Starting in the 16th century, castrati were used by choirs as a substitution for women. But while some found fame and fortune, many more suffered in poverty and obscurity.
Would you ever consider castrating your son so he could have a singing career? While it might seem unfathomable today, this was a popular option for many Italian parents up until the 19th century. They hoped their castrated sons would become a part of the castrati, revered male singers who maintained their high-pitched tone into adulthood.
Indeed, many castrati achieved fame and fortune. One of the most famous castrato, Farinelli, was even recruited to sing for the Spanish king for ten years. His voice allegedly helped to alleviate the king’s depression.
But many more of the castrati suffered through poverty and obscurity, not to mention the side effects of their castration. As they grew older, they frequently experienced unusual bone growth, osteoporosis, and depression.
This is the story of the castrati, Italian singers who were castrated as boys.
The Origins Of The Castrati
Though castration has a long history, the castrati first emerged around the 16th century. Then, The New York Times reports that the Vatican banned women from church choirs, creating a need for singers with high voices.
Before long, castrated singers, called castrati, became a popular substitution. The practice was even given implicit approval by the Vatican in 1589 when Pope Sixtus V decreed in a papal bull that castrati should replace boys and falsetto in the St. Peter’s choir, according to Classic FM.
By the dawn of the 18th century, some 4,000 Italian boys were being castrated per year in order to become singers. But since castration was technically illegal, their families had to take their sons to backstreet barbers or surgeons to have the procedure done. There, the boys were subjected to a painful operation without anesthesia, and an estimated 20 percent died.
From that point, their families would lie about what had happened to them to avoid punishment. According to Classic FM, they’d come up with stories of how their sons had fallen off horses or been attacked by wild boars.
After castration, boys would often enter schools for castrati. And their parents would hope that their sons’ voices, frozen in boyhood but trained to shine, would soon bring the family fame and fortune.
The Most Popular Castrated Singers
Castrati were extremely popular singers in Europe (though, according to Opera For All, the practice of castrating young male singers was restricted to Italy). They traveled across the continent, often earning huge fees for their operatic appearances. And though the French dismissed the castrati as “cripples,” rumors of their sexual prowess abounded elsewhere.
“To resist the temptation, or not to feel it,” noted Italian author Casanova, “one would have had to be cold and earthbound as a German.”
Two of the most famous castrati were Senesino, born Francesco Bernardi in 1686, and Farinelli, born Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi in 1705.
Senesino, famous for his collaboration with the composer Georg Frederick Handel, could command up to £3,000 guineas per year. In his role as the “primo uomo” (or lead singer) of Handel’s company, the Royal Academy of Music, Senesino sang in 17 leading operatic roles staged in London.
But Farinelli eclipsed Senesino’s popularity. He made £5,000 a year performing across Europe, and was even hired by Queen Elisabetta Farnese of Spain in hopes of curing her husbands depression. For an additional 1,500 guineas a year, Farinelli gave private performances to King Philip V. Slate writes that Farinelli may have remained in the king’s service for a decade.
Composer Johann Joachim Quantz raved about Farinelli’s talents, remarking of the famous castrato: “His manner of singing was masterly and his elocution unrivaled… He sang allegros with great fire, and marked rapid divisions, from the chest, in an articulate and pleasing manner.”
Some castrati, like Senesino and Farinelli, enjoyed a lucrative career. According to Slate, audiences would even cheer them with the phrase “evviva il coltellino!” or “long live the little knife!” But the vast majority never achieved Senesino and Farinelli’s level of fame.
Indeed, famous or not, castrati often suffered later in life from a number of health problems that stemmed from their castration at a young age.
The Dark Side Of Being A Castrato
Castration at a young age didn’t just give castrati beautiful voices. It also gave them a number of health problems that lingered throughout life.
As Gizmodo writes, many castrati were remarkably tall because their lack of hormones often meant that their “growth plates” never closed. This resulted in unusually long bones and could cause extra stress on their organs, as well as conditions like osteoporosis later in life.
Other parts of a castrato’s body could also grow to be larger than normal, including their chests, jaws, and noses. (This was actually useful, as a large ribcage could help the singers with their breath capacity.)
But many castrati didn’t age well. According to Slate, one observer remarked: “Most of [the castrati] become as big and fat as capons, with round and chubby hips, rumps, arms and throats.”
When Farinelli’s body was exhumed in 2006, researchers found that he had long bones and a “build-up” of bones on his forehead. This is a condition called hyperostosis frontalis interna, which usually impacts women and can cause headaches, depression, and other mental health issues. And, indeed, many castrati suffered from depression as they got older.
But by the 19th century, castrati were no longer in high demand.
How These Singers Fell Out Of Fashion
The castrati began to disappear for a number of reasons. For one, women were allowed back on the stage in the 18th century. For another, attitudes about castration had changed.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, writing in 1779, condemned the practice, calling parents who sent their sons to be castrated “inhuman fathers [who]…give up their children…for the amusement of voluptuous and cruel persons.”
The castrati started to become an embarrassment in Italy, and Pope Pius X forbid their use in the Sistine Chapel in 1903. By then, some of the most famous castrati, including Girolami Crescentini and Giovanni Battista Velluti, had long since retired.
But the last of the Sistine Chapel castrati singers, Alessandro Moreschi, didn’t fully retire until 1913. Known as the “Angel of Rome,” Moreschi died in 1921 — but not before a recording was made of his voice.
Though Moreschi was no longer in his singing prime, the recording offers a haunting look back at the castrato tradition.
Today, the tradition of castrating boys so that they could become singers has happily ended. But some bemoaned the fall of the castrati, with one fan noting that their decline: “made you feel truly melancholy!”
After learning about the castrati in the European opera scene, read about Julie D’Aubigny, an opera star who also dabbled in fencing. Then, learn about the Astor Place Riot, which took place outside a New York opera house.