The Castrato – When fashion goes too far.

rome from the roof of saint peter

The Christian doctrine.

Why on earth did they even invent the Castrato?

In the Christian medieval world, women were forbidden to sing in the choir during religious ceremonies. Mass and sacred services had to be sung only by men. The altos and sopranos singing the high notes were recruited among children. Anyone who has sung a Bach coral knows how awkward the tenor and the alto voices can be. They were never composed for high men and low women voices, but for children.

Let your women leep silent

However, when polyphonic singing started to become more pronounced and the vocal parts more demanding, the religious choruses had great difficulties in finding children’s voices that were both sharp and powerful enough.  

In Rome, towards the middle of the sixteenth century, the barbaric custom of castrating young singers was introduced. This was to preserve the purity and melodious beauty of the young boy’s voice but still possess the grown-up male body’s power. 

From the beginning of the seventeenth century, castrati training schools began to flourish. They popped up In Naples, Bologna, Venice, and elsewhere. But for all of them, the real goal was to get to Rome, the capital of the Christian religion. Reaching heights of prestige in the field of religious singing, brought money for oneself and for one’s family. Having a son become a liturgical cantor was one of the very few ways for a poor family to become accepted into high society and, above all, make some cash. Sacrifying the testicled of the boy was a small price to pay.

What is a castrato? 

A castrato means a castrated person, generally a male. Practically, castration is the removal of the testicles, or alternatively simply blocking their function, in order to prevent the secretion of testosterone. It can be done in many different ways and is still used today for medical purposes. Also in modern times convicted sex offenders can, in some parts of the world, be castrated. Not long ago, even any sexual behavior that was regarded as unacceptable, i.e. homosexuality, could be treated with castration. In those cases the castration is often chemical, i.e. you take a drug.

Ottoman harem

Talking about the castrati singers in the 16th century, the procedure was surgical, kind of… It included cutting (!). The testicles were removed by cutting them off. And consequently, the typical change of voice that accompanies the grown man never occurred. The result was a voice that was crystal clear and high-pitched like a woman’s but at the same time, powerful like a man’s voice and able to reach much lower notes than a young boy could ever dream of. A mix of ups and downs, power and grace.

But, the castration intervention wasn’t an invention of the church. Eunuchs were used in courts in ancient China and in the Levant and Ottoman Empire. In those cases, the reason for castration wasn’t so much to preserve their voices. These Eunuchs were serving inside a Harem or anyway, where there were women… The Sultan’s or the Emperor’s women. And as the Eunuchs were severely sexually dysfunctional,  it was reasonably safe to keep them together with women without any consequences. Even though it was in no way foolproof.

The trend of Castrati singers.

The first notation of castrati singers is from the choir of the Sistine Chapel, in Rome, in 1562. After that, in a very short time, the success of these extraordinary voices involved all of Italy and much of Europe. Any means was used to find suitable children to become castrated singers. 

Families were often happy to be able to make their children available. And if the family objected to giving away their children for castration, other, not very “Christian” methods were used, from kidnapping to threats to blackmail and even murder. Money, social positions, and political power were all included in the trade… All paid for by the innocent children.

It should be noted that not every child that was accepted for the procedure, came out a great singer. Many died or were injured. Or they simply didn’t have the material, something you obviously couldn’t know beforehand. They then had to try to survive as they knew best, or simply return home to the rural context they came from, crippled, disfigured, and unable to marry.

young castrato
Young student of the Neapolitan school.

Anyway, once accepted for the training program, the castrati studied for eight hours a day, more than the non-castrato singers. They also enjoyed special treatments… They ate chicken when their classmates ate sardines. They had medical care and better lodgings. In short, they were an investment that had to be managed and conserved. 

How the castrato voice became the highest fashion.

The real boom of the phenomenon occurred in the seventeenth century. Italy was not only the center for the Roman Catholic church, as the Vatican was in Rome, but it was also the most fertile soil for new musical inventions. And so, the castrati soon entered the world of Opera. And with that, the impresario-manager profession was born.

These agents, many of dubious moral and conduct, managed the affairs of their emasculated clients, who often were inexperienced, as well as very young. They procured them theatrical engagements and convocations in the salons of nobles or high prelates. The best of these managers could introduce their singers to the courts of Kings and Emperors.

