Farinelli, il pastichio
Earlier this week, I picked up this DVD from the library on impulse. I'm not sure why I did that, since I'm no fan of opera, and haven't in fact liked listening to any since about twenty years ago, when, buoyed by a few plays of a cassette we had, I'd toyed with the idea of having a crush on either Maria Callas or Joan Sutherland. For vocal calisthenics I much prefer Hindustani classical, I get my fix of facial contortions in the shaving mirror of a morning, and melodrama I can usually do without. So I'm not sure why I brought this home.
But having brought it, I stuck it into the rig night before. I watched half that evening, and the remaining half yesterday night. It wasn't the greatest film ever -- an average 18th century musical biopic (if one might compute such a measure for that rather restricted population). Think Amadeus without the charm or the laugh, but with sultry Italian good looks and - yes - melodrama. Threesomes, public suicide attempts during a solar eclipse, paraplegic children with the wisdom of youth, juvenile suicide, and, of course, childhood castration.
For Farinelli was a real person. A castrato. Someone who was deprived of his family jewels at an early age, in order to preserve and perfect a precociously gifted singing voice. Apparently, castrati had the most amazing singing voices ever -- way better than anything any modern singer can achieve. (Don't ask me, ask wikipedia.) The practice of castration for purposes of opera was banned in the late 19th century, so no one alive has really heard a castrato perform at their peak. The wikipedia link has a little piece of one of the few audio recordings by Alessandro Moreschi, the only castrato ever known to have recorded. It's not a very great piece of music, but then there's a controversy about whether Moreschi was one of the not-so-good castrati, or whether he was, but past his prime at the time of recording. Either way, that clip is interesting in that it sounds like no middle-aged man that you're likely to meet.
Anyway, back to the movie. So castrati in general had amazing voices that no living human can reproduce (pun unintended but ha ha anyway). Granted some sopranos (soprani?) do perform parts written for castrati (I remember another tape I used to have, of Kathleen Battle with *blush* Wynton Marsalis), but apparently they achieve nowhere near the intended effect. Googling Farinelli led me to this link, which has this to say:
Castrati were virtuoso musicians, exceptionally talented and trained. Almost nothing in their repertoire can be performed nowadays. Castrati were particularly known for their unique timbre: because of the surgery performed on them, their voice did not change with puberty. Upon adulthood, the size of their thoracic cage, their lung capacity, their physical stamina and their strength were usually above that of most men. They had, as a consequence, great vocal power, and some were able to sing notes for a minute or more. Finally, a small and flexible larynx, and relatively short vocal chords allowed them to vocalize over a rather wide range (over 3 and 1/2 octaves) and to sing with great agility (they could control wide intervals, long cascades and trills). Furthermore, castrati were initially selected among the best singers and received intensive training.
So then, how did the makers of this film approximate the voice of Farinelli? This is definitely the most fascinating part of the story for me.
To better identify this lost voice and to define its characteristics, we have taken into account the physical traits of the organs involved in voice production in a castrato, ... and of descriptions of the singing found in written accounts.
We have attempted several approaches, starting from a bass, a tenor, an alto, a countertenor and a coloratura soprano. Because of the very wide vocal range, we have decided to use both a countertenor (Derek Lee Ragin) and a coloratura (Ewa Godlewska) who used similar singing techniques (especially with respect to vibrato and articulation).
After the selection of the singers, the processing took place in two stages. The first ... tried to recreate the melodic line of the castrato voice based on recordings of the two singers. This was done by splicing the parts which could only be sung by the countertenor with those specific to the soprano. This subtle editing work was sometimes done note by note.
The second stage ... was to blend the timbre of the two voices. A timbre close to that of the countertenor, itself quite characteristic, was chosen as reference. This voice was nevertheless processed to give it a younger quality, in particular removing certain noisy aspects. The voice of the soprano was then modified more dramatically by transforming it toward that of the countertenor. Additional processing was required to produce certain effects such as very long notes which could not be sustained by today's singers. These notes were wholly synthesized with elements sampled from other parts of the sung material.
So as to better understand the type of transformation that was applied, an analogy with image processing may be useful... Morphing is a gradual transformation from one scene into the other by continuously changing the shape, texture and outline of each fundamental element of the face. Likewise, we go from one voice to the other by gradually altering the characteristics of one voice into those of the other voice.
Wow. Reading about the technical wizardry here took my breath away -- primarily because I hadn't ever thought of it before (and come to think of it, I did sit through the entire film, singing and all). And second, think of the delicious irony of the situation. Castrati, neither fully man nor woman, are now recreated as a blend, an apotheosis, of man and woman! How much more wonderful can irony get?