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Cecilia Bartoli on castrati and Michael Jackson [updated]

October 27, 2009 |  7:00 am

Bartoli A high-pitched voice, questionable sexuality, and ear-grabbing melodies—the new Decca album “Sacrificium” may sound like another posthumous Michael Jackson collection; instead, it’s a collection of 17th century opera arias written for castrati — the gelded male singers who were the superstars of the European music world for almost two centuries.

“Sacrificium” is hardly likely to revive the practice of castration or even reach “Thriller”-like global ubiquity, but Cecilia Bartoli, an Italian mezzo-soprano with a large following (not to mention obsessions and image control that calls to mind the King of Pop), could well take 11 previously unrecorded arias to the top of the classical charts — and even find some crossover appeal as well. (One month before its release, “Sacrificium” was already in the top 10 of’s classical bestsellers, and over the weekend it moved into the top-40 of overall Amazon bestsellers.)

Reached by phone in Europe, where Bartoli has been on tour performing the songs from “Sacrificium,” the singer admits that Michael Jackson was on her mind as she was putting the finishing touches on the album this summer: “After 300 years we’re still ready to sacrifice our bodies for beauty or what fashions dictates for us, and it got me thinking about the incredible talent and musician of Michael Jackson. He was an amazing, amazing musician and talent and genius really of music. He was really also a victim of this, in a way. Mutilating himself — what he did for his body, for the skin, for the nose.”

Though obviously not a castrato, Jackson was a countertenor whose career resembled those of the 19th century stars—both in its glittering highs and humiliating lows.

Bartoli says part of the reason she embarked on this project was this tragic nature of the castrati. “On the cover of my album I wanted to show a strong image of a female voice in a male body,” she says, referring to “Sacrificium’s” curious cover art with Bartoli’s head atop crumbling male statuary, “I wanted to show in a clear image the combination of beauty and cruelty.”

“Most of these young boys were coming from very, very poor families, which they already have 10 to 12 children,” Bartoli says, again making a parallel with Jackson, “one would sacrifice, in the name of music, but in fact it was big business because if this boy was able to make a career he was considered a pop star and he was earning lots of money and he was the one who could have saved his family out of poverty.”

Cecilia But like young boys and girls hoping to be the next 50 Cent or Kelly Clarkson, the reality for most castrati was simply a life of being an outcast. Bartoli says that even the lucky few castrati who became stars also suffered a great deal psychologically. Because of this, Bartoli feels that the music they sang contains more complex emotions: “Because every castrato had this psychological drama…they had the capability to translate the drama, their own drama in the music. And I think this was the strength also of castratos, not only for the big virtuoso things but especially the dramatic, and deep and emotional dramatic arias.”

The plaintive numbers in “Sacrificium” are rich with pathos, but it’s not a somber album.  There are wildly frenzied songs like “Chi temea Giove regnante” where the Neapolitan composer Leonardo Vinci treats the human voice like Jimi Hendrix treated his electric guitar.  Bartoli admits that singing this music is difficult but she loves it—and she feels that the over-the-top theatricality of castrati music will connect with people, “because it has a rhythmical element, also an improvisational element which I think the public loves—and pure simple melodies also.”

Bartoli not only feels strongly that there is an audience for the music of the castrati, she also insists that their spirit lives on today’s rock stars. “This sexual ambiguity, the fact that they were changing from female characters to male characters, this of course for the audience had a strong erotic element to it, “Bartoli says, “And this is still the case today. I remember the first time I saw David Bowie, he also had the androgynous aspect to him, that was quite interesting. Pop singers, some of them, still play with the androgynous kind of sexuality.”

It’s a quirk of fate that Bartoli’s album arrives in the U.S. the same week as the Michael Jackson’s “This Is It.” Bartoli’s CD is a reminder that even as musical tastes and styles change, there has always been an audience for flamboyant men with unnaturally high voices.

-- James Taylor

[story updated at 11:39 a.m.]

Promotional photos from the CD and of Bartoli. Credit: Decca / Uli Weber