Writing a Forgotten Diva by Beverle Graves Myers
I fell in love with baroque opera the moment I heard an achingly ethereal, crystal clear soprano voice fill my college Music History classroom. The performer was Alfred Deller, a modern-day singer who had trained his falsetto to reach the countertenor range and provide a haunting hint of the castrato sopranos who were the divas of the opera stage during much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Like musical comets, the castrati streaked across the stages of Europe and were then largely forgotten. I’ve never been able to listen to an opera by Handel or Vivaldi without wondering about the men who were forced to make such sacrifices for their art. Offstage, did they meld into their communities or were they considered freaks? What did they do after they grew too old to perform? What happened to the boys who didn’t find fame despite the mutilating surgery?
When I decided to make a mid-life career switch and write historical mysteries, I began with a search for an appealing protagonist: appealing to me, so I could stick with him or her over many books, and appealing to readers, as well. I’ve always been interested in individuals who exist at the margins of society; perhaps, that’s why I chose psychiatry as my first career. Casting back to my early fascination, I began to toy with the idea of a castrato singer with a talent for sleuthing and Tito Amato gradually took shape.
I knew that in cities like Venice, opera was a great spectacle that evoked frenzied passion from citizens of all ranks. The theaters were the meeting place of society, and intrigue and flirtation abounded on both sides of the curtain. All in all, this musical world was fertile ground for murder and suspense. I envisioned my singer-sleuth as a noble character, a chaste eunuch, removed from personal entanglements and able to concentrate on observing and detecting from his unique viewpoint. Tito insisted on a different path, but I’m getting ahead of myself. My first idea was to find a little known, real-life personality to serve as my sleuth. I dusted off my research skills from my undergraduate history studies and hit the library.
A brief perusal of the subject made it clear that a gentleman who went by the stage name of Farinelli was the greatest castrato singer of the baroque era. Born to a family of modest means, Farinelli died an incredibly wealthy man at his retirement villa near Bologna. In between, he became the toast of Europe, sparked a battle between rival opera companies in London, and spent many years in Madrid as King Philip V’s personal singer. The king suffered from a debilitating mental illness, and Farinelli’s soothing nightly concerts encouraged him to carry out his royal duties. In addition to his virtuosity, Farinelli was famous for his pleasant and generous nature. While I admired his character, I immediately sensed that I didn’t want my protagonist to be hemmed in by the details of his life. Specifically, I wanted to base my books in Italy, not England or Spain.
As I delved deeper, I discovered another fascinating castrato named Atto Melani. Absorbing court manners along with his vocal exercises, Atto attracted the patronage of nobleman Mattias de’Medici. When Cardinal Mazarin of France requested Italian singers to entertain the French court, Mattias sent Atto. The castrato quickly turned his handsome face and beautiful songs to good advantage. As he serenaded at banquets and intimate suppers, he kept his ears open for information which would interest Mattias and reported accordingly. Atto went on to spy in the same fashion for Cardinal Mazarin at German courts. Still later, he became involved in a scheme to gain the papal throne for Cardinal Giulio Rospigliosi, who ended up as Pope Clement IX.
The lives of Atto Melani, Farinelli, and others provided useful story lines, but I realized that none of these singers would make an appropriate protagonist for a mystery series. I would have to build my sleuth from the ground up. Because I was planning a lengthy series, I opened INTERRUPTED ARIA with Tito as a young man just returning home from his Neapolitan music conservatory. I gave him a large family so my readers would see more of Venice than the inside of an opera house. Tito’s brother, Alessandro, is a merchant seaman trying to scrape out a living in a time of economic decline. Gussie Rumbolt, Tito’s friend and eventual brother-in-law, begins as a young Englishman making his Grand Tour. Liya, Tito’s love interest (yes, many castrati were capable in the romance department, but that’s a different essay), lives in the Ghetto and brings in the viewpoint of Venetian Jews. As I fleshed these characters out on the page, they began to take on lives of their own and I knew that I’d been right not to force my series arc to follow the life of a real person.
My first agent always said that he took me on because he found Tito Amato to be an unusual sleuth with a fresh, compelling voice. Not all publishers he queried agreed. Rejection letters dribbled in, doubting that modern readers could empathize with Tito or assuring us that readers weren’t interested in mysteries set in Europe (!). It was a red-letter day at the Myers household when the acceptance came in from Poisoned Pen Press. After years of wanting to outwit history and tell the story of opera’s forgotten castrato heroes, I was finally on my way.
Beverle Graves Myers, July 2012