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:: By Laura Stuart

:: Photo Courtesy Martha Feldman

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Investigations ::

Hit the high notes

Wealthy, powerful, and widely acclaimed, the castrati dominated Italian opera until the late 18th century. Music historian Martha Feldman examines the contradictions and cultural mythologies surrounding these virtuosic male sopranos.


The most acclaimed castrati, like Farinelli, enjoyed vast riches and royal patrons.

In 18th-century Italian opera houses, audiences embraced chaos, says musicologist and opera historian Martha Feldman. The largest public theaters had five tiers of box seats overlooking a main floor with standing room for 2,000. During the show, audience members would gossip, read, eat, and gamble—until the soprano, usually a castrated man, took the stage. Singing with what Feldman calls “unmatched power and sweetness,” these singers (most sopranos, a few altos) periodically interrupted operatic tales of princely magnanimity, public duty, and private desire to perform dramatic arias. The crowds were mesmerized.

To create this moment, boys were castrated before puberty, preserving their high, unbroken voices. Lacking testosterone, such castrati developed enormous chests; great lung capacity; small, limber larynxes; and short, flexible vocal cords. The best castrati became international superstars, singing heroic male—and female—roles to acclaim throughout early modern Europe, says Feldman, who last year earned a Guggenheim scholarship to study the cultural mythologies surrounding the castrati.

Testicular castration had long been used to treat hernias in young boys, so its effect on the voice was well-known. Beginning in the 1550s, physicians removed prepubescent singers’ testicles to provide high voices for Catholic churches, where women were not permitted to sing. Because canon law forbade the mutilation, physical infirmities or accidents—such as falls from trees or horses, or bites from wild boars—were often used as justification.

As interest in elite forms of singing coincided with a late-16th-century economic crisis that left parents worried for their children’s survival, the number of castrations sharply increased. Seeking boys willing to be castrated, agents for arts-loving nobility offered youngsters food; lodging in the home of a private tutor or conservatory; intensive training in singing, composition, counterpoint, and keyboarding; and the possibility of a job in a chapel choir or theater. The operation, performed almost exclusively in Italy, became so common that “there were very few male singers in the 17th century,” Feldman says, “who were not castrated.” Over a 100-year period, “tenors became much more of the exception and basses were quite rare.” Perhaps because high voices were more piercing, she says, sopranos and altos were more prized. The castrato was a “mainstream figure. The whole practice of Italian operatic singing is founded on what castrati did in theaters.” (Women did sing in operas, but their training was less intense and their roles mostly small.)

Feldman, who earned a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, focuses on the relationship between music and culture in early modern Europe. Her research grew out of a book due out this summer, Opera and Sovereignty: Transforming Myths in 18th-Century Italy (University of Chicago Press).

Castrati, she believes, sit at the “nexus” of social and political tensions in early modern Italy. “Choked with contradictions,” she says, they served as “an index of so many critical transformations.” For example, the castrati found support and identification in the old regime—many had noble patrons, and as performers they impersonated heroes and princes to an audience of kings—while simultaneously taking part in an increasingly mercantile system. The most successful virtuosos became rich, independent professionals, acting as their own agents in a new economy. One of the most acclaimed castrati, Farinelli, was “absolutely benighted with royalty, absolutely loyal, a monarchist 1,000 percent,” Feldman says. After amassing vast wealth from singing, he retired to the court of Spain’s King Philip V in 1737.

Central to the castrati’s inherent contradictions was their male gender. They could not, of course, have children. They had high speaking voices, boyish features, no facial hair, and womanly fatty deposits. Yet those who authorized and performed the castrations, those who trained castrati, and those who became castrati were men. “It is very much a male world creating this figure who goes on mainly to represent men, to stand in for figures of male power and authority, even though their place in a patrilineal system has been made very problematic,” she says, because castrati could sire no heirs. “You have greater wealth held by people who can’t reproduce and can’t pass it on to sons.” (Whether castrati were capable of sexual activity, meanwhile, remains “ambiguous.” At least one married, and some may have been “partly capable,” Feldman says, perhaps depending on their age at castration.)

By the late 18th century, the castrati had become “a sign of disjunction, something inappropriate,” says Feldman. Enlightenment thinking ushered in a new social order in Italy, in which nuclear families—with defined roles for men and women—and individuals replaced absolute rulers as the “proper unit of comprehending social organization,” she explains. Reason, not a priori claims by the powers that be, emerged as the way to sort truth from falsehood, right from wrong. “Part of what came to be wrong with castrati,” Feldman says, “were the discrepancies that misaligned high voice with male body.”

In the same way, the operatic style associated with castrati came under criticism. Speech-like recitatives interrupted by huge arias performed outside the stage’s frame seemed disjointed, lacking in truth, reason, and continuity. A natural flow of action and music evolved, performed in “a unified field in which there’s a representation and the audience is drawn in to an illusion that is continuous,” says Feldman. Tenors began to take on more important roles; by the mid-1800s, the typical opera featured two leads: a female soprano and a male tenor.

Banished from the opera, castrati remained popular chapel singers through the 19th century, Feldman says. The final castrato performance took place in the Papal Chapel in 1913. As the last known surviving castrato, Alessandro Moreschi made several gramophone recordings in 1902 and 1904, but they  sound  scratchy and thin. Scholars can read scores and listen to recordings of other early singers to piece together an idea of the castrati’s art, but “there is a lot we’ll never know,” she says. Yet one thing remains clear: with powerful adult lungs, child-sized larynxes, and vocal flexibility unmatched by female sopranos, castrati were “the ne plus ultra of singing,” Feldman says. Even as they were criticized in the second half of the 18th century, “there is a consciousness that something is being lost.”