Author Richard Harvell next to a bell in the Church of St. Gall, Switzerland.

Author Richard Harvell next to a bell in the Church of St. Gall, Switzerland.

A new novel takes us from an abbey in rural Switzerland to the slums and courts of 18th-century Vienna to tell the story of a singer worshiped by opera lovers as an angel. Join us to discuss the beauty and tragedy behind the voice.


  • Richard Harvell Author


  • 10:06:55

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In 18th century Europe, opera singers were treated like rock stars. "The Bells" is a brand-new historical novel about a boy with the voice of an angel whose exquisite sense of hearing becomes both his life's greatest blessing and its most tragic curse. The setting moves from a small town in the Swiss Alps to the greatest opera house in Vienna. The title of the book is "The Bells." Author Richard Harvell joins us in the studio, and I can tell you from having just begun this book that it has really grabbed me. Richard Harvell, it's good to have you here.

  • 10:07:53

    MR. RICHARD HARVELLIt's great to be here.

  • 10:07:54

    REHMAnd we are going to take your calls throughout the hour, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to You can join us on Facebook or Twitter. You begin your novel with a mystery. Read for us from that portion.

  • 10:08:20

    HARVELLOkay. "I grew up as the son of a man who could not possibly have been my father. Though there was never any doubt that my seed had come from another man, Moses Froben, Lo Svizzero, called me son, and I called him father. On the rare occasions when someone dared to ask for clarification, he simply laughed as though the questioner were being obtuse. 'Of course, he's not my son,' he would say. 'Don't be ridiculous.' But whenever I myself gained the courage to ask him further of our past, he just looked at me sadly. 'Please, Nicolai,' he would say after a moment, as though we had made a pact I had forgotten. With time, I came to understand I would never know the secrets of my birth. For my father was the only one who knew these secrets, and he would take them to his grave."

  • 10:09:15

    HARVELL"This aside, no child could have wished for more. I accompanied him from Venice to Naples and, finally, here to London. Indeed, I rarely left his side until I entered Oxford. Even after that, as I began my own unrelated career, at no time were we ever more than two months absent from each other's company. I heard him sing in Europe's greatest opera houses. I sat beside him in his carriage as mobs of admirers ran alongside and begged him to grace them with a smile. Through all of this, I never knew anything of the poor Moses Froben, but only of the renowned Lo Svizzero, who could make ladies swoon with the mere wave of his hand, who could bring an audience to tears with his voice."

  • 10:10:01

    HARVELL"And so you can imagine my surprise a week after my father's death last spring to find among his things this stack of papers. And more to find within them all I had sought to know of my father's birth and mine, of the origin of my name, of my mother and of the crime that had kept my father silent. Though he appears to have had me in his mind as his reader, I cannot believe he did not wish these words for other eyes as well. This was a singer, remember, who practiced with an open window, so any man or woman passing on the street would have the chance to hear an angel sing. Nicolai Froben, London, October 6, 1806."

  • 10:10:43

    REHMAnd you just heard Richard Harvell reading from his new book. It's titled, "The Bells." Talk about the inspiration for the novel.

  • 10:10:57

    HARVELLI think a lot of writers dream of a real lightning strike inspiration, and I was lucky enough to have one. I was sitting in our kitchen in Switzerland. And my wife, who was training to become a music teacher, was singing an aria from Gluck's "Orfeo" opera, and it's a beautiful opera. And my wife's also a beautiful singer, and when she finished, I asked her about it. And she told me that this is when Orfeo has now lost Euridice for the second time. And in this moment, I had this thought of a castrato who sang this part and who certainly had this great contradiction. On the stage, he was a great lover, but offstage, he was emasculated. He was a castrate. And I thought, this is the novel I want to write. I want to write a novel where there are two Orpheus stories, the Orpheus story on the stage and then the Orpheus story off the stage.

  • 10:12:04

    REHMBut had you thought previously that a novel centered around singers, centered around a young boy who had been castrated -- had you thought of that before?

  • 10:12:23

    HARVELLReally, not at all. I knew I wanted to -- I knew I wanted to end in Vienna in 1762, and the rest of it kind of unraveled backwards from there. I think a lot of writers start at the beginning. I certainly started at the end, and the rest I had to make up behind that.

