Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Day 14--Music from the Middle Drawer

“Please, Marc,” said Lady, not passing by, “no more Schubert. I listened to those last two songs, and then Nico came home several hours later and found me sitting catatonic on living room floor. It required Ben and Jerry’s to restore me….”

“Shoot,” I didn’t tell her, “because I’ve found a wonderful new baritone. Well, actually, I rediscovered him. Thomas Quasthoff, this German dude, and guess what? Besides having this amazing voice, he’s also disabled! He’s a thalidomide child, so he’s about four feet tall, and has two little flippers instead of arms! So when he sings der Leiermann—wow! It’s the complete package!”

“You know, Marc, if I did the complete package, well, all the Ben and Jerry’s on Cristo Street wouldn’t be enough. So no more Schubert, OK?”

“Right. And so we turn to the immortal music of Porpora.

“Say what?”

And so we turn to the immortal music of Porpora.”

“Marc, why are you speaking in that ridiculous voice?”

“OK—so maybe that wasn’t quite the voice. How’s this? And so we turn to the immortal music of Porpora.

“What? I can barely hear you!”

“Right—well, how’s this? And so we turn to the immortal music of Porpora.”

“Marc, are you crazy? Why are you speaking this way?”

“It’s my classical music announcer’s voice,” I told her. “What if they make me an announcer? We have to be prepared for the little turns our lives may take, my dear!”

“What makes you think they’ll turn you into a classical music announcer?”

“Well, they turned me into an English teacher, which I didn’t much want, and before that a nurse, which was also the road best-not-taken. So who knows what they’ll do next?”


“Well, they did it to my cousin,” I told her, and then realized, they probably didn’t. Brian had to work his tush off to get where he is….

“Anyway,” said Lady, “what’s the thing about whoever? You know, the guy who sounds like a tropical disease?”

“Porpora,” I told her. “It does sort of sound like a vitamin-deficiency, doesn’t it? Poor man—to be pretty much ignored by everyone, even Microsoft’s spell check! How low can you sink?”

“Well, since I presume he’s dead, what does it matter? And what did he do besides, I presume, compose?”

“Well, he spent a lot of time hanging out with castrated men.”


“Well, there were a lot of them, since at the height of the craze, 4000 boys a year were castrated, just to see which one could be the next superstar. Because they were the Lady Gaga’s or Adele’s or whoever of their times. If you made it to the top, you were fabulously wealthy, adulated, adored. Of course, of the 100,000 or so who over the 18th century got castrated, how many do we know about today? I can only think of four or five, and I’m moderately well-listened….”


“Well, we have well-read, don’t we? Anyway, it’s safe to say that a lot of those poor kids / men ended up with church gigs for the rest of their lives. The same with most singers, even today….”

“The church let these guys sing?”

“Ah, the church! It was officially a sin, you know, to castrate a boy. And so all over Italy, it was always the next town where it was done. Naples pointed the finger at Venice; Venice gasped in horror at Modena. But once it was done, well—there was very much a place for castrati in the Catholic Church. In fact, the last castrato of the Vatican died in the early 20th century, and we have recordings of him….”

“The mind boggles….”

“The boggle factor is pretty high,” I said. “One has to suffer for one’s art, you know…or rather, we know! Suffer, suffer, we suffer! But having one’s balls cut off….”

“Why ever would they do that?”

“It’s complicated. But apparently, the castrato voice was something that—perhaps—we’ll never hear again. Now these guys did suffer—their long bones grew, so they were abnormally tall. And the chest grew huge, which meant that they could sing long, ornate passages without breathing. And since their mouth and resonating chambers were expanded as well, it sounded neither like a boy soprano or a female soprano. And we have counter tenors, today, who sing in the soprano range—but still, we’ll never know what exactly what the castrati sounded like. Not that some haven’t tried. In the movie “Farinelli,” the sound engineers went to unbelievable lengths to imitate it. They actually recorded a soprano and a male counter tenor singing the entire sound track, and then went note by note, splicing and mixing the two tracks. So it’s ingenious, yes, but not the same….”

“They made a movie about all this?”

