This paper focuses on the study of a castrato’s phenomenon from the perspective of the history of music. To better understand the role castrati singers played in opera, along with the impact of castration, the nature of their singing and bodily effects are explored. The prohibition of male voices by the Italian church resulted in the need for more voices, and thousands of boys were castrated.
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While only some of them made brilliant careers as singers, many boys died or were not successful in this field. It is especially important to identify if castration is directly associated with a soprano voice and if there are living castrati who can produce such tones. The paper also discusses several examples of castrati virtuosos and clarifies the way modern orchestras approach this issue. Research question: is the desire to control and manipulate nature a guaranteed path to the virtuoso castrato voice?
Male castration is a process that is performed for many centuries, beginning with the Biblical images and ending with the 19th century, when it was banned in Europe. A castrato voice ideal appeared in the 17th century as a result of the prepuberal surgery, which led to such singing voices as soprano or contralto. While the voices of castrati were especially valued in opera, their bodies transformed dramatically, lacking testosterone. Today, there are no living castrati, and the issue of the appropriateness of this operation is ambiguous. This paper aims to address the following research question: is the desire to control and manipulate nature a guaranteed path to the virtuoso castrato voice?
History of Castrato Virtuosos
The Baroque era of the 1650-the 1750s was the time of greatness of castrati singers. During this period, 70 percent of opera singers were castrati, yet the tradition appeared in the 16th century when the Roman Catholic Church in Italy forbade women to speak or sing in the church.1
This caused an acute shortage of male voices that would be able to replace the female soprano. The emergence of Belcanto is associated with the development of a homophonic style of vocal music and the formation of Italian opera. Monteverdi, Cavalli Honor, and Scarlatti are the most famous representatives of the so-called early bel canto, which is marked by expressive cantilena, an elevated poetic text, a dramatic effect, and pathetic. Among the outstanding bel canto singers of the second half of the 17th century there are Farinelli, Stradella, Pistokki, Ferry, and others.2 Bernacchi, Creshentini, and Uberti (Porporino), and Caffarelli were less prominent representatives of castrati singers.
One of the challenges faced by the castrati singers was their physical appearance and associated changes. Their bodies were often asymmetrical since they had long body parts, narrow shoulders, and an unusually large upper torso, yet their larynx remained as narrow as that of a child. Thus, their voices remained identical to those of children but possessed the strength of an adult. While the voice was unusually flexible, its owner could take several octaves.
At the end of the 18th century, the tradition began to eliminate under various prohibitions for castration. The last role for the male soprano was written in 1824, and in 1870, the castration of young boys was officially banned.3 In the Vatican, the singing of castrati continued until the beginning of the 20th century. Despite the fact that his contemporaries called him the angel of Rome, Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrati singer, was never considered a brilliant soloist. As the last representative of a 350-year-old tradition, Moreschi has earned a special place in the history of music. In addition, it is his voice that sounds in the last known recording of castrati singing.
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Modern View on Castrati Singers
It is impossible to convey the voice of castrati today, and there are no living castrati. The best falsettos do not fit into the tradition of baroque operas since they do not have the range and power that the castrato voices possessed. Despite the fact that thousands of talented boys underwent castration, only a few became truly popular and loved by the public. The study by Zanatta et al. explores the biological profile of Gaspare Pacchierotti using computed tomography and anthropological analyses.4
It is revealed that the occupational markers of this singer reflect the hormonal effects of the castration surgery. Namely, the body parts were influenced by a lack of male hormones, the disorders of the spine and osteoporosis occurred, and the ribs were like those of senile men. Based on this study, one may suggest that the surgery for art was associated with significant body damage and long-term negative consequences. Therefore, the desire to manipulate the voice based on castration cannot be regarded as a safe and ethical way to achieve it.
Today, the evidence shows that no castrati singers live and produce operas. It seems that there are also no known strategies to have their voices without the surgery. Even in large opera houses, there is a very small baroque repertoire. Theaters such as the Vienna and Paris Opera or Covent Garden stage a baroque opera only once a year or once every two or three years.5 These theaters that decided to stage more baroque operas are likely to run into difficulties as a few singers specialize in baroque repertoire.
Not to mention how expensive it is to maintain an orchestra of ancient instruments, without which the authentic sound of operas of the 17th-18th centuries is impossible. Modern orchestras try to play old music, but the violins sound hard with a lot of vibratos, and the voices of contralto and soprano are replaced by countertenors. For example, Max Cencic and David Hanson are prominent singers that have a countertenor’s voice, yet they cannot produce soprano or mezzo-soprano likewise castrati did.
To conclude, castrati singers were known for their strong and demanded soprano voices that were created as a result of the castration surgery. The 17-18th centuries were characterized as the fluorescence of castrato voices, which pleased the public in operas. In the 19th century, castration was prohibited since it led to thousands of deaths and had a damaging impact on males’ bodies. Today, there are no living castrati, while it is clear that castration does not ensure a soprano voice.
Feldman, Martha. The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds. Berkeley, CA: Univercity of California Press, 2016.
Gordon, Bonnie. “It’s Not About the Cut: The Castrato’s Instrumentalized Song.” New Literary History 46, no. 4 (2015): 647-667.
Lewis, Susan. Music in the Baroque World: History, Culture, and Performance. New York, NY: Routledge, 2015.
Nedbal, Martin. Morality and Viennese Opera in the Age of Mozart and Beethoven. Berkeley, CA: Routledge, 2016.
Zanatta, Alberto, et al. “Occupational Markers and Pathology of the Castrato Singer Gaspare Pacchierotti (1740–1821).” Scientific Reports 6 (2016): 1-9.
- Feldman, Martha, The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2016), 61.
- Lewis, Susan, Music in the Baroque World: History, Culture, and Performance (New York, NY: Routledge, 2015), 7-8.
- Gordon, Bonnie, “It’s Not About the Cut: The Castrato’s Instrumentalized Song,” New Literary History 46, no. 4 (2015): 649-651.
- Zanatta, Alberto, et al., “Occupational Markers and Pathology of the Castrato Singer Gaspare Pacchierotti (1740–1821),” Scientific Reports 6 (2016): 2.
- Nedbal, Martin, Morality and Viennese Opera in the Age of Mozart and Beethoven (Berkeley, CA: Routledge, 2016), 75.