner part of the thyro-arytenoid
muscle remains motionless. The difference in mechanism between the ordinaryor as
it is usually called the chest voiceand falsetto voice appear to depend on the relation
between contraction of the thyro-arytenoid and posterior crico-arytenoid muscles. Some
singers feel a sense of muscular relief when they change from chest voice to falsetto;
the vocal cords appear to increase in length, possibly because of partial relaxation of the
thyro-arytenoid muscle and consequent changes in the elasticity of the margins of the

184 The Musical Quarterly

glottis. Negus, Falsetto, in Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Eric Blom,
5th ed. (New York: St. Martins Press, 1966), 3:1314.
4. Every well-known falsettist who discusses his development as a countertenor in print
invariable indicates he was a high baritoneof whatever abilitybefore he became a
5. Charles Burney, A General History of Music: From the Earliest Ages to the Present Period
(1789), with critical and historical notes by Frank Mercer (New York: Harcourt, Brace,
1935), 2:528.
6. The countertenor was little used in Italian opera, since his voice lacked the power
and drama of the castrato. Ellen Harris, Voices, in Performance Practice: The New
Grove Handbooks in Music, ed. Howard Mayer Brown and Stanley Sadie (London:
Macmillan, 1989), 2:113.
7. See Lionel Sawkins, Haute-contre, GDO, 2:66869. By the time of Gluck, the
ranges of most haute-contre roles was that of a not very high tenor, and by the time
Rossini finished in Paris, the haute-contre was pretty much extinct.
8. Andrew Parritt, Performing Purcell, in The Purcell Companion, ed. Michael Burden
(London: Faber & Faber, 1995), 41718, 442. Parritt draws upon material by Matthew
9. Britten cast Alfred Dellerthen the best-known of the male altosand became
very upset when the Royal Opera preferred Russell Oberlin, a true countertenor (and
an outstanding singer), because his voice was much larger than that of a male alto. See
Michael Hardwick and Mollie Hardwick, Alfred Deller: A Singularity of Voice (New York:
Frederick A. Praeger, 1969), 143.

New York Times, 31 Dec. 1997.

11. V. E. Negus (with additions by Eric Blom), Castrati, in Groves Dictionary of Music
and Musicians (1966), 2:11617.
12. I have never heard any opera singer with a usable range in excess of two octaves.
Even Marilyn Horne in her prime appears to have had a usable range of approximately
two octaves. By usable I mean the ability to sing mezzo-forte with ease and securely on
13. Gioachino Rossini, who received his musical education in Italy at the time the castratos preeminence had begun to fade and who wrote an opera for the best castrato of his
day, made this point to Ferdinand Hiller in discussing composers of the castratos heyday.
Hiller, Plaudereien mit Rossini, in Aus dem Tonleben unserer Zeit (Leipzig: Hermann
Mendelssohn, 1868), 2:6465.
14. Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp, Handels Operas, 17041726 (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1987), 28. This is amusing because Senesino frequently is described as a
man with a large and thrusting voice. Thus, Johann Joachim Quantz stated that Senesino sang allegros with great fire; quoted in Angus Herriot, The Castrati in Opera
(London: Calder and Boyars, 1975), 94. Burney was even more emphatic in describing
an aria sung by Senesino as being rolled and thundered by his powerful voice and articulate execution; quoted in Thomas Walker, Castrato, in New Grove Dictionary of Music
and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie, 6th ed. (London: Macmillan, 1980), 3:876.

Dean and Knapp, 21.

Castrato and Countertenor 185

16. Winton Dean, Handel and the Opera Seria (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1969), 207.
17. Even a composer of Handels stature knew he could not completely stop star castrati
from ornamenting when they wanted to. Had he tried, he would have had to face the
consequence of losing them to his competition on the London stage, with the likelihood
of losing box office revenue.

Consider how ornamentation would be introduced into keyboard works in that period.

19. I challenge any readers experience of having ever heard anyone trilling on sustained
notes while the orchestra is playing forte.
20. As described by Charles Burney, recounting the impact of Farinelli on London audiences of 1734, the first note he sang was taken with such delicacy[,] swelled by minute
degrees to such an amazing volume, and afterwards diminished in the same manner to a
mere point, that it was applauded for a full five minutes. Burney, The Present State of
Music in France and Italy (London: T. Becket, 1771), 208.

Burney, The Present State of Music, 208.

22. For a contrary view, see Peter Giles, himself a male alto and a staunch propagandist
for use of the male alto virtually everywhere. He has done much work on the male alto,
and his differentiation of it from the true countertenor has been particularly useful. See
particularly his The Counter Tenor (London: Frederick Muller, 1982), as well as The History and Technique of the Counter-Tenor: A Study of the Male High Voice Family (Aldershot:
Scolar Press, 1994). My problem with Giless theoriesand it is a fundamental oneis
that he really does not understand the castrato and its function in castrato-centered operas.
23. Oberlin appears to have been the one true countertenor star of the last fifty years.
One wonders how he would have taken to a steady diet of castrato roles, even if they
were only alto castrato roles.
24. To the extent they were not, then obviously the composers concentration was on
the castratos fioritura and range. The male alto does not meet these requirements either.
25. While Oberlins voice was much larger than that of any male alto I have ever
heard, he certainly never produced a sound large enough to sing castrato roles as loudly
as a castrato would have sung them.
26. It is no answer to claim that opera houses were smaller, instruments less lively, and/
or orchestras less full in the baroque period. The vocal line requires singers of force and
thrust. Certainly no one would ever claim that a male alto could sing Siegfried.
27. There is also, of course, the problem of embellishment. Sopranos today do not receive the technical training a castrato would have received; consequently, they lack the
confidence to attempt to express it in the manner of a castrato.
28. To take an alto castratothe lower-voiced castratodown to the bass voice has
some psychological symmetry to it. What would Lang have done for the brighter-voiced
soprano castrato? Transpose it to the tenor?
29. It is not that Handel did not use a large-voiced tenor in oratorioshe did, as in
Samson. But he did not use a large-voiced male who also sang difficult fioritura.