  • 10:12:38

    REHMTell me about Moses as a young boy and the life he led with his mother.

  • 10:12:46

    HARVELLOkay. Well, I lived in Switzerland for six years, and I've always been very inspired by the Swiss Alps. And I wanted him to grow up in a small village in the Alps. And I was also looking for -- I wanted him somehow -- his ears to be formed by a huge mass of sound. And I thought, what was the largest sound that someone in the 18th century would have heard? And the answer was church bells. And so I made Moses' mother a church -- the ringer of church bells.

  • 10:13:17

    REHMBut the church bells are created, really, from junk. They are created by the village because the village decides that in order to be distinctive, they want to have these huge bells. And what's the result?

  • 10:13:42

    HARVELLYeah, so they -- this canton decides to craft these huge bells and put them up in the mountains, so they can call to the rest of Europe and show what great Catholics they are. But it doesn't really work out quite like they wanted because these bells are so loud that they break windows and they deafen farmers. They even make the cows go deaf there in the fields. And there's no one that can ring them.

  • 10:14:10


  • 10:14:11

    HARVELLExcept for this deaf girl, who they really think is just an idiot who, for years, has sort of wandered around the village. And she becomes this -- the bell ringer. And then we find out that this is actually Moses Froben's mother.

  • 10:14:26

    REHMShe goes up there with a mallet. She begins hitting, and the village begins covering their individual ears, begging, begging for these bells to stop ringing.

  • 10:14:46


  • 10:14:47

    REHMBut she can't hear them.

  • 10:14:49

    HARVELLRight. Well, she can't hear them. But this is something that I really loved -- I learned writing this novel. We don't only hear with our ears. And she's someone -- and I think we all do this. We hear with, really, our whole body.

  • 10:15:03

    REHMOur souls?

  • 10:15:04

    HARVELLAnd, certainly, our souls, but even if you want to stay scientific, we hear with -- all the fibers of our body do ring, especially when a massive sound like a bell rings, so we always hear it in our bellies.

  • 10:15:15

    REHMAnd she is pregnant.

  • 10:15:16

    HARVELLAnd she is pregnant -- not at that moment -- but she becomes pregnant, and then this child in the womb hears every day, morning, noon and night, these bells ring.

  • 10:15:27

    REHMAnd the child is Moses. He stays up there in the belfry with his mother. They barely have clothes on their backs. Little Moses steals food from within the village. He doesn't know who his father is.

  • 10:15:53

    HARVELLHe doesn't even know that he has a father. This is -- he's too young to understand that, how this works, and he doesn't have a mother who can explain this to him because they never speak. She's deaf.

  • 10:16:02

    REHMBut she adores him.

  • 10:16:03

    HARVELLShe adores him absolutely, and -- but everyone in the village believes he's deaf. And, certainly, his father -- who we only find out later who that is -- believes that he's deaf and believes that these two are his to push around.

  • 10:16:20

    REHMAnd then they become a threat to him.

  • 10:16:25

    HARVELLYeah, mm hmm.

  • 10:16:27

    REHMHow does that happen?

  • 10:16:28

    HARVELLWell, of course, Moses understands that this is an awful man, the priest, Karl Victor. And as long as he's deaf, Karl Victor doesn't worry that Moses is a danger. But the moment Karl Victor realizes that Moses can speak -- or can hear and can also speak, then he realizes perhaps this boy is going to tell what happens -- what has happened.

  • 10:16:55

    REHMAnd how his mother has conceived him.

  • 10:16:59

    HARVELLYeah, absolutely.

  • 10:17:01

    REHMAnd that would truly, truly ruin the priest's standing in the community.

  • 10:17:10

    HARVELLYeah, absolutely, and so the priest kidnaps Moses and takes him down to a -- down to the River Reuss, which flows through the valley. Maybe I should read that passage?

  • 10:17:22

    REHMThat small passage.

