Age of the Castrato
Thousands of boys were castrated in the name of music, and for most the benefits outweighed the drawbacks.
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.