Caffarelli (castrato)

Caffarelli (castrato)

Gaetano Majorano (b Bitonto, 12 April 1710; d Naples, 31 Jan 1783) was an Italian castrato and opera singer, who took his stage name Caffarelli from Domenico Caffaro, his patron. Like Farinelli, Caffarelli was a student of Nicola Porpora.

Early life and training

Caffarelli was one of those rare, documented, cases of a child so enamoured of singing that he "asked" to be castrated. When aged ten, he was given the income from two vineyards owned by his grandmother, so that he could study grammar and, especially, music: "to which he is said to have a great inclination, desiring to have himself castrated and become an eunuch". [ Rosselli, p153] He became the favourite pupil of his master Porpora, of whom it is said that, having kept the young Caffarelli working from one sheet of exercises for six years, he eventually declared: "Go, my son: I have no more to teach you. You are the greatest singer in Europe". [Heriot, p48; Heriot doubts the truth of this story, though Franz Haböck published a copy of what purports to be Porpora's page of exercises in his "Die Kastraten und ihre Gesangskunst" (Stuttgart, 1927, p382-385), and it may have been something of this kind from which Caffarelli worked.]


In 1726 he made his debut at Rome in Domenico Sarro's "Valdemaro", singing in a female role (as did many castrati at the start of their careers). His fame spread rapidly throughout Italy during the 1730s, with performances at Venice, Turin, Milan, Florence, before returning to Rome for a great success in Johann Adolf Hasse's "Cajo Fabricio". His time in London was not particularly successful, public memory of Farinelli being too strong, but at the King's Theatre during the 1737-38 season he created roles in the pasticcio "Arsace" and Handel's "Faramondo", in addition to the title role in Handel's "Serse", singing the famous aria "Ombra mai fù". [Dean]

In later years he worked at Madrid (1739), Vienna (1749), Versailles (1753), and Lisbon (1755). His career in France, to which he had been invited by Louis XV, was suddenly cut short after he badly wounded a poet during a duel, and left in disgrace after only one year . In 1734 the singer had taken up a post at the royal chapel of Naples, and over the next twenty years he often performed at the Teatro di San Carlo. At Naples he sang for Pergolesi, Porpora, Hasse, and Leonardo Vinci, not to mention starring in Gluck's "La Clemenza di Tito". After 1756 he sang little, though in 1770 Charles Burney heard him and praised his "expression and grace." Always a favourite of royal families and a first-rate castrato who could command vast fees, Caffarelli made a large fortune, and was able to buy himself a dukedom and impressive estates in Naples and Calabria. On a "palazzo" be built he added the superscription "Amphion [Legend has the number of Amphion's children as anything from seven to twelve. Caffarelli was obviously childless.] Thebas, ego domum" ("Amphion built Thebes, I this house"). However, he fell foul of local wit when some wag mockingly added to this "ille cum, tu sine" ("he with, you without"). [Heriot, p152]


He was notorious for his unpredictable behavior, both on and off stage. On stage he is reputed to have sung his own preferred versions irrespective of what his colleagues were doing, mimicking them while they sang their solos and sometimes conversing with members of the public in their boxes. Such misconduct led to arrests and spells of house imprisonment for assault and making obscene gestures in mockery of his fellow singers at performances. His most infamous stunt was the complete humiliation of a "prima donna" during a performance of Hasse's "Antigono". [Dean]

Caffarelli was also notoriously pugnacious and possessed of a fierce temper, willing to duel with anybody for little apparent reason. However, he seems to have been able to coexist with Handel (also a famously fiery character) on a peaceable basis, perhaps due to the fantastic sums of money the composer paid him for his work.

Time, however, seemed to soften Caffarelli. In the fading years of his life he donated extensively to charity, and when Burney came to meet the singer he was impressed by his politeness. [Dean]

Voice and reputation

Caffarelli's voice was that of a mezzo-soprano, with an extensive range and a high tessitura. Those who heard him sing ranked him only behind Farinelli among the finest singers of that time. Even at the end of his career, Burney thought that he had been "an amazing fine singer". His teacher, Porpora, who (according to Burney) loathed Caffarelli's overweening arrogance, nonetheless claimed that he was "the greatest singer Italy had ever produced". Friedrich Melchior Grimm summed up his qualities:cquote|It would be difficult to give any idea of the degree of perfection to which this singer has brought his art. All the charms and love that can make up the idea of an angelic voice, and which form the character of his, added to the finest execution, and to surprising facility and precision, exercise an enchantment over the senses and the heart, which even those least sensible to music would find it hard to resist.



*GroveOnline|Caffarelli|Dean, W|19 September|2007
*Heriot, A: "The Castrati in Opera" (London, 1956)
*Rosselli, J: "The Castrati as a Professional Group and a Social Phenomenon", 1550-1830 (Acta Musicologica LX, 1988, p143-179)

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