  • 10:17:24

    HARVELLMm hmm. So he's taken the boy down to this bridge over the River Reuss, and he says, "'You were supposed to be deaf.' At that moment, I would have promised never to speak again. I would have offered to bite off my own tongue if only he would let me go back to my mother. I would never leave our belfry again, even when lightning threatened. He bent over me, his face so close that his sucking, mashing lips were as loud as the river. He heaved me up by the belt, pressing me against the rail with his hip. Then he clutched my head with both hands. 'If God will not make you deaf, then I will have to do it.'"

  • 10:18:06

    HARVELL"Two fingers pressed into my ears like spikes. I howled and thrashed, but they pressed harder, tunneling so far they seemed to meet inside my head. I finally knew the pain that others felt when they heard my mother's bells. His face was all I saw. His grimace turned from white to red. He pressed his fingers harder, and I screamed. My tiny hands pulled at his, but I could not move them. 'Father,' I yelled. He dropped me as if I were a burning coal. I lay on the ground and held my head, awaiting the next attack, but it did not come. He stood frozen over me, his eyes wide and startled. I had not meant it as an accusation."

  • 10:18:43

    REHMRichard Harvell, his new book is titled, "The Bells."

  • 10:20:03

    REHMAnd Richard Harvell is with me. He lives in Switzerland. "The Bells" is his first novel. We are going to take your calls shortly. Join us on 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to Join us on Facebook or Twitter. What I had to stop you from reading there at the break was after the "father" plunges his fingers into Moses ear. He literally throws him into the water.

  • 10:20:56

    HARVELLMm hmm. Yeah, with intention to kill his son and, of course, protect his secret. But there's a miracle that Moses, of course, doesn't die, and he's helped by these -- saved by these two monks who -- in the first version of the book, I tried to make them evil monks.

  • 10:21:15

    REHMHow so?

  • 10:21:16

    HARVELLIt just seemed right that he be kidnapped by these evil monks and taken and worked as a slave as a singer. And, of course, I'm thankful every day that it didn't happen, and they turned out to be his two greatest friends for the novel.

  • 10:21:31

    REHMAnd the two monks are named Nicolai and Remus.

  • 10:21:35

    HARVELLRemus, yeah.

  • 10:21:36

    REHMTell us about Nicolai and Remus and their relationship.

  • 10:21:41

    HARVELLOkay. Well, they've been monks in the Abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland their whole lives, and they're just returning from a pilgrimage to Rome. And they're returning somewhat unhappily that they -- this time in Rome is finished, but they're also happy to go back to their home. And we slowly find out that these are certainly in no way normal monks. They are, in fact, lovers, and they accompany Moses for most of the rest of the book.

  • 10:22:11

    REHMThey rescue him first. And because he is in the rushing water, it is Nicolai who says, we must name him Moses.

  • 10:22:24

    HARVELLYeah, right. And so -- 'cause, of course, Moses couldn't be named by his mother, and so this is really when he finally is properly given a name by Nicolai after he's saved from the river. And then Nicolai very much becomes his father figure for the book.

  • 10:22:41

    REHMAt the time, however, Remus is very reluctant to take on the boy.

  • 10:22:49

    HARVELLAnd for good reason. They're monks. In an abbey, this is -- monks can't adopt children. They can't take in children as servants. And they've decided to give up everything to be monks, and Nicolai is someone who can't give up everything. In fact, he's someone who cherishes just about everything in his life. And, of course, he takes Moses as a father and takes that responsibility, even though he shouldn't have.

  • 10:23:16

    REHMHow do they manage? Do they go back to the abbey? Do they conceal Moses? How do they do that?

  • 10:23:26

    HARVELLSo they -- Nicolai takes him to the abbey and goes to the abbot and says, I'd like him to be a novice, please take him in. And the abbot says, absolutely not. That's not the way abbeys worked at this time. If you wanted to be a novice, you had to have your parents pay a small fortune so you could study at this abbey. This is one of -- this is, perhaps, the richest abbey in all of Europe at the time in St. Gall, and they didn't just take peasant children thrown into rivers. And so Moses is told by the abbot he needs to go to an orphanage or basically a workhouse and it's finished. Or Nicolai can give up his vows and leave the abbey. But at this time, no one knows that Moses has a gift which will allow him to stay at the abbey.

