CASTRATI WERE THE SUPERSTARS OF CENTURIES GONE BY!

 

It is a known fact that castration prevents the necessary flow of hormones, whereby the vocal cords cannot enlarge. As a result, castrati had the high voice of a boy soprano but the lung power of a grown man. Because the Church always gathered pre-puberty boys to sing high parts in chorals during service (women were not allowed to participate), the finest boy sopranos were hand picked by the masters of Church music. Their aim was to castrate the boys.

 

Once castrated, the young boys were sent to conservatories. At the "Conservatorio di Sant' Onofrio" in Napoli, during the 1780s, the work schedule was as follows: In the morning, one hour of singing difficult passages, one hour of literature and one hour of solfeggi in front of mirrors. In the afternoon, one half hour of music theory, one half hour of counterpoint on improvisation and one hour of literature.

The first castrati were reported in Spain around 1550 and their presence in the Rome Sistine Chapel Choir was reported to have started around 1565. The Spanish falsettisti ruled the Sistine Chapel. The falsettisti's voices were more agile and had a richer sound. It has been debated that some of the Spanish falsettisti were castrati. The change from falsettisti to castrati came about because the castrato's voice sounded more natural.

 

The earliest castrati known were Jacomo Spagnoletti (probably a Spaniard) and Martino, both of whom were admitted to the Sistine Chapel Choir in 1588. Other two good castrati were mentioned in the archives of 1599, the Italians Pietro Folignani and Girolamo Rosini. By 1640, castrati were used throughout Italy despite much theological debate, the music need of the church always prevailing over anti-mutilation surgery. They were formally banned from the papal chapel by Pius X in 1903.

 

Because of castration, castrati tended to be fat, volatile and impossible to get along with (Handel was known to have shouting matches with his castrato Senesino and he certainly did not get on with Farinelli). Sometimes, they were charming not only for their beautiful voices but also for their mannerisms. Farinelli soothed the King of Spain with the same songs every night for years!

 

On the stage, the castrati were superstars. Some of them had a range of four octaves, up to 'a' or even 'c' above 'high c''' in full voice. In fact, castrati were pioneering singers in promoting belcanto and those with the finest voices became operatic idols. Composers were bending backwards to please them so that they would kindly sing their works. Castrati were always showing vocal acrobatics and forever changing melody lines. Indeed, just because the notes were written, would they be sung like that on the stage? No! They would be sung as it suited the singers.

 

Castrati were often punished for being egocentric, vain, stupid and greedy; certainly some of them were. However, several of them, Farinelli, Senesino and Caffarelli, amassed large fortunes and surely were not stupid. Nicolino, who sang Rinaldo in Handel's opera, was an extremely intelligent actor, who won praise even from prejudiced composers and became a composer himself. Theatres were always filled with die-hard supporters.

 

In the second half of the 18th century, composers, such as Mozart and Gluck, ended up using new singers and heroes: tenors instead of castrati! The composers started to rule the stage and spelled the end of castrati. Despite all this, Mozart turned to a castrato teacher, Giovanni Manzuoli, when he was studying in London in 1764.

 



Farinelli 


Conti 


Marchesi


Senesino   

 

Many things are known about castrati. For example, they were not allowed to marry in church and sing in Lutheran churches. In France , Italian singers and castrati were not welcomed because of their excessive ornamentation and decadent life style. In the 17th and 18th century Italy , castrati were considered to be natural sopranos, whereas falsettisti, which would still possess all tokens of masculinity, were considered to have artificial voices. They were so treasured that, in 1625, all sopranos in the choir of the Sistine Chapel were castrati. In Bach's time, there was already heavy competition between the clerical courts of Venice and Rome , so that the local opera theatres were ordered to engage the best castrati.

