Subverting from Within: The Agency of a Castrato”

Giambattista Velluti was the last castrato to appear on the operatic stages of Europe. Exceptional and alone, unique in voice, in ornamentational style, in body, he was a focus of critical commentary. John Fane, future Earl of Westmorland, was the ambassador to the Grand Duchy of Florence, married to the favorite niece of the Duke of Wellington, and a modestly talented amateur composer. In 1824, for a private performance of his opera Fedra, Fane engaged the castrato soprano.

The Fanes gathered Velluti into their intimate circle, urging the soprano’s 1825 trip to England, hoping for a debut at the King’s Theater in Meyerbeer’s Il Crociato in Egitto. In London, Velluti built support from within this circle, singing a series of concerts in the homes of the nobility. Wellington, Prime Minister 1828-1830, threatened the King’s Theater with closure if they did not engage Velluti. Despite vituperation in the opposition press, the aristocrats succeeded and, after a raucous premier, so did Velluti. Fane even allowed Velluti to publish several of his arias with the singer’s famed “graces” written above the original vocal line.

Modern scholarship has seen these graces as either inventive melodic improvisation or bizarreries lacking agency as Velluti lacked gender. In 1825, critics attacked the “impudent Musico” who “committed sins against the harmony” (The Harmonicon) on the grounds that a mere singer, especially one “whom we must not call a man” (The Times of London) had no right to challenge the will of the composer with his “mannerist” fripperies. I intend to show, however, that Velluti employed immense intellectual agency as a harmonist. From the soprano line, he dramatically altered Fane’s original intent, overlaying, subverting the composer’s voice with his own. The powerful Lord was drowned out by a mere eunuch, foreshadowing an intensified harmonic language in Italian opera.


Robert Crowe is completing his dissertation for a PhD in historic musicology at Boston University, focusing on the life and times of the last operatic castrato, Giovanni Battista Velluti.

He has worked for over twenty years as a male soprano, was a 1995 National Winner of the Metropolitan Opera Competition and has sung over 70 leading roles in operas and dramatic oratorios in the United States and across Europe. He has presented papers or lecture recitals at the American Musicological Society’s national convention, the ICBM in Salzburg, the Tosc@Bologna, the Biennial Conference on Nineteenth-Century Music in Great Britain, and at the Society of Seventeenth-Century Music.

He and Prof. Michael Eberth, historic organ, have collaborated on two recordings with the Bayerischer Rundfunk and Hänssler Profil, 2008’s The Virtuoso Soprano Motets of Giacomo Carissimi, which was named to Crescendo Magazine’s Year’s Best List, and 2011’S Songs to Mary: the Marian Motets of Monteverdi, Grandi and Carissimi which garnered critical praise in Europe and North America.

In the past year he has been privileged to sing one of Velluti’s favorite roles, Vitekindo in Nicolini’s “Carlo Magno” at the Fliegende Volksbühne in Frankfurt and Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate at Bath Abbey with the Bath Philharmonia.