  • 10:24:19

    REHMWhat is that gift?

  • 10:24:21

    HARVELLBecause Moses has such an extraordinary power of hearing, he also understands how to use his body, also, as a singer. And at the -- of course, he's never sung before at this point, and even when he does sing the first time, it's very untrained. But the choirmaster, Ulrich, recognizes that this boy has a special gift.

  • 10:24:49

    REHMThe gift really turns out to be something of a curse when the choirmaster discovers that he has such a beautiful voice.

  • 10:25:07

    HARVELLYeah, absolutely. His voice is certainly his greatest gift, but it's his curse as well. And that's what leads eventually, about four or five years later, to his castration in the abbey.

  • 10:25:20

    REHMHow frequently was that done?

  • 10:25:24

    HARVELLOkay. Well, it's certainly important to say that it was very rare in Switzerland and in German lands, in England and France. It was much more common in Italy where up to 4- or 5,000 boys a year across Italian lands were castrated. But it also wasn't unheard of in other parts of Europe. In Stuttgart, which is not very far from St. Gall, there was also -- there were several doctors who carried out castrations. It was generally done to boys whose parents saw a chance for them to become superstars.

  • 10:26:00

    REHMSo with their permission.

  • 10:26:02

    HARVELLOften with their permission, but it often would just be that a traveling opera company would come through a town and say, we'll take your son from you. He'll come back in 15 years, and he'll make you rich, which, of course, most of these boys did not appreciate 15 years later what their parents had done to them and so rarely came back to help their poor starving parents.

  • 10:26:28

    REHMTell me what it is -- I mean, I realize that the vocal cords stay at a certain level of growth instead of developing into full grown vocal cords. But what else happens to the body, to the lungs to create this continuingly beautiful voice?

  • 10:26:59

    HARVELLYeah, so this really -- when I first began the novel, I really thought this was just something to keep the soprano voice, to -- and so, basically, the castrato is similar to a female soprano, but that's really -- that's not true. In a lot of ways, the vocal folds and the vocal cords were very similar to women or to boys. There's a lot of myths that they were much more supple, and that's what allowed them to do these great runs and trills. But I'm also -- I think that might be some sexism against the female singers of the day. The most important differences was that the lack of testosterone made these singers' bones continue to grow through puberty abnormally long, so the average castrato was 3 to 5" taller than the average male.

  • 10:27:45

    HARVELLAnd, not only that, but their lungs -- their ribs continued to grow, and so they have these -- they're known for having these sort of bird-like chests, which meant that their lung capacity was maybe four times the average female and twice the average male. So you can imagine the greatest sopranos of our day with a lung capacity, even twice what Pavarotti had -- so it's incredible power. There's the myth -- perhaps it's true -- Farinelli dueling with a trumpet and showing that his voice was even better and even louder than a trumpet.

  • 10:28:22

    REHMAnd, of course, at the same time, if women were not permitted on the stage, these castrati took the female leads.

  • 10:28:36

    HARVELLAnd that happened, certainly, initially, and the initial reason was to replace women. But by the 18th century, women had been welcomed back on the stage, and men were -- these castrati were singing male leads. When I first began the book, I was sure that castrati were sort of like these boys on Shakespeare's stage. They were just -- they were a substitution for women. But at, really, their peak, they were symbols of masculinity and symbols of male lovers. They're these -- can imagine these huge graceful men standing on the stage, singing with women leads, and they, certainly, were not -- were no longer just substitutes for women. They were -- they had certainly become a symbol of masculinity as well.

  • 10:29:26

    REHMYou had no idea when you started this novel that you were going to get into all this, did you?

  • 10:29:36

    HARVELLNo, no, certainly not at all or even -- I'd been an opera fan for several years.

  • 10:29:42

    REHMBut you weren't before.

  • 10:29:44

    HARVELLBut I certainly wasn't before. I didn't grow up -- I didn't grow up as an opera fan. And even now, I'm a great opera fan, but I'm not obsessed with opera. I also listen to Bob Dylan and Rage Against the Machine. I certainly listen to a lot of different kinds of music. And what originally attracted me to this opera was really just this power of opera to really be dramatic and even melodramatic and still be so subtly beautiful and emotional despite that.

