In Chapel, on Stage, and in the Bedroom: French Responses to the Italian Castrato

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Although the castrato was conspicuously absent from French opera, castrati sang regularly at the Chapelle Royale throughout most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Visiting castrati also performed in France during Mazarin's attempts at importing Italian opera during the 1640s and 1650s, and when they visited the French court as part of their travels around Europe. Meanwhile, the majority of Frenchmen and women who heard castrati sing in Italy found their performances compelling. Drawing on the writings of two French authors who held contrasting views on the castrato, I focus on the question of the castrato's suitability for the role of on-stage operatic lover (praised by the Abbe Raguenet), set against the backdrop of his ability to perform sexually off stage (questioned by Charles Ancillon). Within the Italian tradition, the castrato emerges as being eminently suited to the young lover who comes of age by becoming a hero thanks to his unique combination of femininity, masculinity and youthfulness. Off stage, the castrato is revealed to have a highly complex sexual identity that calls into question received ideas about the nature of sex, its relationship to procreation, and especially to female desire.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)152-164
Number of pages13
JournalSeventeenth-Century French Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2010


  • castrato
  • opera
  • Charles Ancillon
  • Abbe Raguenet
  • sexual identity
  • homosexuality
  • heterosexuality


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