In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy, thousands of pre-pubescent boys were castrated to preserve their youthful, high-pitched voices and allow them to pursue singing careers. Only a handful became wealthy opera stars, and as a result the conventional wisdom is that these boys were sacrificed to satisfy the musical desires of opera fans, aristocrats and Church dignitaries alike. That’s the premise behind Sacrificium (Decca), the recently-released CD by Italian mezzo soprano Cecilia Bartoli, who is marketing the recording—a collection of baroque music written for the castrato voice—around the idea that the suffering of these individuals has never been fully exposed. It’s a clever publicity ploy, but Bartoli and the marketing team at Decca may be overstating the case. One might even argue that most castrati were better off having undergone the procedure.
“Long live the little knife!”
“The fervent shout of ‘Evviva il coltellino!’ (“Long live the little knife!”) probably rang out thousands of times in Baroque opera houses,” proclaims Bartoli in the liner notes for Sacrificium, referring to a cry of admiration for the vocal artistry of castratos, one that probably carried with it a measure of disrespect. Bartoli goes on to attribute the three-century-long demand for castrato voices to a combination of factors, emphasizing the Catholic Church’s ban on women singing in church, and the fact that a freshly-gelded and still-malleable boy could be introduced to vocal training earlier than a comparably-talented girl, who had to wait until the end of puberty.
Though Bartoli acknowledges the role of poverty in the willingness of parents to have their sons castrated, she portrays castratos as victims of “shrewd profiteers, resourceful impresarios and ambitious singing teachers,” all ready to prey on desperate families willing to have male offspring defiled in pursuit of a long-shot chance at stardom, as if a music career was an all-or-nothing proposition.
But Bartoli neglects to mention that a castrato could make a good living as a singer even if he failed to become a star, and that many boys who were castrated had relatively little to lose, at least during the economic crisis of the seventeenth century, which was rife with plague, war and famine. In fact, the first evidence of the existence of castrati in Italy comes from the court of Mantua in 1555, which roughly coincides with the widespread establishment of the rule of primogeniture, a connection first noted by Martha Feldman, a cultural historian of European vernacular musics and a professor at the University of Chicago. That is, first-born sons inherited all, while younger male children typically joined the military, became priests, or sought employment with the church.
“It was rare for a first-born to be castrated,” begins Feldman. “The boys castrated for music tended to be the younger sons drawn from the lower classes,” which suggests that parents were looking for a way to ensure the survival of their male offspring. “The peasant and laboring classes—particularly in rural areas—were often faced with no means of subsistence. In a society where the church provided an immense amount of employment, [singing] was a very good means to make a living. [Castrated boys] did pretty well as compared to siblings who had nothing,” she says.
The ‘Butchers’ of Norcia
Yet castrated boys paid a price—physically, emotionally and socially—in exchange for subsistence or betterment, as the case might be. First and foremost, the boys—as young as seven and as old as 13 or 14 (onset of puberty was later in those days)—had to endure the operation itself, typically performed by itinerant licensed surgeons from the town of Norcia in the province of Umbria.
“They were called Norcini, and they moved from town to town within Italy,” offers Feldman, who notes that these individuals carried their own tools, performing operations on hernias and cataracts along with castrations. “The town [of Norcia] is still famous for its sausages, because they were the most renowned butchers in Italy,” she says matter-of-factly.
As to how the operations were performed, “the secrecy surrounding the procedure makes it difficult to be certain,” begins Nicholas Clapton, countertenor and author of “Alessandro Moreschi and the Voice of the Castrato” (Haus Publishing). “Apparently the most frequently used procedure was one in which the boy was made drunk or semi-conscious by means of alcohol and/or opium, or else by pressure on the carotid artery—even more dangerous. He was then placed in a warm bath to ‘loosen up’ the relevant parts of the anatomy, and the spermatic ducts were then cut by incision. A more extreme procedure removed the whole scrotum and its contents with a slicer called a castratore,” he says.
However, both Feldman and Clapton point out that our response to the mere idea of castration is colored by modern-day sensibilities. “The great physical sacrifice the castrati made may seem graver to us in our post-Freudian society, in which sexual gratification is so highly prized, than it did in, say, the seventeenth century,” assesses Clapton.
Never mind the fact that bodily mutilation was much more common—not to mention considerably more extreme—than it is in Western culture today. “It was a time when a lot of punishments [being drawn and quartered, for example] and a lot of medical therapies involved physical mutilation,” reminds Feldman, before highlighting the fact that the treatment for an adult male with a hernia was castration.