  • 10:30:20

    REHMNow, when Moses becomes a member of the choir, how does the choirmaster regard him?

  • 10:30:35

    HARVELLWell, the choirmaster recognizes initially from the first minute that Moses is something special. And the choirmaster gives him special attention and certainly teaches him to become a singer. I think as anyone who sings knows it's not possible, just like it's not possible to be a great basketball player from the beginning, you can't be a great singer from the beginning. And so he does go through years and years of rigorous training from a great choirmaster.

  • 10:31:07

    REHMAnd we have an excerpt from the Westminster Abbey Choir singing here.

  • 10:31:50

    REHMThat's Dame -- and, of course, that was not the Westminster Abbey Choir. It was Dame Janet Baker singing.

  • 10:31:57

    HARVELLSinging from the "Orfeo" opera.

  • 10:31:59

    REHMYes. But we will now bring you the Westminster Abbey choir.

  • 10:32:41

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." The voices we heard there were young boys singing in that soprano role. There are, however, still adult men who have that beautiful soprano voice.

  • 10:33:04

    HARVELLYeah, there's still many countertenors who sing out there, and, actually, the opera that first really inspired my love of opera was, uh, Monteverdi's "L'incoronazione di Poppea," which is an opera now sung by countertenors. But lovers of castrati would certainly say that it's vastly different because these countertenors, they -- first of all, they have a voice box that has descended, and they have an Adam's apple, which increases the distance from the production of the sound to...

  • 10:33:36

    REHMAn Adam's apple.

  • 10:33:39

    HARVELLSo the Adam's apple is the voice box.

  • 10:33:41


  • 10:33:42

    HARVELLAnd that's why men have an Adam's apple, but women and boys don't. And castrati did not because their voice box never descended, and so their production of the sound remained very close to the place of residence in the mouth and the throat. And that's one reason why they say that they were far better than male singers.

  • 10:34:03

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Philadelphia and to Kathy. Good morning to you.

  • 10:34:10

    KATHYGood morning, Diane.

  • 10:34:12


  • 10:34:13

    KATHYGood morning, Richard. I had the pleasure of reading your book, a prepublication copy of it, sitting in the cottage of Lake Sunapee.

  • 10:34:22

    HARVELLOh, great.

  • 10:34:23

    KATHYIt was sitting there, which I know is a place near and dear to you...

  • 10:34:26

    HARVELLMm hmm. That's right.

  • 10:34:27

    KATHY...and it was a wonderful book. I think you're talking a lot about the opera and the musical quality -- it has a wonderful lyrical quality to it, which makes it such an easy read. But as a non-opera lover, I read it and picked up much more on the relationships, like the -- particularly Nicolai and Remus, the two monks.

  • 10:34:47


  • 10:34:48

    KATHYAnd it was interesting to hear your comment in the beginning about how you envisioned them very differently, and then they evolved as different characters. But I really picked up more on the abandonment of Moses and how they kind of parented him in many ways throughout his life and made him -- and I don't know, maybe I'm reading more into that. I don't know what your intentions were with that, but that was what I found fascinating about the book.

  • 10:35:14

    HARVELLYes. I mean, certainly, I set out to write a book about opera. And as I went through draft after draft after draft, these characters, not only Moses, but these more minor characters became, for me, very much the part of the novel that also meant the most to me.

  • 10:35:32

    REHMSo you turned away from the concentration on opera and turned more to the characters themselves?

  • 10:35:44

    HARVELLAlthough the book is an historical novel about this premier of this great reform opera, "Orfeo ed Euridice," in 1762, it's not -- I'm not setting out to tell the story day by day about the main characters. I'm much more interested in my fictional characters that are living in Vienna at the same time and experiencing a very different Vienna than the rich and famous experience of Vienna.

  • 10:36:12

    REHMHow rich and famous did these castrati become?

