If anyone was meant to write a play about the 18th-century castrato Farinelli, it was composer Claire van Kampen. She’d heard of Farinelli and seen the 1994 film about him, but her interest wasn’t truly piqued until a countertenor with whom she was working mentioned his life in the court of King Philippe V of Spain, and how his voice helped ease the king’s mental illness.
“I thought it was the most amazing true story, that this castrato decided to leave his life at the height of his powers to go and sing to the King of Spain and stay there for the rest of the king’s life,” van Kampen recalls. “And so I set about writing it!”
The result is Farinelli and the King, now playing at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre in a production starring Tony and Oscar winner Mark Rylance as the king and Sam Crane and Iestyn Davies as Farinelli—the former acting the role and the latter singing it—who was castrated at the age of ten and views his gift as a burden. They, along with the rest of the cast and director John Dove, bring to life the story of how Farinelli came to the Spanish court and stayed, abandoning public performances to sing only for the king.
“I want people to draw their own conclusions because it’s such a huge subject: Why people give up fame for an act or service,” van Kampen says. “The more I got into the subject the more I thought two things are going on here: The most interesting thing is we don’t know why music works with people who have mental illness. But it does. And the other point is people feeling they’re somehow frauds and immensely damaged by this feeling.”
The play has undergone extensive revisions since its 2015 premiere, but Rylance has remained involved from the beginning—partly because he’s married to the playwright. “I didn’t actually write it for him; I really had no faith in the fact that he would ever be able to or want to play it,” van Kampen says with a laugh. “I was very lucky that he gave me so much more inspiration.” She also points to Davies’ expertise; thanks to his suggestions, the Broadway production now boasts three additional arias.
“It’s such a treat to see a [Broadway] audience being absolutely knocked out by beautiful music from the 18th century, sung by an exquisite voice,” she says. “Music shouldn’t be made elitist or people made to feel it’s not for them. Music is music and it moves you if it’s good.”
Farinelli and the King began previews December 5 with an official opening December 17.