And there, among the nobles in the golden saloons, the success of the castrati was sensational. Two castrati, in particular, were the undisputed stars of the Rococo century.

Carlo Broschi, known as Farinelli (1705-1782).

Born in Adria in Puglia, he was not of poor descendants. His father was a composer and the Cathedral organist of Adria. Both his parents had relatives among the lesser nobility.

Carlo Broschi – Farinelli

He was trained in Naples, which was the biggest and most influential city in Italy and in southern Europe at the time. His castration was performed at the age of 12, which is late compared to the standard. 

Farinelli became a superstar of his time. Today it can be hard to imagine the type of fame these singers could enjoy. And not only for his beautiful voice but also for his sexual fascination. 

Women all over the world were passionately attracted to him. That could seem like a contradiction, but castrati weren’t necessarily homosexual, transgender, or agender in any way. They were men and fell in love like any other man. Many of them could have an erection and some even ejaculate. There are stories about Castrati having children, which at least theoretically would be possible. 

Anyway, he toured the courts of Europe, and made a fortune before he ended up at the court of Spain under the severely depressed King Philip V. His heavenly voice and the perfect coloratura, worked miracles on the old King. He used to sing for him at night in a room adjacent to the King’s bedroom. 

He stayed in Spain for 25 years before he returned to Italy and Bologna, where he died in 1782.

Gaetano Majorano, known as Caffarelli (1710 – 1783).

Unlike Farinelli, Caffarelli was of modest origin. He too was from the heal of the Italian boot, Puglia, but his origins were much more modest. His father was a poor farmer and intended for the boy to follow in his footsteps. But when young Gaetano showed a talent for singing, the choirmaster of the local church happened to hear him. Full of enthusiasm, and probably seeing a profitable companionship ahead, he convinced the poor illiterate father that if he just consent to the operation, the boy would become both famous, and prominent, and his family could expect huge economic benefits.

cantante castrato pugliese
Gaetano_Majorano – Caffarelli

The very convincing organist’s name was Caffaro, and the boy became Caffarelli, meaning the amazing little Caffaro.

He too studied in Naples, debuted in an Opera at 14 years of age, and from there he began a career that brought him to every corner of Europe. He was received like a Prince wherever he went and paid as such. And just like Farinelli, he was a highly-priced prey for high-rank women. And if his lovers were married, Caffarelli could find himself in big trouble. As he did once in London, where he had to spend a night in an empty water tank in a garden, because of a jealous husband. He obviously fell sick and had to stay in bed for almost a month because of that.

He sang in all the important theaters, in Milan, Rome, Naples, Venice, Vienna, London, Prague, Madrid, and of course Paris. As Farinelli sang for the Spanish King, Caffarelli made an unforgettable impression on King Louis XV, the richest and most powerful person on the planet at the time. 

Caffarelli died in 1783 in Naples.

The palace he built with the money he made from singing, still stands. Today it is a B&B if you would like to visit Naples as well… Something I can highly recommend. Here is an Affiliate link. That means there’s no extra cost for you, but I will get a small commission. 

But what does all this about Castrati have to do with Venice?

Well, Venice was the world hub for anything interesting, entertaining, and pleasurable. The republic of Venice was wealthy, very wealthy. But after Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India in 1499, the incomes had diminished somewhat. So instead of trading, instead, Venice turned to a kind of tourism. Just like in modern days, Venice became a hot spot for the jet set. And the hottest and newest attraction was of course the theater. 

The modern theater was born in Venice. By that, I mean a theater as entertainment for anyone who had the money to pay for the ticket. In the 16th and 17th centuries, there were theaters in every country all over Europe. But in most other places, leisure was in the hands of the court… Or in the hands of the church. In Venice, on the other hand, the fun was more democratic. Anybody who could pay the price of a ticket, could just step in from the street and enjoy the show.

So, singers came from all over Italy, and they came from every corner of Europe to sing in Venice. The Basilica of Saint Mark’s was a profitable employer for musicians and singers. There you could make quite a lot of money, but only if you were a man. The church engaged men, castrati, and boys., but no women.

But the real deal was the theaters. And there were many in Venice… About 20 at the beginning of 1700. The younger boys had fewer possibilities there, but for all the others, including sopranos and altos, this was a huge market. Farinelli sang in Venice, and so did Caffarelli, and more or less every other elite castrato. In Venice, there were jobs for singers, musicians, and composers like in no other part of Europe.

