The Singer’s Library : ‘The Modern Castrato’

Book Review: The Modern Castrato: Gaetano Guadagni and the Coming of a New Operatic Age by Patricia Howard

Every movement needs a champion of its cause. Throughout history, it seems progress is made by those brave enough to move in a new direction—but it also requires those whose capabilities are particularly well matched to the innovations.

In the second half of the 18th century, Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck, along with librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, brought a new perspective to opera seria through their operatic setting of Orfeo ed Euridice. Moving away from the virtuosic displays and static delivery of their predecessors, they placed a newfound emphasis on expression of text and story through music and movement. Calzabigi himself said, “In the new scheme of drama . . . carried out for the first time in Orfeo . . . nature and feeling prevail . . . the music expresses nothing but that which arises from the words; consequently the words are not buried in notes, and are not used to prolong the performance inappropriately” (pp. 205–206).

To bring these reforms to the forefront, however, the music required a singer who was not only capable of the vocal and artistic challenge but who would also embrace and promote the new performance style. The singer who emerged was castrato Gaetano Guadagni.

A recent biography published by Oxford University Press, The Modern Castrato: Gaetano Guadagni and the Coming of a New Operatic Age, takes an in-depth look at Guadagni and explores his unique contributions to opera reform. It also gives readers a glimpse into the life of this now extinct voice type to see how these men fit into both the musical and social culture of the time.

Author Patricia Howard arranges most chapters chronologically to take us through Guadagni’s life, while other chapters depart from this format to explore particular elements of his artistic life as an actor, composer, and singer.

Howard has dozens of previously published books and articles on 18th-century opera and singing technique and has contributed to the BBC’s Music Magazine and Music Matters. With degrees from Oxford and Surrey Universities, she is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at England’s Open University.

Though subjecting young boys to castration in order to preserve their unchanged voices is both questionable (at best) and abhorrent (at worst), castrati have nonetheless played a critical part in the history of church music and opera.

The castrato with the greatest name recognition is likely Farinelli (née Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi) due in part to the 1994 film on his life. While he was undeniably an important figure in the first half of the 18th century, Howard makes the case that Guadagni could be considered the most significant castrato of the second half of the century as he embodied all the operatic reforms that occurred during that time.

To reach logical conclusions about Guadagni’s voice and capabilities, in lieu of recordings, Howard references the writings of those who did hear him sing. He was often praised for the quality and expressivity of his voice. It was not, however, considered to be a powerful instrument. One writer called his voice “delicate” as well as “thin and feeble.”

Another way Howard makes inferences about Guadagni’s voice is by examining the music he performed most often and to the greatest critical acclaim. “We can learn more about the character of his voice and the nature of his technique by examining the music written specifically for him or adapted to suit him,” she writes (p. 197).

One early supporter whose music we can look to, Howard notes, is George Frideric Handel—the composer Guadagni was associated with longer than any other. In fact, Guadagni has the distinction of performing the most Handel oratorio roles under the composer’s direction than any other castrato.

Howard believes Handel’s influence shaped Guadagni’s early career and helped form his singing style by “directing his attention to expression and declamation rather than to virtuosity and display” (p. 2). Handel wrote the role of Didymus in Theodora specifically for Guadagni, which Howard feels “hit upon the flowing, conjunct style that came to be Guadagni’s preferred vehicle for his ‘refined’ and ‘well toned’ voice” (p. 202).

While the association with Handel formed the basis of Guadagni’s vocal and musical personality, these attributes were explored further, and to even greater success, by Gluck.

“However sympathetically Handel created and adapted roles for Guadagni,” Howard writes, “it was Gluck who changed the whole focus of Guadagni’s career by creating in Orfeo a vehicle of expression that entirely coincided with the singer’s strengths and limitations. There are no bravura numbers. . . . The vocal lines display an effusion of tender emotions expressed in the balanced rising and falling of lyrical phrases. . . . Gluck’s aim of simplifying operatic language in the interests of telling the story more directly led him to write in an almost exclusively syllabic style” (p. 205).

Besides the departure from the traditional musical language of his contemporaries, Gluck’s opera reforms placed a different emphasis on acting as well. Conventions of the time preferred stock poses and “decorative” gestures and facial expressions. Guadagni, however, sought increasingly realistic character choices and “put the interpretation of a character before the promotion of his own skills, even when such integrity came into conflict with conventional soloist-audience relations” (p. 98).

In a move that was unprecedented at the time, Guadagni requested that audiences read the libretto before coming to the theatre, emphasizing the importance of the words and the drama and not just the music or the singer. Additionally, when audiences applauded after his arias, he refused to break character and bow, often drawing hisses from the disgruntled crowds.

These choices were entirely in line with the reforms Gluck brought to opera seria, and Guadagni proved the perfect singer for such modifications.

Again, Howard writes, “Guadagni was the first, and perhaps the only, 18th-century singer fully to realise [sic] what was at stake. He was quick to identify with the reform, building his career around the one role that came to symbolise [sic] the new approach: Orpheus in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (1762).”

Written to Guadagni’s capabilities, Orpheus not only suited his skills but, just as importantly, avoided his vocal limitations, leading one fellow reformer to comment that the role “fitted him like a glove.”

While, as Howard points out, many of Gluck’s innovations were not widely accepted until the 19th century through composers like Berlioz and Wagner, Orfeo ed Euridice still maintains a place of prominence as the first opera seria to achieve repertory status.

In addition, the role of Orfeo is the earliest castrato role that many modern listeners encounter. Howard argues that Guadagni’s input contributed greatly to the initial success of the opera and the “enduring appeal” of the role.

Howard’s book is thorough and well researched. Many of the passages she translates and quotes are also included in their original language in the footnotes. The bibliography lists pages of resources for additional research (including much of her own writing on related topics), and three appendixes provide a chronological listing of Guadagni’s dramatic roles, a record of his salary while employed at the Santo, and selected documents in their original language (including his baptismal record and his will).

Howard also uses a companion website ( that directs readers to three scores and one recording of pieces that Guadagni composed himself, as well as additional information about the singer.

The Modern Castrato will be of interest to many, but especially those who fully appreciate Gluck’s reforms and contributions to 18th-century opera seria. Singers who perform Orfeo will benefit from learning about the man who premiered the role and the circumstances under which it occurred. Additionally, singers who explore how Handel wrote for Guadagni’s voice—for instance, which vocal characteristics he sought to highlight—may gain insights to strengthen their own performances of the same works.

Finally, as the book also delves into Guadagni’s personal life—including hints of arrogance, political wrangles, and sexual exploits—readers may view the complete, unsanitized picture of his life beyond the stage.

Though their prevalence would be unthinkable today, many castrati became major figures and personalities in the music scenes of their time. Patricia Howard’s compelling book of one such singer and his notable additions to the history and development of opera is itself a significant and worthy contribution.

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /