The Castrati

What singing! Imagine a voice that combines the sweetness of the flute and the animated suavity of the human larynx a voice which leaps and leaps, lightly and spontaneously, like a lark that flies through the air and is intoxicated with its own flight; and when it seems that the voice has reached the loftiest peaks of altitude it starts off again, leaping and leaping, still with equal highness and equal spontaneity, without the slightest sign of forcing or the faintest indication of artifice or effort; in a word, a voice that gives the immediate idea of sentiment transmuted into sound, and of the soul into the infinite on the wings of that sentiment.

So wrote the music historian Enrico Panzacchi (1840-1904) in describing the voice of one of the last castrati in the Vatican chapel, and this was long after the hey day of the famous operatic castrati. He goes on to compare the voice with such famous singers as Adelina Patti; the women come out a poor second. Who were these men, the matinee idols of their day, fawned on by both men and women, and for whom the most important composers of the day wrote operas? The practice of castration to preserve the high voice of a boy is shrouded in mystery. Although officially frowned upon, it probably started with the church. Much church music was written for high voices, but boys voices not only soon changed but lacked power. St. Paul had written that women should be silent in church (mulier taceat in ecclesia) so they could not be used in choirs. Falsettists were sometimes employed, but the overall effect of their voices was artificial. Castrati were the answer and, for over two hundred years, they ruled the musical world.

The attitude of the Church was ambivalent. Officially the practice was condemned, but there was hardly a church in all Europe which did not use them in its choir. Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) preferred their voices and proclaimed: "the creation of castrati for church choirs was to be held ad honorem Dei (to the honor of God).

For the most part, they started as small boys from impoverished families who had been discovered to have beautiful voices. They then faced many years (from about ages eight to twenty) of rigorous training in musical conservatories. Naples had four such conservatories for all boys, not just the castrati. Discipline was very strict and the training extremely rigorous. A typical daily schedule has been described as follows:



They also had to study composition and learn to play the harpsichord.

Since women were banned from the stage in many locations, castrati also formed a function in early opera. Even when women were allowed, the public preferred the sound of the high male voice. The original cast of Peri's 1600 Euridice often called the first opera consisted of:

In reading descriptions of castrato voices, one is struck by two adjectives that appear over and over again: sweetness and power. What people heard was a boy's voice, produced by a man's lungs. It has been said to have had the beauty of a woman's, the power of a man's and the purity of a child's. While women characters, such as Lucia, often sing against a flute, a castrato such as Farinelli, could hold his own in a duel with a trumpet. Moreover the man had had exceptional training and was a true artist.

Very few of the thousands who attended the conservatories ended up singing opera. Unfortunately, there was no guarantee that the beautiful voice of a boy would persist into adulthood. Most of those whose voices remained ended up in church jobs. Others lost their voices completely and, forbidden to marry, many found a career in the priesthood.

They were forbidden to marry because the Church held that the purpose of marriage was to create children, and castrati could not become fathers. Yet they did fall in love, have affairs and some did marry and were excommunicated. One of the physiological effects of their condition was that they often grew to be extremely tall and ungainly. This is shown in many of the caricatures which were drawn of them. While there were exceptions, many of them were awkward on stage and, for this reason, were restricted in their movements. People came to hear them sing, not to see them move, and had no objection to them planting themselves and letting the music flow.

The castrati were primarily Italian, but they sang all over Europe. Only one German, Berenstadt, ever achieved fame. Handel used them extensively for his Italian operas written and produced in England. Their popularity persisted, even when women were allowed on stage. Napoleon admired them and Goethe was so enthusiastic he recommended them for women's roles in spoken plays as well. Near the end of their reign in opera, Mozart would use both a castrato and a woman mezzo to sing male roles in his opera La clemenza di Tito. Rossini, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was one of the last opera composers to write for them; their days of fame were numbered. Voltaire railed against them in his attacks on traditional religion and what he perceived as a corrupt society. The French started the practice of transposing music of the high male operatic roles so that it could be sung by tenors.

Castrati persisted much longer in church choirs, especially in Rome. The last well-known castrato was Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922) who sang with the choir of the Sistine chapel and later became its director. He was late enough to have made recordings, and these have been collected on a CD: Opal CD 9823 (Pavilion Records). He was well past his prime when they were made and even Caruso does not sound all that great on his early recordings, but some of the sweetness of Moreschi's voice does come through. Unfortunately, the chosen selections do not portray his power. Never will the modern audience be able to hear the voices which took the world by storm. The voices of women and of countertenors, while beautiful, can not produce the sound which so entranced the audiences of their day.

Three Famous Castrati

(Castrati were usually known by the pseudonyms)

Carlo Broschi (Farinelli): Perhaps the greatest castrato of all. He is best known today because of the film which was made of his life. He was unique in being of noble birth and was always at ease in high circles. He spent many years at the court of Philip V of Spain whose life he was instrumental in prolonging by singing to him daily. While there, he also became the director of the court operahouse, improved the irrigation system, and imported Hungarian horses to breed with Spanish ones to improve their strain. In performing this latter task, he consulted the famous librettist, Metastasio, who wrote the words of all but one of the operas in which Farinelli sang. He spent a number of years in London with the Opera of the Nobility but never sang for Handel.

Francesco Bernardi (Senesino): He was Farinelli's greatest rival, and his salary was twenty times that of most composers. Handel was sent to Italy specifically to engage him, and Jonathan Swift reported: "In London...Senesino is daily voted to be the greatest man who ever lived". While he appeared in 20 Handel operas, their relationship was an uneasy one and Senesino became one of the founders of the rival Opera of the Nobility. "He had a powerful, clear, equal and sweet contralto voice, with perfect intonation and an excellent shake [trill]....He sang allegros with great fire, and marked rapid divisions, from the chest, in an articulate and pleasing manner....His action was natural and noble,...but his aspect and deportment were more suited to the part of a hero than of a lover."

Giovanni Carestini (Cusanino) was born the same year as Farinelli. He studied for seven years and debuted in 1730. Handel heard both singers in Italy and preferred Carestini. He had an exceptionally rich contralto voice and demanded (and sometimes received) huge fees. He was the first to sing the title role in Ariodante. Dr. Charles Burney (1726-1814), the English music historian wrote of him: "His person was tall, beautiful, and majestic....With a lively and inventive imagination, he rendered everything he sang interesting by good taste, energy and judicious embellishments." Carestini seldom used his pseudonym.