  • 10:36:19

    HARVELLThey really were, as you said, the rock stars of Europe. They'd travel around and have mobs of people follow them everywhere. They had to be protected to keep people from tearing their clothes off and kissing their scraps. And people would constantly give them jewels and love letters, and Gaetano Guadagni, the castrato in my book, was a -- is a real man. Certainly, he carried around love letters that people had given him in all of the different cities.

  • 10:36:50

    REHMDid his skin remain soft?

  • 10:36:54

    HARVELLThey certainly -- castrati were lucky, that they didn't have problems like acne or a lot of the other problems we associate with puberty. And they were known to have sort of this rosy complexion that lasted.

  • 10:37:10

    REHMAnd beards?

  • 10:37:11

    HARVELLThey certainly didn't have beards. Not only did they not have beards, they didn't have other body hair except for like children have. They also -- as I said, they were much taller than other men, and they also had some problems. Some of them grew quite flabby and fat in older age.

  • 10:37:35

    REHMRichard Harvell. His new novel is titled, "The Bells." We'll take a short break. We'll be right back.

  • 10:40:03

    REHMAnd welcome back. The book we're talking about in this hour, it's a first novel by Richard Harvell. It's titled, "The Bells," and it's about a young man who becomes a great voice in the world of opera. Let's go now to Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning, Chris. You're on the air.

  • 10:40:33

    CHRISGood morning. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 10:40:34


  • 10:40:36

    CHRISWell, I was pleasantly surprised to hear your show this morning, and I really look forward to reading this book. But I wanted to point out that you were talking about the roles that the castrati played in opera in the 18th century and before that, and when -- not only did they take female roles, but they took heroic male roles as well. I don't know if you had mentioned that.

  • 10:40:55


  • 10:40:56

    CHRISAnd, I think, it's an interesting sociological development that took place back then.

  • 10:40:59

    HARVELLYeah, Chris, I absolutely agree. And that's the main role in my book is this role of Orpheus, and that's exactly what really inspired me to write this book. 'Cause I also thought that they were just substitutes for women, but the truth is that they took roles like Solomon and Orpheus and Orlando, which were roles of these -- of very masculine roles. And that's fascinating to me, that they could have this contradiction and be on stage, these almost gods and yet off the stage, be emasculated.

  • 10:41:33

    CHRISYeah, absolutely, I agree with you. And in my role -- as a profession, I teach boys to sing. And so it's this constant -- you know, not struggle so much, but constant job to inform them that, you know, singing can be a masculine art.

  • 10:41:47

    HARVELLMm hmm. It sounds like a worthy profession to me.

  • 10:41:51

    REHMThanks for calling, Chris. And here's an e-mail from Margaret in Little Rock, Ark., who says, "Would the male role sung by females in Mozart's "Der Rosenkavalier" have been originally written to be sung by castrati?"

  • 10:42:13

    HARVELLI can't answer about that opera in particular. But, certainly, Mozart wrote quite a few of his operas with castrati roles, and so generally as a rule if there's a soprano male role today sung by a woman, that it most likely was written for a castrato.

  • 10:42:30

    REHMInteresting, and to Kris in Raleigh, N.C. Good morning. You're on the air.

  • 10:42:37

    KRISYes. I wanted to talk about -- I know that -- in the late '70s, I was at a fine arts camp in Michigan, and there was a teacher there who sang castrati. He was a man. He said that he just naturally had a soprano voice. And he said that there were quite a few and that there really wasn't a market for them, but there were men who by virtue of anatomy or biology sing castrati.

  • 10:43:05

    HARVELLMm hmm. Well, there's certainly -- there's countertenors, which are men who learn to sing these soprano roles, but there also are some, even today, these natural castrati, who by some hormonal reason have not had their voice lowered. The difference is, is that in the 18th century, these boys were selected, generally, for their singing ability. So this was already the best of the best young boys, and then from that crop, we got these extraordinary singers. And it's still -- there are a few singers today who are these natural castrati who have beautiful voices, but rarely who become the great singers.

  • 10:43:48

    KRISWell, thank you.

  • 10:43:49


  • 10:43:50

    HARVELLThank you.

  • 10:43:50

    REHMOkay, Kris. Thanks for calling. And here's an e-mail from Laura in Cambridge, Mass., who says, "My favorite book about castrati is 'The Alteration' by Kingsley Amis. It's fascinating. Have you read it?"

