The 'Angel of Rome' Dazzled Europe With His Voice — But at What Cost?

The 'Angel of Rome' Dazzled Europe With His Voice — But at What Cost?
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Why you should care

Because this is a lot worse than a vasectomy.

Friends, fans, former choir colleagues and even princes of the church were in attendance as the funeral Mass got underway at the Church of San Lorenzo in Damaso, Italy. Presiding was the Rev. Lorenzo Perosi, the 40-year-old director of the Sistine Chapel Choir, despite his having forced the deceased into retirement. Alessandro Moreschi’s body was laid to rest that April day in 1922, in the family vault in Rome’s Cimitero del Verano, an immense cemetery complete with avenues. The streets were just wide enough for people to walk along single file, and on both sides sat gray family vaults — houses of the dead.

Like the famed 18th-century Farinelli, Moreschi was a castrato, and the most famous of the last generation of men whose young singing voices were preserved by castration before puberty. Born in Monte Compatri, Moreschi was castrated at age 7 — the bloody procedure took place supposedly due to an inguinal hernia — and would live to see a changing of the guard for Vatican choirboys.

Moreschi was most certainly castrated for singing.

Martha Feldman, writer

Using a hernia as a reason for castration, according to Martha Feldman, author of The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds, “was a conventional and age-old obfuscation.” Agents scouted young boys for choirs, she explains, noting that “Moreschi was most certainly castrated for singing.” Discovered by Nazareno Rosati, a talent scout for the Sistine Chapel Choir, when Moreschi wasn’t singing as first soprano in the famed choir, he performed privately in the salons of Rome’s aristocracy.

Moreschi became known as l’Angelo di Roma (“the Angel of Rome”), purportedly for the celestial spirit of his voice, but the moniker likely had more to do with his role-playing and theatrical abilities than his singing prowess. Moreschi worshipped his own celebrity, writes Nicholas Clapton in Moreschi: The Last Castrato, dressing in outlandish costumes and strutting like a peacock through the streets of Rome.

The last of his kind, Moreschi was also the only castrato to be recorded on phonograph. In 1902, and again in 1904, he made recordings at the Vatican, 17 tracks of which remain in existence. Sadly, the recordings reveal that Moreschi was mediocre at best, writes Joe Law in an article on Moreschi for The Opera Quarterly. His voice sounds patently melodramatic, complete with contrived emotional outbursts that resemble hiccuping sobs. To be fair, it’s unlikely that the recordings faithfully rendered Moreschi’s voice — not only was the technology inadequate but also Moreschi was recorded later in life, after his voice had already begun to diminish in vocal range.

Small in stature, Moreschi had the expanded rib cage usually associated with castrati. Thanks to his lack of body hair and squeaky voice, he appeared youthful well into his 50s. Moreschi enjoyed his life as a castrato and loved being a star, according to Clapton; owing to a change of rules for members of the Sistine Chapel Choir in March 1891, Moreschi was able to later marry Guendalina Rinaldi. But within a few years, Feldman says, Moreschi left Rinaldi for a man, supposedly a croupier, which entitled Rinaldi to Moreschi’s vast wealth, including works of art, precious stones and cash. She, in turn, sold the art and stones, giving most of the money to her new lover, who frittered it away gambling.

Despite enjoying life as a singer and his best efforts, Moreschi never fit comfortably into society. Italian standards of virility hindered his attempts. Virile men of the day wore heavy beards, and shaving was perceived as “facial mutilation,” according to Rafaella Sarti in “Fighting for Masculinity: Male Domestic Workers, Gender and Migration in Italy From the Late Nineteenth Century to the Present,” published in the journal Men and Masculinities (as a castrato, Moreschi was unable to grow a beard). By having his genitals removed, he had been robbed of the ability to appear physically like other men.

Because of Moreschi’s “angelic” voice, elite society worshipped him as a celebrity, while simultaneously looking down their noses at him for being “less than” a man. Moreschi recognized this societal ambivalence — he wanted to be accepted, yet he also feared public scorn. Forcibly retired by Pope Pius X and the Rev. Perosi’s opposition to the use of castration for the sake of music, Moreschi lived the last 15 years of his life in an apartment near the Vatican. He died of pneumonia, at age 63.

In 1902, the pope banned castrati from the Vatican’s choir, where they had reigned supreme for centuries. Superstars of their day, they had hobnobbed with royalty and aristocracy. But by the turn of the 20th century, most people considered castration grotesque. The first and only castrato ever recorded, Moreschi was not just the last of his kind, he was a historical fulcrum — a boy soprano who witnessed and suffered a sea change in papal power.

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