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Learning about 18th century show business

I have been reading an advance copy of The Castrato and His Wife by Helen Berry to be published by Oxford University Press on September 22. Gulp. Yes it’s all there. And I now know all the grisly, gruesome details about how hundreds of boys were hideously mutilated (by the same peripatetic man who did the pigs) in the interest of art and profit. Highly illegal and strictly forbidden by the Catholic Church, but that didn’t stop clerics, Vatican staff and so on employing these male sopranos in their choirs.

But, from a performing arts training and education perspective what interested me about this well researched story of Guisto Ferdinando Tenducci is the light it shines on the life of a successful performer and the performance industry in the 1700s.

Born in the hills of Tuscany in 1735, Tenducci became the Pavarotti or Domingo of his day. He trained at a specialist music school in Naples at which he started as soon as he had recovered from his ‘operation’ in 1748.

From his early twenties he was highly successful and soon began to command eye watering fees. And he travelled all over Europe, long before the days of EasyJet, to gigs. The journeys would have been desperately uncomfortable and very time consuming.

He sang opera, oratorio and did folk song concerts in, for example, Scotland. Working extensively in London and Dublin he also sang in France, Germany and, obviously, in his native Italy. Both JS Bach and Mozart wrote for him. His voice was, according to all contemporary accounts, extraordinary. He was a regular at Theatre Royal Haymarket and at Drury Lane as well as in the forerunner of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

But impresarios did not find Tenducci an easy man to work with. He was often ‘prima donna-ish’ and, always a bad manager of money, he had a habit of disappearing to escape debt collectors so that he wasn’t there to fulfil his professional obligations - every producer’s nightmare, then and now.

Yes, along with the horror of the whole castrato business and Tenducci’s (probably) non-marriage, there’s a great deal here to interest students of theatre who want to know how things have changed - and how they haven’t because some of the logistical production problems were the same in the 1760s as they would be today.

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