One of the prime benefits afforded castratos was a comprehensive musical education, which would otherwise have been out of reach for all but a few. Of course, as is the case with any competitive endeavor, only a small percentage of the boys were able to maximize their musical opportunities and “make it to the top.” Ultimately, the best and luckiest were “recruited by noblemen and impresarios to sing at the great European opera houses and courts,” advises Bartoli, and a mere handful—like Carlo Broschi (known as Farinelli), Giuseppe Appiani, Giovanni Carestini (known as Cusanino) and Francesco Bernardi (known as Senesino) became huge stars. Based on chapel rolls and pay records we know that most of the lesser lights earned a respectable income singing in churches, while at most there were only a few who failed to make a living.
“Senesino, one of Handel’s star singers, had a brother who was also a castrato, but much less successful. He seems to have provided for his brother for years,” contends Clapton.
It almost goes without saying, though, that the ramifications of having been castrated were substantial. “Anything that cuts off the production of hormones critical to the growth cycle will have other serious effects. A castrato would be beardless and would have womanly fatty deposits, including fat on the arms and neck, as well as fuller cheeks,” advises Feldman. On the other hand, the fact that a castrato could not experience male pattern baldness might be viewed as a benefit.
Their lack of testosterone also meant that castratos tended to grow tall and develop large rib cages, the latter—in combination with child-size vocal cords—helped them to perform their distinctive vocal gymnastics and display great feats of breath control.
“As to their psychology, stories abound of their temperamental behavior, but they were probably no worse than any other singers,” suggests Clapton. “Some may have suffered depression through sexual frustration, but that is a common human trait. Others were notorious for their sexual adventures,” he concludes, presumably able to overcome liabilities like an underdeveloped penis and variable erectile function.
But it must be conceded that even those widely admired for their vocal gifts were prone to being mocked and subjected to vile insults. According to Sacrificium’s liner notes they might be referred to by “disparaging nicknames … geldings, eunuchs, capons, anthropological mutant misfits, [and] hominess tertii generis (men of the third sex)…,” to name just a few.
Moreover, many castratos were no doubt unhappy about not being able to marry, as “once you were castrated you were not part of the dominant social system. The socio-economic system depended on being able to procreate, because that was how the lines of descent worked. And for those who became wealthy opera stars or court singers, having money without natural direct offspring was a dilemma,” emphasizes Feldman.
At the peak of their popularity, however, successful castratos were at the center of the opera world, so much so that theatrical casts were built around them, arias were tailored to their voices, and operas were arranged and adapted to suit their needs and egos.
“In the eighteenth century there was a huge explosion in the number of theaters and operas all over Europe—especially in Italy,” says Feldman. “There was also an explosion of singing in the elite salons of wealthy bourgeoisie who staged concerts at home. In a number of secular contexts, castrati were singing a lot,” she concludes.
“The fame, adulation, wealth and often the scandal that attended them are not unlike that of a modern-day pop star,” adds Clapton, though they were doubly intriguing thanks to their peculiar voices and costumes, reputedly debauched lifestyles (probably much exaggerated), and sometimes freakish appearance. The question “Can they do it?” was of great interest, and the promise of answers to that question no doubt played a role in the development of the celebrity media industry that swirled around them.
“They were subject to a lot of public press that was adulatory and other press that was satirical or straightforwardly critical,” confirms Feldman. “So mixed with adulation and ecstatic reactions to their singing was a dynamic of fear and anxiety.”
Though the attention paid to the most famous castrato singers continued to rise through the 1750s, the number of boys being castrated had already been in decline for several decades, thanks largely to declining economic necessity. But by the latter part of the eighteenth century a resistance emerges, with one of the principles of the Enlightenment—the integrity of the human body—becoming a factor in the debate. The feeling was that “the sounds that emitted from a human body—if they were supposed to represent a woman—should be coming from a woman,” says Feldman. “There was considerable discomfort with the notion of high sounds issuing from a man’s body.”
By the 1780s and ’90s there were “significantly fewer castrati, and maybe four really big operatic stars,” advises Feldman. “The last of the big stars sang on an opera stage in 1830,” she continues, “and the very last castrato [Alessandro Moreschi, 1858-1922] had a contract with the papal choir that started in 1883 and ran for 30 years,” which explains why he was able to continue singing, conducting and recording (in 1902 and 1904), even after castration was made illegal and the church refrained from hiring “new” castratos.
In fact, Moreschi was the only castrato to have been recorded solo, his haunting tracks our closest link to a remarkable era in operatic history, not to mention a compelling artistic link to a turbulent period in Italian history. “Moreschi lived through war and revolution in Italy, the final unification of that country, and battles between tradition and innovation in the Catholic Church,” says Clapton. “He knew of the horrors of World War I and lived to see the rise of Fascism. I think he would have been a very interesting man to have dinner with, as well as a good gossip.”