Alan Sciberras

The phenomenon of the Castrati- Part A

In today’s blog. Mr. Alan Sciberras, a professional tenor himself talks about the phenomenon of the Castrati in a 2 part article. (second part next week) ~ Warning: this article might not be suitable for minors.

Beginning at the turn of the 17th century and lasting for over 200 years, the musical phenomenon of the castrati took Europe by storm. The enthusiasm for male soprano singers who had been castrated before puberty to preserve their high voices originated in Italy. It also coincided with the development and rise in popularity of opera, where castrati were often featured, performers. Composers, including Handel and Mozart, wrote music specifically for the unique voices of the castrati. Certain singers achieved international recognition for their talents. Elevated to the position of stars throughout the 18th Century, castrati raised the art of singing beyond human limits.

During this period in history, it was not uncommon for children to find themselves forced to join religious orders, as this would ease the financial burden on a large family. Sometimes, poor parents with a son who could sing well would have that child castrated to ensure his fortune in life as well as a comfortable old age for themselves. The lavish lifestyles and occasionally extreme behaviour of the castrati were a contrast to their often poor origins. The surgery was usually performed on boys between the ages of eight and twelve and offered a way out of this poverty cycle. If a boy showed an unusual degree of musical ability, castration and further musical training were often implemented. This had the potential of dramatically improving a family's economic situation if the boy happened to become a successful singer.

Essentially, there are two types of castration: removal of all the genitalia (usually inflicted as punishment and often fatal) and removal of the testes only.  Some recovered from this dangerous procedure, unfortunately, many did not. As a result of the operation, some castrati could have an extraordinary voice that might be broadened to three octaves higher than the normal male voice. There have also been rare cases reported of so-called "natural castrati" who were born with hormonal disorders that reproduce the desired effects of castration without requiring surgery. Castrati were undeniably different from other men.

Castration before puberty prevents the boy's larynx from being fully transformed by the normal physiological outcomes of puberty. As a result, the vocal range of the prepubescent boy is preserved, and the voice develops into adulthood in a unique way. As the castrato's lungs and vocal muscles grow and as his musical training and maturity increase, his voice develops a range, power, and flexibility quite different from the singing voice of the adult female but also distinctly different from the higher vocal ranges of an uncastrated adult male. A subject of castration will not only retain their high voice, slight build and small genitals, but they will not develop pubic hair and will have a small or no sex drive. The vocal consequences of castration went well beyond the mere maintenance of a boyish singing voice. As the child continued to grow, so did his voice (at least his physical powers to develop the voice he already had). Under strict discipline and education, the boy's lung capacity and support of the diaphragm would be improved dramatically. This would allow him to maintain breath to hold a note up to a minute or more, which is a task not accomplished by most normal adult male and female singers. A lack of testosterone prevented the development of male secondary sex characteristics and increased the production of female hormones. As a result, the adult castrato had a feminine body and retained hairlessness and the small penis of a child. Since testosterone also offsets the production of growth hormones, some castrati achieved tremendous height.

Prior to being used as a tool for musical purposes, castration had existed for centuries as a form of punishment. In other situations, slaves were castrated and then used as servants or tutors for upper-class women. The usual explanation given to justify the use of castrati for musical purposes was that women were forbidden to sing in church choirs in the papal states; however, their vocal supremacy was the real reason for their extraordinary popularity. Indeed, they were frequently described as having the 'voice of angels'.

In next week's blog, we shall present the second part of Mr.Sciberras’s article on Castrati. 

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