Tito Amato is a castrato singer, a divo of the 18th-century opera stage, who lives and works in Venice during the last few decades of the Republic’s tumultuous decline. The castration forced upon him as a young boy could easily have made Tito a bitter man, but in his case, the physical violation resulted in empathy for anyone wronged by a repressive, uncaring society. A friendless stranger, the Jews of the Venetian ghetto, a Carnival dwarf, a wise woman of the Old Religion, a murdered servant whose master would like to simply to forget her—Tito seeks justice for all.
Susanne Alleyn: Buongiorno, Signor Amato. We’re grateful that you’ve been able to take a break from your busy rehearsal schedule to visit with us. Please tell us a little about your time and place.
Tito: I live in the Most Serene Republic of Venice in the mid-1700s. Although my ancient city once ferried Crusaders to the Holy Land and ruled the eastern Mediterranean like a seafaring queen, in my day Venice has been deserted by fortune. She is dying. Literally, she is sinking into the lagoon. Morally she is wasting herself in a maelstrom of pleasure and gaiety. Economically she survives by fleecing the foreigners who flock to our island to enjoy our musical and artistic treasures, our women, our gambling houses, and especially, our six-month Carnival. I believe you have a city that serves a similar function, though it is inexplicably located in the middle of a desert—Las Vegas.
SA: The practice of castrating young boys to make opera singers of them is abhorrent to most 21st-century readers. Could you tell us more about it?
Tito: Blame St. Paul: he is the one who first admonished women to keep silent in the churches. The rest followed according to the literal-minded logic of some boneheaded churchmen. Boy sopranos sang in church choirs, but their voices deepened after only a few years. Around the 16th century, it occurred to some clever voice master to preserve the angel voices by means of surgery. Later, when the new spectacle of opera became the reigning entertainment of the day, the public wanted to hear the same high, thrilling voices they enjoyed in church. My contemporaries find the castrato voice fascinating and compelling, the perfect expression of song in a culture that has developed artifice and illusion to a high art. My arias make women swoon and grown men weep.
Bev interjects: Tito also makes boatloads of money singing them. Not too shabby, eh?
SA: Is there anything about 18th-century Venice that would seem particularly familiar or relevant to readers of the early 21st century?
Tito: Carissima Bev, the chronicler of my adventures, has noted an unfortunate similarity. Like your world, my Venice is undergoing an economic decline. Our merchants once depended on lucrative trade routes to the Levant (your Middle East) and the Orient. The esteemed title La Serenissima conjured up visions of maritime superiority and political glory. Christopher Columbus’ historic voyage changed all that—trade gradually turned toward the West and Venice was left with scraps. Our merchants and aristocrats, who are one and the same,now take brutal, desperate measures to preserve their wealth and status. I’ve faced cynical, greedy villains who’ve sabotaged Venice’s foreign trade agreements, blamed powerless Jews for Venice’s money woes, even attempted to swindle benefices out of the Vatican.
SA: How and why did you first become a sleuth?
Tito: I didn’t set out to involve myself in crime. I was having enough trouble preparing for my opera debut and adjusting to living in my family home after years spent at a Naples conservatory. On opening night disaster struck. Adelina Belluna, a prima donna who had taken me under her wing, collapsed during the second act. It was soon discovered that she’d been poisoned, and my friend, Felice Ravello, was accused. Unjustly, I was certain, but the authorities were determined to close the case quickly and execute Felice. I had to find the real killer. In so doing, I found that I had both a natural streak of curiosity and a nose for justice that served me well.
SA: Many literary sleuths have a companion, or sidekick, in their investigations. Do you?
Tito: In PAINTED VEIL, I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of Augustus Rumbolt. “Gussie” is an Englishman who was making his Grand Tour of Europe when he decided to defy his family and stay in Venice to study painting. My sweet sister Annetta may have had something to do with his resolve—Gussie is now my brother-in-law as well as my closest friend. Having spent his youth in tramping and riding over his father’s estate, Gussie provides a welcome strong arm in many of my cases.
SA: Is there an established police force in 1740s Venice? Do your efforts ever clash with official attempts to maintain law and order?
Tito: Venice has a rudimentary police force. The sbirri are rough men whose main job is to keep order during Carnival and our many festivals. If real detective work is called for, the task falls to the chief of the sbirri , Messer Grande—whose title translates to Mr. Big. Messer Grande rarely appreciates my efforts.
SA: Does your career as a singer ever interfere with your avocation as a sleuth? Or vice versa?
Tito: To the contrary. The opera houses of Venice are the meeting places of society. The Doge himself keeps an official box at the Teatro San Marco, and even the poorest gondolier has his space on a bench in the pit. In between, every layer of Venetian society is represented. I have access to everyone, high and low. They all know me because I am the celebrated Tito Amato, primo uomo .
SA: On that note, I hear that you’ve been accused—ahem!—of milking the audience for applause.
Tito (bristling): I enjoy an incredible rapport with my audience. They love me and I love them. I won’t apologize for that or for sharing the incredible voice that the knife bestowed and years of vocal training refined.
SA: I gather that the mysteries you solve are generally not tied to a discrete historical event.
Tito: You are correct, with one exception. In CRUEL MUSIC, an unscrupulous Venetian senator coerces me into helping him attempt to place his brother on the throne of St. Peter. Sent to spy on a music-loving Cardinal with the political power to swing the conclave, I was thrust into the midst of papal politics. And I thought Venetian aristocrats fought dirty! I have only two pleasant memories of Rome: finding Liya again and singing for Pope Clement XII. The blind pontiff was lingering on his deathbed, and I like to think that my angelic voice eased his last days.
