The emergence of castrati roles in Italian opera seria was a topic we briefly covered in class that I thought was very interesting and deserved further discussion. In 17th and 18th century Italy, about 4,000 boys were castrated each year, from the age of eight onwards, with the aim of making a fortune as opera singers and soloists with choirs in churches and royal palaces.
Sadly, only a small number of those boys who had been castrated became star performers, with the majority failing to make a career in music. The castrato’s voice was prized for its combination of high pitch and power – with the unbroken voice able to reach the high notes, but delivered with the strength of an adult male. Composers were enthusiastic about the more complex musical possibilities/variations of these voices and the musical talents of the castrati were revered by many. However, it is also important to note that this practice was not widely accepted or popular outside of Italy, or even in many parts of Italy itself.
The last-ever performing castrato, and the only one recorded, was Alessandro Moreschi, who was supposedly applauded by crowds with the call “Eviva il coltello” (“Long live the knife!”). Even though the operation was banned in the early 19th century, Italian doctors continued to create castrati until 1870 for the Sistine Chapel, and Moreschi went under the knife at the age of seven. A gramophone company captured the voice of Moreschi in 1902, when the singer was aged 44. The video attached here is a sample of Moreschi singing “Preghiera”
Some argue that as with many modern pop stars, the androgyny and sexual ambiguity of the castrato singers was part of their appeal. I think this is an interesting viewpoint, drawing parallels between the past and present in a musical sense. Do you agree with this opinion? What made the castrato so appealing and are these same qualities valued today?