A castrato (Italian, plural: castrati) is a type of classical male singing voice equivalent to that of a soprano, mezzo-soprano, or contralto. The voice is produced by castration of the singer before puberty, or it occurs in one who, due to an
Ocrinological condition, never reaches sexual maturity.
In order to prevent a biological male’s larynx from being transformed by the normal physiological process of puberty, castration must be performed before puberty (or before it begins). Thus, the vocal range of prepubescence (which is shared by both sexes) is largely retained, and the voice develops differently in adulthood. The use of prepubescent castration for this purpose decreased greatly in the late 18th century.
Castrato’s lack of testosterone affected his epiphyses (bone joints), preventing them from hardening as they grew. Thus the limbs of the castrati often grew unusually long, as did their ribs. This, combined with intensive training, gave them unrivalled lung-power and breath capacity. Operating through small, child-sized vocal cords, their voices were also extraordinarily flexible, and quite different from the equivalent adult female voice. Their vocal range was higher than that of the uncastrated adult male. Listening to the only surviving recordings of a castrato , one can hear that the lower part of the voice sounds like a “super-high” tenor, with a more falsetto-like upper register above that.
The means by which future singers were prepared could lead to premature death. To prevent the child from experiencing the intense pain of castration, many were inadvertently administered lethal doses of opium or some other narcotic, or were killed by overlong compression of the carotid artery in the neck (intended to render them unconscious during the castration procedure).When the use of Italian castrati was popular, there was no anesthesia. The penis and testicles were not actually amputated, but rather the vas deferens in the scrotum were cut, and the testicles would essentially shrivel and disappear. Not only was the procedure itself extremely painful, castration of this kind left lifelong physical and emotional scars. Modern science proves castration restricts the formation of testosterone in the male body and allows the male voice to grow about 63 percent longer than before the procedure. This natural process also caused the thyroid to thicken over time, creating the quintessential manly trait known as the “Adam’s apple.” Autopsies performed on castrati after death proved the dimensions of their vocal cords were equivalent to those a female soprano.
Castrati were rarely referred to as such: in the 18th century, the euphemism musico (pl musici) was much more generally used, although it usually carried derogatory implications; another synonym was evirato, literally meaning “emasculated”. The term eunuch is used to refer to a wide range of animals because historically, many eunuchs were castrated after puberty, so the castration had no effect on their voices after the castration.
Castration often led to a loss of sex drive, but this was not always the case and some castrati were still able to satisfy a female, although could not, of course, impregnate her. A few castrati did marry, but these do not seem to have been successful unions.
Castrati were biological men who appeared female and often acted like as such. They lived outside the scope of normal gender, much to the sexual confusion of those around them; castrati, seen as neither female nor male, were a sexual temptation for both men and women who fantasized about unconventional ways to find pleasure.
Although the Italian castrati are the most prominent example of voluntary castration, the procedure dates back to ancient Sumeria where it was used to enslave and punish men. Eunuch singers similar to those in Medieval Rome are believed to have existed in the early days of the Byzantine Empire around 400 AD to sing in choirs and entertain the public. They became increasingly popular in the 9th century until they all but disappeared in the early 1200s amid the sack of Constantinople during the Crusades. The practice of castrating young boys to heighten their vocal ranges essentially vanished until the practice was adopted in Italy some 300 years later.
Soldiers in imperial China also engaged in voluntary castration, but not for vocal purposes. Before signing up for service, soldiers in 17th century China were castrated and employed to serve the emperor.
In fact, castrato singers’ reputations were perpetually salacious, and their sexual exploits could be compared to those of modern-day celebrities.
o be eternalized as a castrati was never a child’s choice, and their assigned vocal skill sets limited what castrati could do with the remainder of their lives. These men were forbidden from partaking in the Church, the government, or the military, and could have no real families of their own. They were entertainers for the masses and nothing else. Some, however, found no success in opera and resorted to sex work or singing in the streets for change in order to support themselves.
Even though many adored the castrati, there were plenty who found them repugnant, and their admiration was greatly mixed with public scorn. Often referred to as geldings, nature’s rejects, or capons, a great many castrati suffered from depression or even committed suicide.