Venice Opera inside

Venice’s impact on the castrato voice. 

Venice wasn’t as influential politically as Paris and London at this time. And it wasn’t even the first choice for musical schooling, which would probably be Naples. But Venice was extremely important as a market for the trained singer, once he completed the preparation. Because not all of the Castrati went to Paris or Madrid. Many just tried to survive like most singers and musicians today. And that’s where Venice becomes a major player.

The many theaters in the city played for the ticket. They got their income from the paying audience. That meant that they had to perform as much as possible, preferably every night. And for that, they needed hoards of singers, musicians, conductors, composers, and of course… impresarios.

And good times for the managers meant unfortunate conditions for the trainees. First of all, because they simply needed more Castrati, and that meant more interventions. And the intervention of cutting off the balls of a young child wasn’t without risks. Even if he didn’t die right there and then, physical problems would arise further on in his life. 

In modern days studies have been made on the skeleton of a few of these Castrati, and they show evidence of likely defects as a result of the operation. The castrati were taller than their peers. They often suffered severe back problems, and they also probably had notable abnormalities in the brain. 

Teatro La Fenice – Tha Venice Opera.

Teatro la fenice and the castrati.

Teatro la Fenice was built in 1792, and at that time the castrati-phenomena was already declining. They still sang there, but the fashion slowly changed, as fashion does. 

At the beginning of the castrati-era, in the theaters, the Castrati sang the female parts. That changed at the beginning of the 1700s when they started singing male parts… The hero of the play. That certainly helped them in their image. They didn’t have to dress up in women’s clothing anymore, like some sort of drag queen. It was easier for them, as well as their image, to be the male hero in the Opera.

Later on, in the 1800s, the castrato voice was completely replaced by the male tenor, or in some cases the barytone. The music changed, the trend was towards less agility and lightness and more of a natural-sounding exhibition. The man in the story should sound like a man… Not like an asexual eunuch.

Still, at La Fenice, Castrati were used throughout the 19th century. 

The last castrato – Alessandro Moreschi.

So, how did they sound? Well, there are videos on youtube that let you perceive a little about what you can expect. The Castrato, Alessandro Moreschi is the only example of real audio that we have. He recorded at the beginning of 1900. At that time he was late in his career, and we have no reason to believe that he was a good singer compared to the best Castrati of the 18th century. Still, it’s very interesting to listen to him. 

Very evident is the fact that he has considerable volume in the lower register. Something a modern countertenor doesn’t have. He also sounds very much like a boy. The difference between his chest voice and his head voice is less evident than for a modern male voice (tenor or baritone).

Talking about different voices… The use of men dressed up as women, and, more frequently, women dressed up as men, is very common in Opera. It is a comical attribute, and there are endless examples of it. Sometimes it’s also used as a dramatic effect. Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart and Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, by Strauss, are two examples. 

Today, when you perform an opera with roles written for Castrati, you must substitute them with modern voices. Very often these parts are sung by women, even though they portray a man on stage. But they can also be sung by a man, normally a baritone. He will then sing the part one octave lower.

The barbaric usage of orchiectomy.

So, almost everybody gained something from this barbaric custom… The theaters and the managers all made money, the church could continue its musical activity without changing the doctrine, and even the family of the child had huge benefits if the castrato became prominent. 

The only true loser was the boy himself, and he didn’t have any saying. He had to be mutilated, trained like a well-behaved dog, and then suffer physically as well as psychologically… And many, many of those who underwent the operation died. From direct complications or from secondary infections etc. but they died. We don’t know how many, but as tens of thousands of interventions were made, it’s easy to imagine.

The conclusion must be two things:

  1. If something is trendy, fashionable, or nice doesn’t automatically means that it is good. The first thing to consider should always be if it’s safe and positive for our well-being. Because if it’s not, maybe we shouldn’t do it…?
  2. An innocent child should always, always be defended against unscrupulous exploitation… That is everybody’s responsibility.

Article 19 in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child:

The state must do all it can to protect children from violence, abuse, neglect, bad treatment, or exploitation by their parents or anyone else who looks after them. 

Basilica di San Marco in Venice. A major employer for the Castrati of the 18th century.