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How to Build an Opera Star: The rise and fall of the castrato

The barbaric practice of castrating boys yielded some of the greatest musical stars of the Baroque period, and had a huge influence on music of the time.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

21 November 2014 at 11.32am | 5 Comments

What would you sacrifice for your career? How about for your children's careers? In Baroque Italy, hundreds of thousands of prepubescent boys had the ultimate sacrifice made for them. Castration was a way of giving a boy a chance at a musical career, singing with the church or, later, in opera – despite the risks that the child might die in the process, and if he survived might not make it in the musical world anyway.

The European practice of castrating boys for their voices is thought to have originated in Arab-influenced Spain, but it became a decidedly Italian phenomenon (with some imitators in Italian-influenced German-speaking lands). We know a castrato joined the Sistine Chapel choir in 1562, and one the Munich court choir in 1574. This predates the birth of opera, which we generally take from the beginning of the 1600s, by some margin. The castrato’s first home was in church music – but here he was not to stay.

The larynx and vocal chords of a castrated boy developed slowly; as a result they were small and very strong, sounding over a range from alto to high soprano with a quality quite different from man's falsetto or a woman’s voice. His thoracic cavity was likely to be somewhat over-developed, giving him big lungs for long breaths. Unlike other boys, he wouldn’t need to negotiate his voice break – meaning years of uninterrupted vocal training that, for some, resulted in an advanced musicality and control.

Once the unique qualities of a good castrato became apparent, the track to the stage was clear. Throughout the 1600s the number of castrato roles in opera increased – and more castratos were made to meet the demand. At his height, the castrato was not considered effeminate or ridiculous by any means. By 1680 it was more or less expected that the hero of an opera seria would be sung by a castrato, investing the role with heroism and nobility (while the tenor, operatic hero of the 19th century, would most likely play an old man).

As Italian opera became popular around Europe, its heroes became international stars (except in Paris, where castratos were banned as being unnatural). Composers, whether they wanted to or not, wrote music to make the most of the particular talents of these audience-drawing stars. The result was that the castrato voice played a major role in the development of Baroque opera and oratorio. The evidence is in vocal writing that stretches across a wide range and provides ample opportunity both for elaborate ornamentation and for the controlled messa di voce (growing and dying away of a single note) for which castratos were particularly admired.

But their popularity was not to last. By the mid 18th century the number of castratos was declining and embarrassment about their origins – always an illegal operation – was on the increase. As the opera seria decreased in popularity, castratos began to find themselves without a home, and by 1800 the operatic castrato was more or less a rarity. The very last castrato star, Giovanni Battista Velluti, still attracted such composers as Rossini (Aureliano in Palmira, 1813) and Meyerbeer (Il crociato in Egitto, 1824) – but when his retirement in 1830 marked the end of the operatic castratos.

The practice continued within the Papal States, however; the last of the Sistine castratos, Alessandro Moreschi, retired in 1913. The 1902 and 1904 recordings of his voice sound pretty rough – but as the last of his kind and somewhat past his prime, Moreschi was unlikely to sound much like any of his great castrato forebears, such as FarinelliSenesino or Caffarelli. We must make do with the great music written for them, as the castrato is unlikely to be making a comeback.

This article has 5 comments

  1. John Fricker responded on 25 November 2014 at 12:47pm Reply

    Well done on a very informative article.

  2. Just been asked to post a comment here, as opposed to on twitter.

    Great to see the ROH writing about castrati singers, but there are a few popular inaccuracies/disputed ideas reproduced here, and it would have been good to have seen them treated with greater care, rather than being treated as fact.

    - The image from the Wellcome Trust is not an accurate visual representation of the tools used.

    - The practice of using castrati singers is thought to have come from the Arabic practice, through the co-mingling of cultures in Spain, then through to Italy.

    - There is much debate as to how the castrati singer would have sounded, and likely that there was a wide a range of sound as there is in any other category of singer. How the vocal apparatus would have grown after castration is debated - as many castrati were famed altos, with exquisite and flexible lower registers, it is inaccurate simply to speak of them as high voices. Current studies into hormone levels and vocal production, particularly in the case of intersex individuals, and men who have naturally very low testosterone levels, have provided some interesting points of debate. There are contemporary accounts talking about the differences/similarities between castrati voices and women's voices - some critics talk of huge differences, others seem to find them almost interchangeable.

    - Burney's comment is not generally considered a good indication of practice - the actually operation of castration had always been illegal (most castrati claimed that they had been accidentally castrated), and those who procured castrati singers for the conservatories would not advertise, or openly declare themselves - particularly not to a foreigner.

    - Castrati singers were still in use in 1800 - Giovanni Velluti had roles created for him by both Rossini and Meyerbeer in the 1810s and 1820s. It is after this period that they slowly fell out of fashion on the operatic stage.

    Sorry to be so pedantic, but ROH has such a wide reach, and it would be good to see a more informed article.

    Further reading that people may find interesting:

    * Bergeron, Katherine, The Castrato as History, Cambridge Opera Journal (July 1996

    * Harris, Ellen T. Twentieth-Century Farinelli, The Musical Quarterly (Summer, 1997)

    * Heller, Wendy, Reforming Achilles: Gender, “opera seria” and the Rhetoric of the Enlightened Hero, Early Music (November, 1998)

    * Hurley, David Ross, Dejanira, Omphale, and the Emasculation of Hercules: Allusion and Ambiguity in Handel, Cambridge Opera Journal (November, 1999)

    * Rosselli, John, The Castrati as a Professional Group and Social Phenomenon, 1550-1850, Acta Musicologica (May-August, 1988)

    *Sawkins, Lionel. “For and against the Order of Nature: Who Sang the Soprano?” Early Music, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Aug., 1987): 315-324

    *Barbier, Patrick. The World of the Castrati: The History of an Extraordinary Operatic Phenomenon

    Hope that helps,

    CN Lester

    (BMus & MMus thesis focused on the castrati phenomenon, Creative Director of En Travesti, an early music group dedicated to performing works written for castrati singers - about to begin my doctoral research at the Music and Gender Identity Centre at Huddersfield)

    • Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager) responded on 27 November 2014 at 10:57am

      Hi CN Lester,

      Huge thanks for providing such an in-depth comment – much appreciated to have the insight of an expert. I will confess my key source was John Rosselli's very brief article in Grove, and for reasons of time constraints I hadn't looked far beyond this. I've made corrections to the text above that I hope reflect your comments – please let me know if there's anything I've misunderstood.

      As to the image, we had experimented with using a portrait of a castrato but decided in the end that an image of contemporary surgical instruments would better communicate the content of the article. We should have made it clearer that the instruments were not used for castration; I've now amended the caption (which should come through in a few hours). If you know of any copyright-free images of the correct instruments that we might be able to use then please do let me know.

      Many thanks again,

  3. Hi Rachel,

    Thank you for taking the time to do that! Sorry - I'm afraid I don't have any images of the sort - but thank you again.

    All the best


  4. Tim Walton responded on 15 November 2016 at 1:32am Reply

    I believe there were in fact two types of Castrati - Also Castrati and Soprano Castrati.

    The alto type had a similar range to today's Counter tenors. It is the Soprano type that is almost impossible to reproduce today, although there are a number of Male Sopranos around today that can reach top A's, B's and C's with a range of around 4 octaves

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