In the 17th and 18th centuries, opera performers could take any role they wanted. Sopranos were kings, countertenors their lovers; although, in an old theater tradition that went back to the Greeks, wet nurses were always played by men, and the character was re-written if no male could be found to play it.

Only in papal Rome was the stage taboo for women, offering plenty of opportunities for singing eunuchs – or castrati. While castration to the service of music was banned by the Church, castrati were members of the Sistine Chapel choir and cast in opera productions.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the boom of Baroque opera – with countertenors singing falsetto. Formerly an English specialty, this type of singing has also now been perfected in other countries: Italy, Spain, Russia and Romania.

Competition is tough, as new stars vie to make a niche and repertoire for themselves by selecting composers like Monteverdi and Meyerbeer, Rossi and Rossini, or reviving lesser-known ones who wrote parts in their operas for high voices. The arias they record on CDs often become hits on the classical music market.

Despite the many productions and recordings featuring such voices over the past 20 years, however, there has been little investigation into the social history behind castrati. What values were assigned to “male” and “female” virtues in Baroque times, and how were gender issues and sexual orientation dealt with? What was tolerated or considered scandalous? Could a castrato have sex?

A new book by Helen Berry, The Castrato and his Wife – about the 18th century opera singer Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci, a popular megastar in his day, who fell in love and married, but who was unable to consummate the short-lived union – goes a long way to answering these questions.

There is, however, still much more light to be brought on this darkest chapter in the history of opera: on castrati in the Roman opera during the High Baroque period, and the role of the Vatican in that decadent situation.

“Flamboyant cross-dressing”

Italian opera singer Cecilia Bartoli, a coloratura mezzo-soprano, was one of the first in her 2005 concept album Opera prohibita to delve into the period. Then, four years ago, Croatian-born countertenor Max Emanuel Cenic decided he wanted to sing in one of the most famous operas: Artaserse by Leonardo Vinci (1690 –1730, not to be confused with Leonardo da Vinci). In the February 1730 premiere of the opera in three acts during carnival season in Rome, only men sang: a tenor and six countertenors, also singing the two women’s roles.

A year earlier, in 2007, William Christie conducted Stefano Landi’s Il Sant’Alessio (1631), in which there were nine roles for castrati. Philippe Jaroussky, the most successful countertenor in the world today, sang Saint Alexis, and Max Emanuel Cenic the part of his wife.

In a just released CD of Artaserse, the two stars sing together again, with young Romanian-born Valer Barna-Sabadus singing the role of Artaserse’s bride Semira so grippingly that one forgets the sex of the singer is the presence of this astonishing voice.

And now a full stage production, receiving rave reviews, knocks down the last taboo about having countertenors sing female roles in modern opera: the Opéra National de Lorraine in Nancy, France, is currently performing Artaserse in a spectacular rendition with nearly the same stellar cast as on the CD.

Director Silviu Purcarete and designer Helmut Stürmer open the piece showing their male performers made up, but not yet in costume. The performers then don their costumes and as Francis Carlin writes in his Financial Times review, the lavish feathered outfits move from “flamboyant cross-dressing meets Pierre Cardin (Act 1) to grand siècle in Act 2 and all the way back again for the third act.”