Castrati Singers: Boys Were Castrated To Keep Their Voices at a Higher Pitch
By | June 13, 2017
In the 17th and 18th century the church banned women singers from performing in church music or on stage. This led to the castration of boys as a way to keep their voices at a higher pitch.
Boy singers were castrated when they were about 9 years old, just before they reach puberty. This allows their young voices to carry on through adulthood. After the castration, their long period of voice training follows.
This practice of castration first became a thing in the poorest areas and among the poorest families.
At the end of the 16th century, many families in Italy faced starvation; castration offered the opportunity for a better life which is why poor families would often volunteer at least one of their sons to be castrated.
Castration was a very stressful procedure and many children died of stress and infection. Officially, church law banned not just castration but the amputation of any organ unless it was necessary to save a person’s life. Parents often told people their sons met weird accidents like pig or wild boar attacks as an excuse for castration.
Boys with good promising voices would be taken to a back-street barber-surgeon, they would then be placed in a very hot water bath with special herbs and spices. The boys were doped with opium since there was no anesthetic.
The procedure involves squashing the testicles and then removing them by slitting the groin and severing the spermatic chord.
There were about 4,000 castrated boys during the 17th - 18th century in Europe, but not all of them became famous opera singers and only few got lucky and hit the big time.
The very few top castrati had careers like that modern rock stars and they performed in the opera houses all over Europe. The rest of the lot who didn't make it in opera joined church choirs.
The most famous castrati was Farinelli, with a voice ranged over three octaves. Farinelli was able to prolong a note for a full minute without taking a new breath.
By the end of the 18th century, trend in opera had changed so that the castrati declined except in the Vatican, where the Sistine Chapel continued to employ castrati until 1903.
Alessandro Moreschi was the last castrati who died in 1922 at the age of 64. In his prime, he was dubbes as the “Angel of Rome”. Some of his recordings from 1902 still survive.