Eighteenth-century Gender Bending by Beverle Graves Myers

Posted by on Oct 14, 2013 in 17th-18th Century Europe, Historical Fiction Influences, Historical Tidbits, Uncategorized | 1 comment

cover37147-mediumIn the interest of saving the best for last, I’ve graced my last Tito Amato mystery with a plotline that I’ve been keeping in reserve for a long time. Whispers of Vivaldi, to be published in January 2014, features Angeletto, a young male soprano who has taken Naples and Milan by storm and is now headed to Venice. In the eighteenth century, opera was THE entertainment of the day, and audiences couldn’t get enough of the ethereal, crystal-clear notes that emanated from the lungs of the castrati. The most popular of these male divas were treated like modern rock stars, touring Europe, earning huge salaries, and gaining hysterical admirers of both sexes.

But is Angeletto all that he appears to be?

His given name is Carlo Vanini, though the opera-loving public call him Angeletto on account of his divine voice and heavenly beauty, and Tito is depending on his star power to save the opera house from ruin. But whispered rumors quickly fly through the taverns and coffee houses of Venice: is Carlo really Carla? Should Angeletto be wearing skirts instead of breeches? Tito fears he has been tricked by a daring female only pretending to be a castrato singer. If the rumors are true, not only will Tito become the chief laughingstock of Venice, but the Senate is apt to withdraw its sponsorship of the opera house altogether.

casanova-1The inspiration for Angeletto came from one of Casanova’s adventures. This self-described great lover was a real person, a Venetian of Tito’s era. Born in 1725, the son of actors, he refused to go along with their plan to make him a priest and was expelled from his seminary for immoral conduct. Though Giacomo Casanova is famed for being the quintessential womanizer, he was also a cabalist, spy, soldier, and violinist. He also found time to write a highly entertaining twelve-volume autobiography, which I often mine for details of eighteenth-century life.

In Volume Two, Casanova tells the tale of his compelling attraction to Bellino, a teenaged castrato traveling with his theatrical family that he encountered at an inn in Ancona. Casanova could scarcely believe that the beautiful creature was male, even though Bellino himself swore it was the truth. So intrigued was Casanova that he tried every trick of seduction to induce the singer to share his bed, even offering the boy’s mother a gold doubloon to view his genitals.

TeresaLantiTo make a long story short, Bellino was indeed a female. A purported portrait of her in later life hangs in a Milan museum. Real name Teresa Lanti, she had been trained as a female soprano, and was apparently quite talented. Her ambitious mother had induced her to pose as a castrato so that she could appear on the stages of the Papal States from which females were barred (another long story that I won’t go into to here). Because they were the acknowledged divas, castrati always earned higher salaries than the female singers.

Angeletto has his own story, of course, with his own character-driven motivations. After hearing him sing for the first time, Tito believes he is a valid castrato. As he explains, “A woman could never deliver a song with the power Angeletto possessed. After all, that was why the peculiar practice of making eunuchs of young boy singers had endured for so many years—the preservation of a flexible, delicate larynx combined with the astounding size and power of a man’s lungs created a voice that defied earthly laws.”

Taking the opposite tack, an artist who had accompanied Tito to the concert, argues, “What I saw was a woman revealing herself in a hundred little ways. Didn’t you catch those melting glances, the perfection of face and figure?” Tito is stumped.

Just like Tito, the reader can never be certain just who this amazing singer really is. Or how that mystery figures into the murder of the theater’s director. Yes, Whispers of Vivaldi is mystery, the last in the Tito Amato series set in the dazzling, decadent world of baroque Venice. The hard copy is available for pre-order—an eBook will follow shortly.

Beverle Graves Myers, October 13, 2013


One Comment

  1. Ha! This story sounds delightful! (And the cover is beautiful.) M.U.S.T. make room on the TBR pile.