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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 1 Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi
Richard Taruskin

The greatest screamers of all, and the most completely “educated” (that is, cultivated), were the male prima donnas known as castrati, opera’s first international stars, whose astounding sonority and preternaturally florid singing style confirmed opera in an abiding aura of the eerie. Although castrati originated not in the theater but in the churches of sixteenth-century Italy, where females could not perform but a full range of singers was desired, and where (as the historian John Roselli has put it) “choirboys were no sooner trained than lost,”10 the burgeoning commercial opera stage with its exhibitionism and its heroics gave these unearthly singers their true arena. In an age that valued finely honed symbolic artifice, these magnificent singing objects—artists made, not born—were “naturally” the gods, the generals, the athletes, and the lovers. Seventeenth-and eighteenth-century “serious opera” is unthinkable (and unrevivable) without them.

Here too there are social costs to consider; for if it was to be musically effective, castration had to take place, so to speak, in the nick of time. That meant that the necessary surgery had to be performed on boys before they reached the age of consent. For this reason the operation was always officially illegal, even though the practice catered in large part to the most official social strata. When Charles Burney, the eighteenth-century English music historian, went in search of information on the practice, he was given a royal runaround: “I was told at Milan that it was at Venice; at Venice, that it was at Bologna; but at Bologna the fact was denied, and I was referred to Florence; from Florence to Rome, and from Rome I was sent to Naples.”

Greedy parents were often responsible; a prospective castrato was supposed to be brought to a conservatory to be tested “as to the probability of voice,” as Burney put it.

But, he continued,

it is my opinion that the cruel operation is but too frequently performed without trial, or at least without sufficient proof of an improvable voice; otherwise such numbers could never be found in every great town throughout Italy, without any voice at all, or at least without one sufficient to compensate such a loss.11

And as other travelers reported, no churchyard in Italy was without a contingent of unemployed or failed castrati, begging for their subsistence. The eunuchs of Italy were not all heroes.

By the end of the seventeenth century the serious—the noble and the heroic—was only one of the available operatic modes. The commercial opera was from the first a bastard genre, in which crowd-pleasing comic characters and burlesque scenes or interludes compromised lofty classical or historical themes in violation of traditional (that is, Aristotelian) dramatic rules, before being segregated by snobbish dramatic purists (in the eighteenth century) into discrete categories of “serious” (opera seria) and “comic” (opera buffa). And this was the other great difference—an even more significant difference—between court music spectacles and commercial opera: the latter, at first under cover of comedy, introduced oppositional, anti-aristocratic politics into the genre. The commercial (later the comic) opera, originally instituted as a carnival entertainment, became a very hotbed of what the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin called “carnivalism”: authority stood on its head.

It was already a license to display operatic divas (women singers, literally “goddesses”), veritable warbling courtesans, to the public gaze, and a notorious Jesuit critic, Giovan Domenico Ottonelli, lost little time in rising to the bait. In a treatise of 1652 called Delle cristiana moderazione del theatro, he denounced the theaters of the “mercenarii musici” (money-grubbing musicians) as voluptuous and corrupting in contrast to the edifying spectacles mounted “ne’ palazzi de’ principi grandi” (at the palaces of great princes).12 But the most significant licenses were as much political as moral and marked the public opera indelibly. Public opera became a world where satyrs romped and Eros reigned, where servant girls outwitted and chastised their masters, where philandering counts were humiliated, and where—later and more earnestly—rabbles were roused and revolutions were abetted. No one had to be sold into slavery to support it; and yet, for the most cogent of reasons, opera became the most stringently watchdogged and censored of all forms of art until the twentieth century, when that distinction passed to motion pictures.

Examples of opera’s disruptive and destabilizing vectors can be drawn from any phase in its history, beginning with the earliest, and the promised comparison of Monteverdi’s two most famous theatrical pieces, sole survivors in the repertory of the court and market genres of seventeenth-century Italy, will make an ideal vantage point for observing them since they epitomized the two artistic and political poles.


(10) John Roselli, New Grove Dictionary of Opera (London: Macmillan, 1992), s.v. “castrato.”

(11) Percy A. Scholes, ed., Dr. Burney’s Musical Tours in Europe, Vol. I (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), pp. 247–48.

(12) Quoted in Rosand, Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice, p. 11.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-01005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 23 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-01005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 23 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-01005.xml