Lakeside Arts
Part of University of Nottingham
Lakeside Arts

Photograph of tall buildings, a bridge across water with people standing on it and blue sky in Venice


Like most people I have quite eclectic tastes in music. I can be playing Bob Dylan one day swiftly followed by a weeklong binge on Bach cello suits. Music possesses an inherent sense of time and place and means so much to me as it awakens strong emotions. – Angelo Murphy, Arts & Heritage Duty Manager

Many years ago my wife and I were lucky enough to spend a long weekend in Venice on the first weekend of the Venice Carnival. The carnival is truly an incredible spectacle and just about everyone seems to have managed to find an exquisite Baroque costume, and of course the ubiquitous carnival mask. We spent a lot of time in a bustling, noisy St Mark’s square. We loved how people just sauntered by eating slices of street pizza or sat outside one of the squares' many cafes, masked and in full costume looking like: "this is how I always dress’. There are moments when you are convinced you have stepped back in time to 18th century Italy. However, Sunday evenings in Venice are a dramatically different prospect.

Sunday, and our final evening in Venice. My wife and I expected to experience more packed streets full of noise and exuberant people, but we arrived at an almost deserted St Mark’s square. Maybe it was the constant drizzle that evening that put the crowds off but after having a couple of vinos and leaving the café we both became aware of the most incredible singing. We couldn’t quite work out where it was coming from or whether the voice was in fact male or female: we were intrigued. The drizzle had turned into heavier rain now so we buttoned up and headed down a darkened ally towards the singing. We twisted our way through ever narrowing streets crisscrossed with canals, through darker passages and over tiny ornate bridges, encouraged on as the voice seemed ever closer. Then, just at the point where you think, we really need to turn back now, we emerged from the darkness into a fully lit piazza.

The man singing was about 35 years old and stood holding a large black umbrella dressed in a long grey overcoat outside la Banca D’italia. It was the most incredible sound I’d ever heard. We hung around for a while with a small appreciative audience as the singer moved seamlessly into three more songs. It was a wonderfully romantic note to end a very memorable weekend.

The singer turned out to be the Belgian countertenor Johannes Riechert and the impromptu recital that evening was music composed by Handel, originally for a castrato singer. The closest contemporary equivalent to a castrato is a countertenor, so I'm sharing this playlist containing performances from my favourite countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, including songs we heard performed that fateful evening. 

And to accompany the music, I'll also share a short clip from the movie Farinelli directed by Gérard Corbiau. In the movie an attempt was made to try and recreate a close approximation to a castrato voice. This was achieved by digitally mixing the voices of countertenor Derek lee Ragin and soprano Ewa Mallas Godlewski – the results are breathtaking.