Castration is not a pleasant topic. Even manly men — those who courageously run into burning buildings or jump out of airplanes — are known to whimper and cringe at the very thought of a sharpened knife hovering somewhat below belt level.
So let me apologize at the outset for even mentioning the word. But I can't avoid it.
Over the millennia, castration has been performed for a variety of reasons: for medical purposes as a cure for epilepsy, gout, or hernia; in overcoming distracting lust for more focused religious devotion; as a torture and punishment for criminals; as a humiliation in times of war or social conflict; for the purpose of creating docile eunuch slaves. But perhaps the most fascinating use of castration involves the human voice. Roughly between 1600 and 1800, tens of thousands of pre-pubescent boys were castrated to prevent their voices from maturing. They were known as castrati, and as the voices of their non-mutilated contemporaries deepened into tenors or basses, the castrati continued to sing in the soprano or alto range.
The practice of castrating boys to preserve their high voices was mostly restricted to Italy and at first mostly associated with creating vocalists for choirs in the Roman Catholic church. But beginning with the emergence of opera around 1600, many castrati also sang on stage. This trend created much more demand for such singers, and the practice increased. In their heyday — roughly the first half of the 18th century in what we today categorize as the "late Baroque" period — the castrati were the superstars of European opera, famous throughout Europe, commanding high salaries and devoted fans among the aristocracy and royalty. When composers stopped writing castrato roles towards the end of the 18th century, the Vatican continued to employ the singers. Castration continued into the 19th century, ending sometime in the 1860s. At least one castrato lived into the 20th century.
What did they sound like? Well, we don't really know, and we will probably never know. Although castrati sang in the same range as women, they did not sound like women. But they didn't sound anything like boys either. They had much stronger voices, and a much purer tone than most countertenors (men who naturally or through falsetto sing in the women's alto range). In the 1994 film Farinelli (a fictionalized treatment of the most famous real-life castrato), the voices of a soprano and countertenor were digitally combined. That's probably a reasonable approximation, but it doesn't quite match the description of one music historian writing with typical hyperbole after hearing a castrato sing in the Vatican chapel in the late 19th century:
What singing! Imagine a voice that combines the sweetness of the flute, and the animated suavity of the human larynx — a voice which leaps and leaps, lightly and spontaneously, like a lark that flies through the air and is intoxicated with its own flight; and when it seems that the voice has reached the loftiest peaks of altitude, it starts off again, leaping and leaping still with equal lightness and equal spontaneity, without the slightest sign of forcing or the faintest indication of artifice or effort; in a word, a voice that gives the immediate idea of sentiment transmuted into sound, and of the ascension of a soul into the infinite on the wings of that sentiment.... Not the least mark of the passage from one register of the voice to the other, no inequality of timbre between one note and another; but a calm, sweet, solemn and sonorous musical language that left me dumbstruck, and captivated me with the power of a most gracious sensation never before experienced. (quoted in Heriot, pg. 36-37)
We can get a little echo of the castrato voice through recordings of the only castrato who lived long enough to be captured by early recording technology. Alessandro Moreschi (1858 – 1922), a soloist in the Sistine Choir in the Vatican, sang in two recording sessions in 1902 and 1904, recording more than a dozen tracks long available in a CD entitled The Last Castrato. Without a doubt, the voice we hear on these recordings is unique, yet certainly not a revelation of what all the fuss was about.
We can get additional insights into the era of the castrati through a recent CD by Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. On Sacrificium — the title alludes to the sacrifices of boys for music — Ms. Bartoli has recorded 15 castrato arias from operas composed between 1723 and 1746, including 11 world-premiere recordings of arias by fairly obscure composers — Nicola Porpora, Antonio Caldara, Francesco Araia, Carl Heinrich Graun, Leonardo Leo, and Leonardo Vinci — and a "bonus" CD of three better-known composers: Riccardo Broschi (Farinelli's non-castrated brother), Geminiano Giacomelli, and — the one everyone knows — Georg Friedrich Handel. The CD package comes with a little book wittily adorned with photographs of Ms. Bartoli's head grafted onto nude Roman statues, and illustrations showing implements used in the castration procedure. An introduction and glossary provide much historical background (not all of which can be trusted).
This is not Ms. Bartoli's first "concept album." In 2003 she released a CD of arias by Antonio Salieri (including 11 world-premiere recordings), in 2005 a CD entitled Opera Proibita with arias from opera-like oratorios composed during a papal ban of opera, and in 2007 a CD of arias associated with Paris-born Spanish mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran (1808–1836).
