Roger Freitas, associate professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, provides a rare glimpse into the social and political contexts of 17th-century music in his book, Portrait of a Castrato: Politics, Patronage, and Music in the Life of Atto Melani.
Born in 1626 into a bourgeois family in Pistoia, Italy, Atto Melani led a long and fascinating life, documented more fully than any other musician’s of his era. He was a castrato, meaning that his parents had him castrated before puberty to preserve the range and beauty of his boyish singing voice. The practice was relatively common in Italy from the 16th to 18th centuries, and such high-voiced singers became some of the most celebrated vocalists in history. They served both in church choirs, where women were banned, and—like the famous Farinelli—on operatic stages. The young Melani showed especially prodigious talents, both vocal and social, and quickly rose to international prominence.
In Portrait of a Castrato, Freitas draws upon hundreds of Melani’s letters, as well as other contemporary documents, to portray not only the musical activities of several European centers, but the real-life context of music and the musician: how a singer related to patrons and colleagues, what he thought about his profession, and the role music played in his life. Whether Melani was singing, spying, having affairs, composing, or even rejecting his art, his life illustrates how music-making was always simultaneously an artistic, social, and political activity. Freitas sheds light on the mechanisms that generated meaning for music, clarifying what music at this time actually was—what it signified to its performers and audience.
The book is part of the series New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism from Cambridge University Press, which explores the conceptual frameworks that shape or have shaped the ways we understand music and its history.
Freitas received a Bachelor of Music degree in vocal performance from Dominican College of San Rafael; a Master of Music degree (with performer’s certificate) in early music vocal performance from Indiana University; and a Ph.D. in music history from Yale University. His writing has appeared in journals including the Journal of Musicology, Music and Letters, Journal of the Royal Musical Association (JRMA), and Opera News. He is a recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for the 2000-01 academic year, as well as the Rome Prize of the American Academy in Rome (2003-04). In 2006, he received Eastman’s prestigious Eisenhart Award for Excellence in Teaching. Freitas is an active member of the American Musicological Society and the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music, and serves on the board of directors for the American Handel Society. He is the academic advisor for the musicology department and a faculty associate at the University of Rochester’s Susan B. Anthony Institute for Gender and Women’s Studies. Prior to joining Eastman in 1998, Freitas was a visiting lecturer at Wellesley College. He also has performed as a soprano and alto adjunct member of Chanticleer, a professional male vocal ensemble.
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