Does anyone have the balls to bring back castrati?

A good castrato today would without question become the richest singer of his time

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

One of the most complete bars to the authentic performance of both baroque opera and some renaissance polyphony is the current unavailability of castrati. There isn’t much to be done about it of course, but we might regret that we can no longer hear a sound which, at its best, fascinated all who did hear it. And we don’t know what that sound was. The two famous and unique recordings of Alessandro Moreschi, made in old age in 1902 and 1904, give us some clues, but can hardly represent the sound of the greatest 18th-century practitioners.

There are some pointers in contemporary reports. Gounod went to the Sistine Chapel in 1839 and got hooked on the sound of Palestrina being sung by a choir that included castrati: ‘This austere, ascetic, passionless music, with an intensity of contemplation that bordered on ecstasy,’ he wrote, going on to refer to the ‘firm attack, verging on harshness of those special voices …I returned again and again until at last I could not stay away’. I would give anything to hear Palestrina sung like that — it might explain much about what inspired him that we cannot understand. And of course there are many reports from the 18th-century heyday, though often the words used to describe sound are as confusing as words used to describe taste, as wine lovers will know. In 1755 Roger Pickering wrote: ‘Farinelli drew every Body to the Haymarket. What a Pipe! What Modulation! What Extasy to the Ear!’ This kind of adulation came from the fact that training for castrati was uniquely arduous, the logic being no doubt that since the deed had been done they might as well make the most of it. If sufficiently talented, a castrato could make his debut in his mid-teens with a perfect technique and a voice of such flexibility and power that no woman or ordinary male singer could match it. And the money to be earned encouraged upwards of 4,000 poor families to castrate their sons annually in the 1720s and 30s.

This famed vocal prowess came from an increased breath capacity. The lack of testosterone allowed the skeleton to continue to grow beyond what was normal. Limbs would elongate. As would ribs. This was why castrati had such exceptional lung power. And flexibility. The child-sized vocal cords contributed to this. It made for a sound quite different from the voice of the adult female. However, a soprano range was not guaranteed — many of the most prominent castrati were in fact altos, whether because the snip came too close to the onset of puberty or from natural range. When 18th-century opera was being revived in the first wave of interest in authentic performance 30 years ago, the habit was to apportion the soprano castrato roles to tenors and the alto roles to falsettists. Nowadays, once the code of ‘men’ playing women disguised as men had been fully assimilated, it has become more common to hear coloratura sopranos taking the high castrato roles, though no one is pretending that either of these options is really reproducing the original effect. Eighteenth-century opera houses had a perfectly adequate supply of sopranos and countertenors, but chose a castrato for the main roles if they possibly could.

The leading castrati were international superstars as no one had been before, commanding fabulous fees and behaving as though they were on a par with royalty. Their decline began when women were fully accepted on the operatic stage, and as more modern notions of acceptable cruelty began to inform legal systems, though it wasn’t until 1903 that Pope Pius X finally banned them from the Sistine Chapel Choir. It took longer for church choirs to be rid of their castrati since women had never been an option in them — nor, strangely, in the Sistine Chapel Choir, had boy trebles. We must assume, even though euphemisms are used in the records to disguise what kind of singers they really were, that the top two parts in this iconic choir were sung in part by castrati as far back as the early 16th century.

The irony behind this story is that were a really good soprano castrato to hit the headlines today, he would without question become the most sought after and the richest singer of his time. Yes, we could experience for ourselves the horror, revulsion, prurient fascination and strange attraction towards these ‘capons’ — as the English had it — not to mention the wild admiration. And we could hear for ourselves that eerie, agile, sexily sexless tone of voice which the greatest composers of the period, including Handel and Gluck, wrote for. What is it worth?

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  • Bert

    What a strange article. Does the writer have children?

    • Swanky

      Not boys, I would guess.

    • Gwangi

      Stupid point. You assume those who breed and become parents care for children’s welfare more than the childless. The statistics state, however, that most child abuse (of all types) is done by those who are parents, and most babies and children who are killed are killed by mummy too (and it’s willyless mummy who usually decides that her baby son can have his member mutilated too via dangerous and unnecessary circumcision).

  • studio1972

    So, mutilate hundreds of children in the hope that one of them might turn out to be a good singer? Not sure that idea is going to take off, although I’m sure some politicians would be in favour.