In Sacrificium, Ms. Bartoli sometimes seems to alters her voice slightly to suggest a male tessitura, but we're never in doubt that we're hearing a woman interpret castrato roles. The value in this CD is in the resurrection of long-forgotten arias, but also a better understanding of the types of roles the castrati sang, and the way they sang them. Much attention seems to have been paid to performance practice. Opera of the late Baroque era allowed a great deal of interpretive flexibility, particularly in ornamentation. Some of the pieces here — in particular, the "rage" arias — are quite amenable to this "floid" style, and Ms. Bartoli exercises her renowned vocal agility by letting loose with all the flamboyant vulgar splendor the works demand. The results are perfectly delicious!
Other arias are much softer and quite lovely. I particularly like Porpora's, "Parto, ti lascio, o cara," with the text "I go, I leave you, o my love, but, as I leave, the torment I feel is too harsh. The pain of death itself will be less bitter. Cruel, faithless stars, if, o God, you will not take pity on me, do not impose such dire suffering on my beloved." A three note motif makes the music sound reminiscent of a slow movement of a Bach cantata.
Indeed, the five arias by Nicola Porpora are really the highlights of Sacrificium. In direct contrast to "Parto, ti lascio, o cara" (at 10:49 the longest track on the album) is "In braccio a mille furie" ("In thrall to a thousand furies"), the shortest track and a 2:53 masterpiece of flaming rage.
Another fun track is Leonardo Vinci's "Chi temea Giove regnante" — "Who feared Jove the ruler before Jove the thunderer began to fire his lightening bolts? The roar of his strikes made timid mortals imagine a whole host of gods." — accompanied by a terrific sounding Baroque thunder machine made out of rocks rolling around in a metal drum.
The music of Sacrificium is interesting in itself, but it also provokes an exploration into the history of the castrati. It is not known when the practice began of castrating boys for singing in the church. Throughout much of the Christian era, St. Paul's dictim "mulier taceat in ecclesia" ("let the women be silent in church") was strictly obeyed. The practice could have originated around the time of Constantine, although it is not adequately documented until the latter years of the 16th century, perhaps in Spain but definitely in Italy.
When the very first Italian music dramas (later called operas) were composed around the year 1600, castrati were already available to sing some roles. Monteverdi's Orfeo of 1607 wasn't exactly the first opera, but it was pretty close and it has two castrato roles. Women were banned from appearing on stage in the Papal States, so any opera performed in Rome with female roles required either castrati or countertenors. However, castrati also sang opera in other Italian cities (as well as other countries) where women were allowed on stage. Roles were specifically written either for castrati or for women (as well as for tenors and basses who clearly ranked in the bottom of the hierarchy). The prima donna appeared on stage with the primo uomo.
The production and training of castrati took place almost exclusively in Italian cities. Despite the eager acceptance of castrati in church choirs and opera, the procedure itself was forbidden by both civil law and the church. It was often performed by barbers in a back room. The victims were boys generally between the ages of 8 and 10, mostly from poor backgrounds and given up by their parents in hope of financial reward. After being drugged with opium, two incisions were made in the groin. One source says that the "ducts leading to the testicles were severed" (Heriot, pg. 44). Another says that "the surgeon removed the spermatic cord and the testicles." (Barbier, pg. 12) Regardless which approach was used (and both may have been common) nothing external was "cut off."
The four best known music conservatories were former orphanages, and all were in Naples. Here both castrated and non-castrated boys would receive intense regimented music education. Because the castrated boys were considered more valuable than the other students, they tended to be pampered by the school authorities, and obviously ridiculed by the other students, who differentiated between the integri ("whole") and non integri. (Barbier, pg. 56)
As the castrated boys reached puberty, they would not develop secondary sex characteristics. Their voices would not "break" and they wouldn't get facial hair. As they matured, the distribution of fat on their bodies would tend to give them more feminine shapes. Rather incongrously, the lack of testosterone inhibited a normal counterbalancing of the pituitary gland, often causing castrati to grow quite tall. They would also develop large and strong rib-cages that considerably amplified vocal power and projection.
Because these boys had been castrated specifically for singing, there was never any question that they should not be trained to sing. This intense focus on a single immutable goal created an elite group of extremely talented singers. A typical castrato first appeared on stage as a teenager playing female roles, and then "graduated" later to male roles. If contemporary accounts and star power can be trusted, overall the elite castrati sang better than women singers, and much better than non-multilated men.
Of course, those singers who weren't quite of the elite caliber found themselves in secondary roles in secondary opera houses or church choirs. Those who lost their voices entirely could take up some other occupation (musical or otherwise) but with a lifetime of consequences of a short irreversible surgery.
Castrati were infertile and could not have children, so they were prohibited by the Church from marrying. But they were not impotent. Many of the more famous castrati seem to have enjoyed a number of affairs with women who considered the relationship "safe" because it could not result in pregnancy. Some castrati wore women's clothing off stage so they could mingle with women with less suspicion. Although the evidence is somewhat sketchy, there were undoubtedly gay and bisexual castrati. Obviously the gender-bending appeal — a high voice, smooth face, and womanly curves — was strangely exciting to anyone except the most seriously repressed straight men. (Androgyny, gender-bending, and falsetto have all played a major cultural role in rock music as well.)