  • 10:44:09

    HARVELLI haven't read that book, though I came aware of that book and several other books about castrati. One big difference that I decided with this book was to not write about an Italian castrati, and so I wrote about this. And I learned that there were a few places where boys were castrated north of the Alps, and this was a chance to make my castrato dramatically alone and really have to figure out on his own, what did this mean, that he was different from these people around him? And so a lot of that understanding for him has to come on his own.

  • 10:44:51

    REHMThere is no problem with Moses' emotions. He falls in love with a wonderful woman.

  • 10:45:01

    HARVELLMm hmm. Absolutely. Moses is a very emotional person, especially as a narrator, 60 years -- he's someone who's spent 45 years of his life with opera. So you can imagine that he's, of course, going to tell his life in an operatic way, in a sometimes melodramatic way. And he lived quite an extraordinary life, and he certainly -- he fell in love with a wonderful woman in St. Gall as -- and then lost her and found her again, just like Orpheus did. And with that, I won't give anymore away, whether there's more love and loss.

  • 10:45:36

    REHMHe runs into a terrible mother-in-law.

  • 10:45:40


  • 10:45:40

    REHMPotential mother-in law.

  • 10:45:42


  • 10:45:43

    REHMHow were the castrati in 18th century Europe different from the men who were called eunuchs in earlier times?

  • 10:45:57

    HARVELLOkay. So -- and I wouldn't even say earlier times. Throughout history, many cultures have castrated boys or adults, most often to serve as servants and sometimes as sexual slaves. This certainly was true during Roman times. It's true -- has been true in Persian empires and India, in Islamic countries. Fortunately, not as often today. The big difference with the castrati from all of these, except for some singers in the Byzantine Empire, was they're the only ones who actually became something better than the non-castrated men. They became the heroes, and so they weren't the servants. They had servants.

  • 10:46:44

    REHMInteresting. To Boca Raton, Fla. Good morning, Robert.

  • 10:46:50

    ROBERTGood morning. My question is how did -- at what point in time and how, actually, did the societies sort of make this an illegal practice?

  • 10:47:03

    HARVELLWell, interesting, during the height of castration in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was very illegal. It was punishable by death and by excommunication. But at the same time, the Pope himself had castrati singing in the papal choir. And there's even one Pope -- don't ask me which one -- who wrote an opera for castrati. So, on one hand, it was severely punished and, the other hand, it was certainly condoned. It was really only in the 19th century, when the public turned against these singers, that they became less popular. And that's really when romantic opera started to be less about gods and heroes and more about normal people.

  • 10:47:47

    REHMSo what you're saying is that the practice stopped not because it was felt it was a cruel and inhumane practice, but because tastes in music changed?

  • 10:48:05

    HARVELLYep, yep, absolutely.

  • 10:48:06

    REHMThat's horrendous.

  • 10:48:07

    HARVELLYeah, and certainly the case. And even the last castrato sang in the papal choir until 1913, so it was never stopped by the authorities. It was certainly stopped by the public that they...

  • 10:48:22

    REHMAnd its tastes.

  • 10:48:24

    HARVELLAnd its taste, right.

  • 10:48:25

    REHMHow was the castration carried out? Was it usually done under some kind of an anesthetic?

  • 10:48:35

    HARVELLMost likely not. And it was most like -- often done by barbers. Now, when we think of barbers, it's not just someone who cuts hairs. But at that time, barbers removed boils, and they performed minor surgery. And so if you were a parent or a singing teacher who wanted to have a boy castrated, you couldn't just walk down the street and see some sign that said castration performed. There were stories of that, but, I think, they're certainly not true. But in different towns, there was barbers who were known for doing the operation, and they would -- most often, they would soak the boy in some kind of warm water.

  • 10:49:11

    HARVELLAnd sometimes they would give him laudanum, as happens to my character in my book, so a tincture of opium, but sometimes not. And then they would simply cut the artery that is connected to the testicles. It wouldn't -- it's not massively bloody. You didn't have to remove the testicles 'cause the testicles would then naturally fade away and disappear simply from the loss of blood.