“See? So they can just as easily make me a classical music announcer!”

“Stop it….”

“The movie was called “Farinelli,” after the most famous castrato of the age, and about the only one who never actually worked with Porpora. And it was wildly sensational, which never hurts. Oh yes, it came out in the 80’s, and I saw it in those wonderful, troubled days when I was coming out as a gay man. A strange time, since my very conservative father was very well-known in Madison, Wisconsin, which was a dreadful hotbed of liberalism, as you know.”

“So you never told him?”

“Nope—but he knew, and that was OK. There was no Internet, which is unimaginable today. So there was word of mouth, magazines—Time was always good once a year for a lead… “The Tragedy of the Today’s Homosexual….”

“Surely you jest.”

“I wish. ‘They walk among us, undetected by you and me. But words cannot describe the inner torment….’”

“Dear me—and were you in torment?”

“Wouldn’t you be, with that kind of press? And then there was this thing about what would happen if I got outed, somehow….”


“Yeah—what if someone saw me walking into a gay bar?”

“Are you serious?”

“Dead serious. Because who knows how it would get back to my old man? People would talk, and someone would probably break the news to Pop. You know, it was never talked about—being gay. But it was sniggered, and it could have killed my old man. He had a groggy heart, you know.”

“You’re kidding.”

“My father was devastated when my brother moved in his girlfriend, who is now his wife of 43 years. In his mind, only a slut or a prostitute would do such a thing. And my father was just as horrified that my brother had ‘corrupted’ the girl, or taken advantage of her fallen status, or whatever. The point was that everybody knew that such women existed, but it was unimaginable that your son….”

“What was the big deal?”

“My brother’s life was ruined.”


“People would find out, and that would be that. Yes, of course, my father could never walk down the streets of Madison, Wisconsin, without knowing that men were saying, ‘John’s boy is shacked up with some hussy on East Johnson Street.’ That would be bad, but the worst was that my brother would never be able to crawl back out of the hole he had dug for himself. The hussy would leave him, of course—probably when she realized that the family was well known, but not particularly well off. So she would leave my brother, and he’d be broken-hearted. But then what? Would any respectable girl have him? Could any girl take my brother home to meet the parents? Of course not. So my brother would be doomed to a downward spin of one slut after another. He’d start to drink, maybe take drugs. He’d lose his job, and who would hire him, anyway? So there he’d be, with his blanket huddled around him, fighting with all the other drunks and bums for a place lying on the heating vent at West High School….”


“Everybody passing by, right there on Regent Street: John’s boy there, with the bottle of red cooking wine in hand…”


“Cirrhosis, death by exposure, hepatitis, court appearances, jail, rehab centers—who knew? My brother had thrown his life away, at age 20. God forbid—what would happen if one of the sluts got pregnant? Not that anyone would ever be sure that it was my brother’s child, since we knew about DNA, but nobody could imagine a time when you could get yours checked out for a hundred bucks. Or that there would be mobile testing vans driving around, with ‘Who’s Your Daddy?’ posted on the sides. It was a different world.”

“You have got to be making this up.”

“My father cried silently at the breakfast table for about six months. I remember once coming upon him standing at the top of the basement stairs. My mother asked him what he was doing, and Jack said, ‘I used to put a mattress at the bottom of the stairs, so if he fell down he wouldn’t break his neck. But now, there’s nothing I can do to protect him….’”

“That’s crazy.”

“That’s how it was. And my brother was straight. So for me? Well, they knew about sissies and faggots and queers, and they knew what they did—which was disgusting—and it wasn’t just that you could fire somebody for being gay. You almost had to fire someone who gay, since who wanted that nightmare? It’s Tuesday morning, you open your store, and what’s happened to Marc, your clerk? Well, you find out in the afternoon. He’s in jail, since the bar got raided, and he wasn’t one of the lucky guys that got through the bathroom window on time.”

“Wait a minute….”

“Oh—he could be in the hospital, since he was out prowling the grounds of the capitol. That’s where the queers gather, you know. So he went home with the wrong guy—they’d both been drinking—and it went wrong. Marc dropped some stupid comment about them both being queers, and the other guy exploded, since he wasn’t queer, goddamn it!”