  • EricHobsbawmtwit

    Wasn’t the last castrati to perform laughed off the stage?

    • Swanky

      That would be the deepest cut of all.

  • Noa

    In answer to the question, I understand the RAF has. As part of the Defence ‘cuts’.

  • Now, whos balls are we talking about here? Where are these poor boys supposed to be plucked? From Europe and US, or are poor countries supposed to sacrifice their youth to western vanity of music?

    For about 300 years 5000 boys a year went through this mutilation process, and how many became famous? Very, very few. It was a high price to pay even for the successful ones!

    • Swanky

      I dunno, sex has ruined a lot of people. But seriously, I don’t know how it was ever done by people of bare-minimum morality and intelligence….

      • Gwangi

        I have the same thoughts when I see how mutilating children via MGM (circumcision) is still routine in the more barbaric lands of this world.

  • Dodgy Geezer

    …Does anyone have the balls to bring back castrati?…

    What a self-defeating question! The only way to bring back castrati would be if someone DIDN’T have the balls…

    • post_x_it

      Thanks, we get that. The author does too. It’s called a pun, and I daresay he did it on purpose.

  • Swanky

    That has to be one of the best headlines ever.

    • prospero’s child

      I have been told that Andreas Scholl is the nearest you might get to a castrato voice. (How would anyone really know?)
      I’ve heard him a few times and his voice does seem eery – not quite male, but nonetheless very rich and very beautiful.

      • Swanky

        Hmm. Haven’t heard Scholl but I really didn’t like Moreschi’s sound.

        • prospero’s child

          Here is his Christmas greeting.
          There are better recordings around

          I rather like been a guerrilla poster – they seek him here, they seek him there.

          • Swanky

            ‘Jesus remains my friend’, I gather. Except for the beard and the normal body, he even looks the part (soft rounded face, full head of hair). I see he recorded on the same day as mine — with, cough, considerably higher production values and a nice personal accompaniment.

            I’ve heard that sort of singing before — madrigals. It lost its magic when someone made a rude comment about the voices that I shan’t repeat. %^o

    • Gwangi

      I disagree – boys singing is way superior to girls in general; I had the experience of listening to two Christmas choirs last year, and without seeing them, I could tell which one was made up of boys and which of girls; the former was glorious; the latter mediocrity personified. Also, boys have but a brief time to sing soprano before their voices break, and that adds to the poignancy.
      But I would rather listen to either than most adult female singers.

      • Swanky

        You can disagree if you like, but it’s a subjective judgement call not an objective fact. The main reason for having boys sing in choirs is that, in an all-male community, the presence of females is unwelcome.

  • prospero’s child

    “Does anyone have the balls to bring back castrati?”

    I read that in an age without reliable contraception they were very popular with women.
    Guess that wouldn’t be quite such a sell now, but even so.

    • Swanky

      According to this source, ‘Much is made of the ladies of the 18thC going wild for castrati, but whilst they may have been charming and talented company, their penis remained child-sized and their sex drive was low’.

      • prospero’s child

        There must have been some disappointed girls around.

        • Swanky

          I suppose. Nothing more disappointing than a weak willie, though ; )

          • prospero’s child

            Not that I would know of course.

          • Swanky


          • prospero’s child

            At this point, I think it’s goodnight!

          • Swanky


          • gerontius

            Don’t call me clever – not just yet!

  • Gwangi


  • Howe Synnott

    To bring back castrati – changes nothing; men don’t grow up – and women remain disappointed.

  • Whosyourdanny

    This is the kind of utter ‘balls’ (pun intended!) written by somebody who’s just discovered counter-tenors. Seriously, it’s like an undergraduate wrote it with a bit of help from Wikipedia! The title had such promise – in an age of reality tv, shock tv, distance-voting, and the public fascination with the bizarre, how long before somebody in search of their 15 minutes tries this?

    • MWnyc

      Actually, Peter Phillips has been conducting choirs with countertenors in them for more than 40 years.

  • AlfTupperDarlin

    I have just two words to say to the doubters and naysayers – “Aled Jones”. Why he didn’t have the snip I don’t know. He was a brilliant singer as a boy, would have been fantastic as a castrati and is pretty average as an adult singer.

  • Violin Sonata.

    A most strange article, who on earth would wish to do that.

  • Olrac Sobi

    Absolutely, the idea should be vigorously pursued!