The use of castrato singers in the opera is an ancient practice which dates back to the Byzantine Empire, during the 5th century. If in Middle-Ages many children were castrated to preserve their heavenly voice, the procedure became an actual trend during the 17th century when many children, mainly from lower class families, had their genitals removed to preserve their childish voice. During the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople the employment of castrato singers in the choirs was common but from the year 1204 when the crusaders seized the city from the empire, the phenomenon disappeared.
The castrato singers reappeared in the 15th century in Italy, probably come from the Spanish courts, and grew exponentially and in the 20’s and 30’s of the 18th century they reached the impressing point of 4,000 operation every year (source: H. Pleasants, “The Castrati”, 1966). Between the 17th and 19th century hundreds of thousands of children got castrated in the hope that they would turn into famous singers.
The children were “sold” by businessmen who were dealing with the payment of the school that generally lasted 6 to 7 years. During this period the children were trained to a musical education of high intensity which were preparing them to face the scene in a rapid time frame.
the operation was not risk-free
A significant rate of children undergoing the surgical intervention would die or remain disable for life. The possible success was worth the risk though: due to the many children and the incapability for the poor families to support them, having the child becoming popular would have brought benefit to the whole family. Senesino, is an example of this, the castrato singer who collaborated for most of his life with the composer Georg Händel.
For obvious reasons not all the singers obtained fame but most of them ended up in choirs, in churches or to have humble jobs despite the mutilation they had to go through.
Farinelli, the most popular Castrato singer
Many were the singers became real celebrities and Farinelli, stage name of Carlo Broschi, was certainly the most famous one. His musical ability made of him the star of the opera and his earning were enormous.
He lived his legend between Italy, London, France and Spain where he even worked as a private singer for the King Philip V of Spain. When Ferdinand VI ascended the throne, the singer career became even more sparkling in the court all the way to 1759, when Charles III succeeded and the artist was pushed away.
Below: trailer of the film “Farinelli” from 1995
The decline of the castrato singers
From the middle of 1600 until 1700, these particular type of singers were the main characters of the European opera scene, apart from France. The castration was never officially approved by the church of Rome though, which would allow it only in case of life-threatening situations.
however the church was the last institution which utilised the castrato singers in its choirs
The operation of castration fell into disuse since the 1800, especially for the renewed interest towards male voices but it was only in 1861 with the Unification of Italy that the government made a law which banished infantile castration.
Alessandro Moreschi: the very last castrato singer
The last castrato singer was Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922), known as “l’Angelo di Roma” (the angle of Rome), who was used in the choir of the Sistine Chapel until 1913. The only recording of a castrato singer that remained to us is of this specific artist, musical document with an incredible value for its uniqueness. Moreschi did not reach the technical and stylistic level of other more famous colleagues, one of whom being Farinelli, but still the recording gives us an insight on a voice of one of those artists, castrated at a young age and trained all their life to sing.
Between the 1902 and the 1904 his voice was recorded on a wax support by the “Gramophone & Typewriter Company”. Although the high pitch sound, the difference between a male and female voice stands out evidently even for an inexpert ear.
Below: recording of Moreschi, approximately 46 years old there