Castrati were paid at least double the wages of top tenors and basses. Good female sopranos sometimes succeeded in performing in masses and operas, disguised as castrati. The castrati also travelled abroad and soon got famous all over Europe , including Vienna , Munich , Dresden and Berlin , etc. They usually sang in Italian operas and grew immensely popular in Handel's London. He composed the aria Ombra mai fu for the famous castrato Guadagni, who created the role of Xerxes. Handel admired him greatly. He composed the famous aria from his 'Foundling Hospital Anthem' for Guadagni and re-worked an aria from the 'Messiah'.

 

There are some additional interesting facts about castrati.

 

If one goes through almost all the current literature (which I did years ago before castrati were hijacked by gays. Castrati are as far away from being gays as ordinary young singers studying at the conservatory) one will discover that the castrato voice did not reach 'above G5'. Ornamentations used in their singing might go higher but nothing may be found as proof of extremely high notes.

At the peak of time, there were 4000 boys between the age of 7 and 9 castrated per year.

 

The young castrati would be dressed as cherubs to accompany funerals.

 

All castrati came from poor families - except for Farinelli, whose father was the Governor of Maratea and Cisternino.

 

They would have one day a week solely allocated to improvisation.

Castrato Senesino was paid 3000 guineas for a season in London . Castrato Siface was murdered by the Marchese Marsili's family.

 

All countertenors/falsettisti were replaced by castrati in the Sistine Chapel Choir, since they could sing higher and louder.

 

Castrati loathed their parents and families for allowing the surgical intervention. Domenico Mustafa's family told him that, when he was a child, his testicles were eaten by a pig and he always swore he would kill his father for lying.

 

Castrato Loreto Vittori, according to books written about him in the past centuries, told his father, who asked him for money, that all he owned his family was an empty purse.

 

The last castrato to perform in opera was in 1825 London . He was castrato Giovanni Battista Vellutti, who performed in Il Crociato by Meyerbeer (He died of old age in 1861 - a relic of the past that could not be resurrected). The last castrato to appear on stage in England was Pergetti in 1844.

 

Castrati survived a while longer on the continent, at catholic electorates, kingdoms of Germany and at the Vatican , until 1922. Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrato, died in Rome , witness of a world long gone.

 

Recalling a few anecdotes about various castrati:

 

Casanova said that he met a singer, a girl, who claimed to be a castrato (otherwise, she would not be allowed to sing on the stage). The idea was Salimbeni's, who suggested that she passed herself for a castrato and advised her on how to simulate it, physically. The girl, according to castrato Salimbeni, did exist (her name was Angiola Caroli, a soprano) and he was very fond of her. Actually, he was her teacher.

 

The English painter and miniaturist Cosway, who painted the castrato Marchesi, nearly lost his wife to the singer. She chased him for a time all over Europe and was in love with him.

 

The audio file

Ave Maria (Bach-Gounod) sung by castrato Alessandro Moreschi  c.1908

 

Notes (ed.)

Counterpoint is the combination of two or more independent melodies into a single harmonic texture in which each retains its linear character, solfeggi are oral exercises in reading and pronouncing music notes from texts and respecting their duration, countertenors are tenors with an unusually high vocal range, falsettisti are male singers who sing in falsetto and perform soprano parts, belcanto is an ornamental style of singing, typical of Italian melodrama up to early 1800.

 

 

(l.s.)

 

 

 

<< back to archive

 



Opera is a spectacular art form combining music, action and words, where the drama or comedy is enhanced by the words, sung in the original or other language. Instrumental works draw great attention and delight from the sound of the music alone but opera has a triple edge advantage: Music, action and words sung by the human voice, the supreme instrument.

Register now to see all site contents and keep updated on the latest features!

The site's favourite quote

General George Armstrong Custer on the eve of the battle at the Little Bighorn River in Montana (June 1876) cited:

There is one thing to be said for glory - you can take glory with you, when it is your time to go


The Panel
s.f. Salvatore Fisichella
j.f. Joseph Fragala
g.m. Geoff Mallinson
a.t. Andrei Turcu
k.s. Keith Shilcock
d.t. Dragos Tomescu

m..m. Michèle Muller

l.s. Lynn Samohel