King of the C

Rossini thought it sounded "like the squawk of a capon whose throat is being cut." John Ruskin used somewhat more elegant phrases: "Of bestial howling, and entirely frantic vomiting up of damned souls through their still carnal throats, I have heard more than, please God, I will ever endure the hearing of again." Both were complaining on the same score—the continuing struggle of Italian tenors trying to hit top notes at top volume.

The 18th century beginnings of Italian opera featured castrati, who could sing in loud treble voices. As the gelding of males for...

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