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What Is a Castrato?

Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins

For much of modern civilization, castrated eunuchs have been prized in several cultures as palace attendants who did not pose a risk as harem guards. In places like ancient China, all of the genitalia was removed; however, other types of eunuchs in Italy, called castrati, merely had their testicles severed from the body to make them sing like male sopranos. The popularity of the castrato evolved all over Europe from about the 16th century until the beginning of the 20th century, by which time the practice had become widely discouraged.

The castrato who modern humans might have heard sing is Alessandro Moreschi, who died in 1922 after recording some of the first and last castrati singing on Earth. In 2011, a few selections of Moreschi's work are widely available as viral videos. By the time of his death, the practice of castrating boys to sing like women for life was viewed by the government and Catholic Church as abhorrent, even though castrati had for centuries performed the role of soprano in the church's storied all-male choirs. Though Moreschi is credited with being the only castrati heard by modern citizens, perhaps the most famous castrati of all time is Carlo Broschi, who went by the name Farinelli at the height of castrato popularity in the 18th century opera scene.

Woman painting
Woman painting

Though eunuchs could result from genetic defect or accidental castration, many others were created by ruling classes as long ago as Biblical times. The phenomenon evolved in the 1500s to the castrato in Italy, after it was noticed that the hypogonadism created by castration of boys suspended pubescent changes brought on by male hormones in the gonads. Instead of the trachea thickening and the voice deepening, the voice stayed high but developed a distinctively piercing tone with training.

If a child exhibited strong singing skills, the church might request of his parents that he become a castrato for life and forgo a life of sex and procreation, much like what is asked of priests. According to the Urological Sciences Research Foundation (USRF), the Catholic Church began replacing its top boy sopranos with castrati adults in the late 1500s. Italian opera houses followed suit for many successive generations of Europe's Renaissance period.

Though methods would vary, the surgical process that a young castrato was made to endure before the onset of puberty typically started with anesthesia by opium, often with the child submerged in a warm, relaxing bath that dropped the testes as far as possible from the body. Then, the scrotum was sliced open and both testicles were removed at the vas deferens. According to New Scientist magazine, scientists exhumed Farinelli's body in 2006, noting two features characteristic of many castrati: long limbs and a hollowing effect in the forehead. Known as hyperostosis frontalis interna, this condition strikes post-menopausal women the most in 2011.

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