Book Review: “The Castrato and his Wife”

Yesterday the Washington Post published my review of this wonderfully interesting book of European history. In my Modern and Postmodern class we kept coming back to what it means to talk about the “really real.” So did Ms. Tenducci in the 18th century, and the historian Hellen Berry today.
In 1775, Dorothea Maunsell and her new husband, William Long Kingsman, went to court to show that they were indeed legally married. They had already had two wedding ceremonies (one in Italy, the other in England), but there was a problem: a long, public record of Dorothea already being married to opera singer Ferdinando Tenducci. Those two had eloped in 1766 and had lived as a couple in England and then Italy. But Dorothea and William went to court to argue that the earlier liaison was in fact no real marriage. Tenducci had been castrated as a boy so as to preserve his pure voice. As a eunuch, he was deemed physically and legally incapable of being married.
Helen Berry, a gifted historian with a great story to tell, relates that the intentional removal of testicles was banned by the pope in 1587, as was the marriage of eunuchs. But the surgical mutilation continued for the next two centuries because, as Berry writes, “The fully trained castrato voice epitomized everything about Baroque style — artifical, sensuous, luxurious, and exotic.” As a youngster Tenducci was singled out for his lovely voice, and “someone in authority” probably suggested that having him castrated could lead to some money for his poor family.


(Oxford University Press) – ’The Castrato and His Wife’ by Helen Berry

Tenducci became a well-known singer in Italy, and his fame grew as he sang opera and more popular material in London and Dublin. He excited admiration and affection from men and women alike, and he was known to boast that he could satisfy women without risk to them. Berry describes him as having become a “celebrity pin-up,” and she explores how women who flirted with him (and other castrati) “found a loophole that was an escape from the sexual double standard.” Women could intimately associate with castrati, since these were not supposed to be “real men” who could ruin their reputations.

Dorothea had been one of these women. She studied music in Dublin with Tenducci in 1765 when she was about 15 years old, but not too long afterward asked him to take her away as his wife. Their elopement was scandalous, but the notoriety didn’t hurt Tenducci’s career. They eventually escaped the wrath of Dorothea’s father (and some of Tenducci’s debts) by moving to Italy. There the young woman was sometimes described as the singer’s student, often as his wife. In early 1768 Dorothea published in London a 68-page pamphlet, “The True and Genuine Narrative of Mr. and Mrs. Tenducci.” Of course there was gossip, but Dorothea accompanied Tenducci to his concerts and even sang with him to critical acclaim. Dorothea had escaped her Dublin family and was a part of Tenducci’s operatic life. Berry reports the astonishment of the famous Casanova, a man not easily shocked, at meeting Tenducci and his wife. Casanova even remembers them having children. How was it possible for a castrato to be a husband, let alone a father? What was a real husband, anyway? In any case, the couple seemed happy. They were on stage.

The sources are silent on why Dorothea left Tenducci. We know that she was alone in Florence, and she may have resented being left behind while her famous husband went away on tour. Perhaps the reports of her being a mother indicated that her relationship with Kingsman was longstanding. In any case, in November 1771 she sneaked to Naples to meet up with Kingsman, who had just received his inheritance. The following spring she married him in an Anglican ceremony in Rome. She begged her father’s forgiveness and asked to return to Dublin. He sent money for the trip, and the couple had another marriage ceremony in the summer of 1773. They wanted their child to be granted legitimacy retroactively — not an unusual occurrence in the 18th century.

In early 1776 the court ruled that Dorothea had never been married to Tenducci because the singer was incapable of being a husband. The judge had considered much detailed testimony on the opera star’s anatomy, including a salacious report that Tenducci carried his surgically removed testicles with him in a red velvet purse. Dorothea’s legal marriage was to Kingsman. He, a normal man, eventually died in a debtor’s prison. We have no records of Dorothea continuing to write or sing.

Tenducci is reported to have lamented the loss of his wife, but he did not contest the verdict. He went on to a distinguished if tumultuous late career, including concerts with J.C. Bach at Versailles and Paris in 1778, where Mozart composed a piece for him. When the French Revolution raged, the singer retired to Italy, where he gave music lessons and the occasional concert as “Count Tenducci.” Upon his death, a mass featuring “the finest musicians” was celebrated in his honor in Genoa.

In the 18th century, questions about identity, freedom, love and nature were inflected by the beauty of performance made possible by mutilation. Are the contemporary versions of these questions so different? Berry’s meticulously researched yet very readable story of Tenducci and Dorothea resonates across the centuries to our own time. What makes a marriage real? Do we want our celebrities (or spouses) to be “natural” or eccentric?The Castrato and his Wife is a fascinating account of how masculinity, femininity and marriage were being reshaped in 18th-century Europe just when modernity was taking shape.