Perhaps not atypical is this story: It comes from the memoirs of Casanova (1725 – 1798), one of the more entertaining sources of anecdotes about castrati. In 1745, Casanova was in a cafe when
an abbé with an attractive face walked in. At the appearance of his hips, I took him for a girl in disguise, and I said so to the abbé Gama; but the latter told me that it was Bepino della Mamana, a famous castrato. The abbé called him over, and told him, laughing, that I had taken him for a girl. The impudent creature, looking fixedly at me, told me that if I liked he would prove that I was right, or that I was wrong. (quoted in Heriot, pg. 54)
The phenomenon of the castrati really can't be separated from the operas that composers wrote for them. Yes, castrati sang female parts, particularly in the Papal States. But Italian opera favored high voices among male singers as well, and very often heroic roles were specifically written for castrato voices. The most famous of these are perhaps the role of Nero in Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea and the title role of Handel's 1724 opera Giulio Cesare ("Julius Caesar').
Castrato roles were almost exclusively found in opera seria, the "serious" opera on historical or mythological themes, and only rarely in opera buffa, the comic opera that emerged in the 18th century. Mainly this distinction seems to be related to the high degree of artifice in opera seria involving elaborate sets and stage devices, but which also allowed high-voiced men to sing heroic roles. Opera buffa was more "realistic" in that it involved contemporary settings and mostly ordinary people. (Opera buffa had its own gender-bending conventions, such as the "trouser role" — a male part sung by a woman.)
Mozart wrote for castrati throughout his career. Both Idomeneo (1781) and La Clemenza di Tito (1791) have castrato roles. The Abduction from the Seraglio (1782) is a comic opera, so for there are no castrato roles and for laughs the eunuch is sung by a bass! Similarly, The Marriage of Figaro (1784) has a trouser role but no castrato roles.
It seems odd to find castrato roles in Mozart, and surely the tradition was dying out by that time. The aesthetic changed. Composers were no longer interested in giving a singer great leeway in applying ornamentation to the vocal line. They wanted singers to adhere to the actual notes they wrote. The Baroque artifice associated with the castrati was also in fast decline. And then there were the French.
The French, everyone agrees, never bought into the whole castrato craze. They found the castrato voice unpleasant, and all the artifice that accompanied the castrato ridiculous. Nor was gender-bending appreciated: "to see that a princess's waiting-woman was in reality a prince disguised as a women, whose page was a woman dressed as a man, was deeply upsetting to French audiences." (Barbier, pg. 191) Both Rousseau and Voltaire condemned the barbarous practice of castrating young boys. The rise of Napoleon enforced French opinion beyond French borders, and lessened the appeal of castration and the castrati.
Almost as an afterthought, in 1798 the Pope removed the ban on woman appearing on stage. Prior to that, there had been cases of women singers masquerading as castrati to sing in operas in Rome! (Barbier, pg. 133)
The last major composers to write castrato roles were Rossini (Aureliano In Palmira of 1814) and Meyerbeer (Il Crociato in Egitto of 1824). Yet thoughout the 19th century, composers were still intrigued by the castrato voice. Even Wagner was impressed after hearing a castrato and subsequently considered transposing the part of Klingsor in Parsifal (1882) from a bass-baritone range to a castrato range. (One gets chills just thinking about this!) Vatican choirs continued to employ castrati through the early 20th century, when they were finally banned.
As castrati disappeared from the opera stage, castrato roles in older operas were either sung by women or (less satisfactorily) transposed down an octave for men. In the mid 20th century, however, the countertenor tradition was revived, mostly by Alfred Deller, and it has become very vibrant. It is now extremely common for countertenors to sing roles originally written for those castrati who sang in the alto range. New countertenor roles have also being created: Benjamin Britten was probably the first with the role of Oberon (first sung by Alfred Deller) in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960). The title role of Philip Glass's opera Akhnaten (1983) is written for a countertenor, and the Thomas Adès opera The Tempest (2004) also has a countertenor role.
As the countertenor tradition becomes stronger, we can once again experience at least something close to the variety of voices heard during the golden age of the castrati, and with Cecilia Bartoli's Sacrificium we are also treated to some amazing music that would otherwise be lost.
Barbier, Patrick, The World of the Castrati: The History of an Extraordinary Operatic Phenomenon (translation by Margaret Crosland of Histoire des Castrats), Souvenir Press, 1996.
Heriot, Angus, The Castrati in Opera, Calder and Boyars, 1956.
Sadie, Stanley, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 1980. Various articles.
Swafford, Jan, "Nature's Rejects: The Music of the Castrati," Slate, November 9, 2009, www.slate.com/id/2234635.