“But if he was….”

“An interesting time, since there were a whole hell of a lot of guys who had been ‘serviced’ by men exclusively for decades, but were they gay? Hell no—they weren’t no faggots! See that knife? Well, that knife’s gonna be in your belly, if you don’t….”


“I knew somebody, you know, who got murdered like that….”

“Are you kidding me?”

“A bartender at one of the hip bars. A sweet man—not particularly intellectual, but not stupid. He had fallen for a PhD in German, who had moved to the twin cities. So the bartender’s heart was broken, and he went out and tricked every night. I was one of the tricks that went OK, though when I showed for a second date, he stood me up. So it was a shock when I read that this guy I had loved for a night had been killed behind the Civic Center.”

“My God….”

“‘Well, he had it coming.’ Or so they would have said. And my father cared about his good name, yes, but he was all in all a fine man. He wouldn’t have cared less what people said, as long as he knew that his son was safe. But how could he be sure? Already, he wasn’t sleeping at night, worrying about my heterosexual brother. And now? One son drinking cooking wine on the heat vent, the other son bleeding to death in a snow bank on the Capitol Square….”

“How did you live like that?”

“Well, it took me about five times walking around the block before I darted into the gay bar, saw the dark figures on the bar stools, choked on the cigarette smoke, and then dashed out the door, because somebody had turned their head!”


“Yup—lasted about 20 seconds! But at least I hadn’t been murdered! So it all worked out….”

“This road is taking us well past the town of Sad….”

“So maybe that was why the movie ‘Farinelli’ made such an impression on me. 18th century Italy—actually, anytime Italy—is more than a world away from Madison, Wisconsin, at that time. All of this sexual perversity! And this wild music, which is both incredibly florid, and then so sensuously languid. Because those are the two speeds of the castrati. And you know, however virtuosic the fast stuff was, it was really the slow arias that proved the worth of the castrati. Because the messa di voce was prized above anything else.”

“That being?”

“A long, long note. It starts out almost inaudible, increases in volume to the loudest the singer can sing, and then diminishes to inaudible again. It has to be perfectly timed, and the shift in volume has to be completely undetectable. Ravishingly beautiful, and it only takes a lifetime to learn how to do it! But if you got it, you would have palaces, jewels, and—according to the movie, though what use it would have been to a castrato?—all the high-class nobility chicks panting after you! Very much not Madison, 1982….”

“So that was Porpora?”

“Porpora was the composer, and he at one point was teaching a guy named Joseph Haydn, who said, well…here’s Wikipedia….”

“There was no lack of Asino, Coglione, Birbante [ass, cullion, rascal], and pokes in the ribs, but I put up with it all, for I profited greatly from Porpora in singing, in composition, and in the Italian language."[1] He also said that he had learned from the maestro "the true fundamentals of composition."

“Well, that’s something!”

“Yeah, and then he got into a competition with no less that Handel, since they both had opera companies in London. Guess who won? So there was poor Porpora, living in very much reduced circumstances at the end of his life. They had to hold a benefit concert just to bury the guy. And there were all the castrati that he had composed for, living in, well…augmented, if not even exaggerated, circumstances.”

“Poor guy!”

“Yeah, and everybody still venerates Handel, but the real music people get a little sniffy about Porpora….”


“Well, the fast stuff is facile, and the slow stuff is sentimental, so yeah, they’ll play Alto Giove—Porpora’s most famous aria—as background at their next cocktail party, but actually go see the opera, Polifemo, from which it’s drawn? Forget it! Not that they even could, since who stages it? But they do go see Giulio Cesare, all four hours of it, by Handel, since even the Met stages it. The world keeps on being unfair, doesn’t it? Even I was going to throw in some Handel, but I decided not. No, one of the wonderful things about the world is that there is even now a place for the less than top drawer. Nope, Porpora it is!”

“Well it all works out then,” said Lady, “Porpora scores getting into your blog, if not quite the Met, and you….”


“will never have to fear bleeding to death in a snow bank. So all is well!”

Know what?

She’s right…..