Castrati History

History of castrati in the opera. During the Baroque, an estimated 70 percent of all opera singers were emasculated men called castrati.

During the Baroque period -- from 1600 to 1750 -- male sopranos and altos comprised about 70 percent of all operatic singers.

Male sopranos in opera were a matter of necessity. Women, especially in countries where the Catholic Church had firm control, were forbidden on the stage so castrati played both the women's parts and the hero as well. Nearly every church choir used pre-pubescent boys to sing the high parts in choral works because women were also not allowed to participate in church services. Thus, the finest of the boy sopranos were picked by music masters for castration.

During puberty a boy's vocal chords enlarge enormously, caused by an increased production of anderogen hormones. Castration prevented the necessary flow of hormones and arrested growth. Afterwards the castrato would have the high voice of a boy soprano, but the lung power of a full-grown man.

Castration was performed by cutting the blood supply to the testicles, or by amputating them altogether. The candidate (or shall we say victim?) was placed in a warm bath to soften the testes and the operation was performed after the patient was rendered unconscious. After recovery, the boy would begin an intensive study of music and singing that could sometimes last ten years or more.

Although castration did little to damage a castrato's intellect, it did pose serious health and emotional problems. Most castrati suffered from the effects of developmental hypogonadism, including infantile penis and an underdeveloped prostate. They also had more developed subcutaneous fat than the normal male, fat deposits localized on the hips, buttocks and breast areas, fatty deposits on the eyelids, and skin that sometimes appeared wrinkled or swollen. The arms and legs of many castrati were unusually long as compared to the torso (the long bones never stopped growing), which made them look distorted.

Many of the castrati's well-documented personality disorders were a direct result of their disfigurement, as well as their inability to lead normal sex lives. They were neither man nor woman, but something in between. On one hand they were much admired for their singing, but on the other they were taunted unmercifully about their condition.

Castrati tended to be fat, volatile, conceited, and almost impossible to get along with. Composer George Frederick Handel's notorious shouting matches with his castrato Senesino, for instance, were well-known throughout England.

On the other hand, especially when it suited their purposes, a castrato could be entirely charming. Sometimes they were so respected and adored that they were able to gain great political influence. Farinelli, for instance, soothed the king of Spain with the same four songs every night. This gave the castrato a decided advantage for the king's attention and literally made him a power behind the throne.

There were other ways in which the castrato reigned supreme. On the stage, he was the undisputed star. A composer was merely hired help who labored at the castrato's pleasure. If, for example, the arias written for a castrato did not please the singer, he could demand -- and receive -- a complete rewrite. If the composer balked, which he seldom did, then the castrato would take the music and libretto to his own composer for the necessary alterations.

The music that the composer wrote was never absolute. Even the most beautiful arias were improvised. These alterations would include more high notes if the castrato didn't think there were enough of them, florid embellishments to show off the singer's vocal acrobatics, and maybe even entire changes in the melody line. Furthermore, just because the notes were on paper didn't mean that they had to be sung on the stage. The castrato played to his audience. If he found that the theater was filled with his supporters, then it was entirely possible that he would go off on a tangent, improvising the music and completely confusing the orchestra.

Farinelli was the least troublesome of the castrati, but even he had his moments. One night he was performing in an opera in which one aria was accompanied by the orchestra and a solo trumpet. The trumpeter was a man of great skill who had been brought in especially for this performance. In the middle of the aria, Farinelli decided it would be fun to challenge this renown trumpeter to a musical duel. On they went for some time, each matching the other note for note, the audience cheering them on. The trumpet would play a difficult flourish and Farinelli would follow. Then Farinelli would perform an impossible run that the trumpet would duplicate. Just as the contest appeared to be a draw, the trumpeter faltered on a very high note and Farinelli won the contest. The crowd went wild. The trumpeter, like the good sport that he was, leaped on the stage and shook Farinelli's hand. Only after the audience had composed itself was the opera allowed to continue.

Farinelli was the last great operatic castrato. Audiences were beginning to tire of Italian opera seria (serious opera) by 1760 because plots were getting sillier and sillier. The comic opera and the ballad opera were gaining in popularity and there was no place in those genres for the castrato. And the new generation of composers, now coming into favor, refused to put up with the shenanigans of a castrato.

After 1760, there were occasional parts for a castrato but, on the whole, new composers like Gluck and Mozart used tenors to play the hero instead. Rossini and Weber insisted that their arias be sung as written and there was no more room in opera for extemporaneous tomfoolery. Now instead of the singer being the king of the stage, it was the composer who ruled the kingdom.

The last performance of an operatic castrato in an opera was in London in 1825. Giovanni Battista Velluti performed in Meyerbeer's "Il Crociato." Underemployed, Velluti had hoped for a comeback of the castrato to the opera. But by then, London had not heard the voice of a castrato in over 25 years. In a city that had welcomed Senesino with open arms a century before, the local newspapers now implored their readers not to allow women into the theater to witness such a travesty of nature.

Velluti, the last operatic castrato, died of old age in 1861 -- a relic of a past that could not be resurrected.

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