  • 10:49:37

    REHMAre there reports of how painful it was?

  • 10:49:42

    HARVELLWell, one thing that also interests me in writing this novel is that there is no account -- autobiographical account of a castrato anywhere. We really don't know either what these boys felt, what their life was like. We only have stories from the audience. And so we really can't answer the question, did it hurt and how was it to be a castrato in society?

  • 10:50:10

    REHMCould they be sexually active afterwards? Could they achieve erection?

  • 10:50:16

    HARVELLThis is something that different novelists have handled differently. Some people have liked to claim that they did have sexual function, but after reading quite a bit, I'm convinced that they did not. These were boys that were castrated as boys, and so they never developed because they didn't have -- or didn't have enough testosterone to develop. An adult male who's castrated can, in some cases, keep his sexual function, but certainly not these boys that were castrated at the age of 8 or 9 or 10.

  • 10:50:51

    REHMOf course, he continues to think about his mother, and I'm talking about Moses, your fictional character.

  • 10:51:03

    HARVELLMm hmm. Yeah, his mother is important to him throughout the novel, just as her bells are very much this pure sound that he began his life with. And he thinks back to those often throughout the novel.

  • 10:51:17

    REHMLet's see. We have an e-mail here that says, "Mozart generally did not write for castrati. His soprano opera roles were written for women, many of whose names we know. Mozart's trouser roles, most notably Cherubino in 'The Marriage of Figaro' was written for a mezzo-soprano, a woman who sang the character of a teenage page. One of his early works, the three movements, solo motet 'Exsultate, jubilate' was written for an Italian castrato, but that was when Mozart was only 17 and one of the last works written for a castrato since the practice of castration was beginning to come to an end."

  • 10:52:17

    HARVELLAnd one of the great coincidences that I discovered with the book is that the night of this premier in 1762, Mozart is 5 years old and is just 10 miles away. He's arriving in Vienna that night because he's going -- the next day he's going to play his violin as a 5-year-old for Empress Maria Theresa. And so this opera is very much one of the last -- or in some ways the last opera of this Baroque period or the first opera of this Classical period that Mozart -- of course, his operas are the greatest example of.

  • 10:52:51

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Here's an e-mail from Mary Jane in Alexandria, Va., who says, "Elsa Scammell, a dear a friend of mine and author of "The Last Castrato" worked tirelessly, probably until her last breath in 2003 on the history of castrati. She did not get to finish her book "Angel Voices," now to be completed by Dr. Peter Giles. I'm interested as whether Ms. Scammell and her works contributed to Richard Harvell for his novel."

  • 10:53:39

    HARVELLThe name is certainly familiar to me, but I can't recall which book or what influence she had on me.

  • 10:53:48

    REHMI'm sure you had to read many, many books...

  • 10:53:52


  • 10:53:52

    REHM...for this. How long did this novel take you to write?

  • 10:53:57

    HARVELLWell, I -- took me only about eight months to write, and I was convinced it was finished. And then it took me about another two or three years before everyone else seemed to agree with me. So definitely altogether, it was about three-and-a-half years to write this.

  • 10:54:14

    REHMWe have a recording from 1902. It is said to be the last recording of a castrato singing the "Ave Maria."

  • 10:55:55

    REHMIs this an adult or a child singing?

  • 10:56:00

    HARVELLSo this is Alessandro Moreschi who sang in the papal choir until 1913 and certainly regarded as the last castrato. And he's singing this -- I think he's age 44. This is in 1902. And it's -- unfortunately, because of its poor quality of recording, and also he -- it's important to say he probably was not the best castrato of -- certainly, of any age and probably not even of his age. But he was the last castrato, and it's a wonderful treasure because we really will never know what these great singers sounded like.

  • 10:56:37

    REHMRichard Harvell, his new novel is titled, "The Bells." Really, so intriguing. Thank you.

  • 10:56:49

    HARVELLThank you.

  • 10:56:50

    REHMAnd congratulations.

  • 10:56:51

    HARVELLThank you very much.

  • 10:56:52

    REHMThanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.

  • 10:56:59

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