SA: What’s next for you?
Tito: Carissima Bev has been making notes on the period in my life when I must face the decline of my golden throat and decide what the remainder of my time on this earth holds. She spends many hours pecking away at her writing device. There are many stories she could tell, but I believe she’s chosen the mysterious disappearance of my beloved mentor, Maestro Torani. It was an uncomfortable time for me in many ways—I was even suspected of murdering the poor man to gain his position of director of the Teatro San Marco. Imagine!
SA: What was your most fascinating, confounding, or horrifying case over the course of your career so far, and why?
Tito (visibly shaken): I believe you have a saying in the 21st century: You can’t choose your family. Truer words were never spoken. My younger sister Grisella was born at the moment our mother drew her last breath, and that tragedy set the tone for the rest of her life. Wayward isn’t the word for Grisella—one must think in terms of depravity and wickedness. Bev chronicled the culmination of Grisella’s misdeeds in THE IRON TONGUE OF MIDNIGHT. Surely this was the most horrifying set of murders I’ve ever been a part of, both because my own sister came under suspicion and because the midnight killer seemed to strike the isolated villa with absolute impunity.
SA: I understand you have a wife.
Tito: Yes. Liya, the love and light of my life.
SA: I’m confused. You’re a eunuch. How is it that you are able to marry?
Tito: It will surprise your readers to learn that many castrato singers have reputations as great lovers. The great Caffarelli temporarily lost his voice when he caught a cold hiding in a cistern to avoid his mistress’ angry husband.
Tito: And then, there is the tragedy of Siface, who was murdered by his noble mistress’ family who objected to their liaison. Without violating my privacy, I will say that I do just fine, especially with the invigorating potions and unguents that my herbalist wife concocts. Despite my capability, the Catholic Church forbids the sacrament of marriage because I cannot physically father a child. Thus, my darling pagan and I “jumped the broom” in the tradition of the Old Religion, and I adopted her child as my own son.
SA: Though prominent historical characters rarely take center stage in your investigations, would you care to “name drop” about any fascinating people that 21st-century readers would’ve heard of?
Tito: I do hope they’ve heard of Maestro Vivaldi. After one of my operas, the great composer once put his hand to his heart and said, “Tito has just given us a taste of the choirs of Heaven.” Sticking with the musical world, I met Signor Handel during my disastrous visit to London (as yet unchronicled by carissima Bev). Just between us, I found him pompous and cold. The man works too hard—he needs to put his quill down and get out more. Lastly, I would wager your readers have heard of Casanova. The adventures of that self-styled great lover will endure down the ages—if someone else doesn’t write them, he will. A Venetian like myself, Casanova often attended the opera, ensconced in the box of a generous patron, generally in the back with his hand up a woman’s skirt. Believe me, good people, the man is only famous for being famous (as Bev puts it).
SA: Perhaps you know what “motion pictures” are. Which actor do you think would do the most accurate job of portraying you?
Tito: Do I understand correctly that my performances could be saved and recreated in some mysterious manner? That I could see myself acting on the stage, hear my own voice? But this is miraculous! Singing is the most fleeting of all arts—my throat sounds a note and it vanishes within seconds, never to be repeated in precisely the same way. To capture that … sheer bliss. How I wish these devices existed in my time.
Oh … you asked about an actor to play me. I truly have no idea, but carissima Bev is partial to Signor Johnny Depp. I only hope he’s able to sing soprano.
SA: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us, Signor Amato?
Tito: Bev is nudging me to list my adventures in order. She feels the series is most enjoyable when read from start to finish.
• INTERRUPTED ARIA In which a prima donna is poisoned, and I race the executioner to save my unjustly accused friend.
• PAINTED VEIL In which Gussie and I track a masked killer bent on destruction of the Venetian ghetto.
• CRUEL MUSIC In which I travel to Rome and find that the election of a new Pope can lead to murder.
• THE IRON TONGUE OF MIDNIGHT In which Gussie and I confront a killer who terrorizes a country villa.
• HER DEADLY MISCHIEF In which a courtesan tumbles to her death, and I must solve the mystery before the murderer comes after my family.
• Coming in 2013, STRIKING THE HAPPY HOURS In which my mentor disappears, and I am suspected of his murder.
All the Tito Amato Mysteries are available in trade paper and as eBooks from Poisoned Pen Press ( www.poisonedpenpress.com ) or from your favorite local or internet bookseller. During 2012, the publisher in re-releasing the first five volumes with new cover art.
Beverle Graves Myers made a mid-life career switch from psychiatry to mystery writing. A graduate of the University of Louisville School of Medicine, she worked at a public mental health clinic before her first book was published in 2004. From her home in Louisville, Kentucky, Bev also writes short fiction set in a variety of times and places. Her stories have been published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Woman’s World, Futures, and numerous anthologies. She has earned nominations for the Macavity, Derringer, and Kentucky Literary awards.
For more information on the Tito Amato Mysteries and on Bev and cowriter Joanne Dobson’s new series set in World War II-era New York, visit this website: www.beverlegravesmyers.com
Historical Sleuth Interviews will appear once or twice a month. Authors, if you’d like your historical sleuth to be interviewed here, please send Susanne a note with a little information about your books.
Susanne Alleyn is the author of the Aristide Ravel French Revolution Mysteries (The Cavalier of the Apocalypse, Palace of Justice, Game of Patience, and A Treasury of Regrets) and of A Far Better Rest, the reimagining of A Tale of Two Cities, all available in paper and eBook.