The castrati were once the toast of Rome. These singers were known for their angelic, high voices—equivalent to that of a soprano—and were often the most celebrated in the chorus. And while their voices were beautiful, the male singers designated as castrati had to undergo something very disturbing. Castrato male singers were castrated before puberty so they would never reach sexual maturity.
When the Pope banned women from public singing in the mid-16th century, it seemed the operatic profession was forever ruined. Young boys filled in for a time, but boys naturally matured into men which caused their voices to drop. That's when the Romans took matters into their own hands and turned to body modification. These Italian singers left a dark legacy in their wake: men trapped in prepubescent bodies. And while the castrati singers no longer exist, the disturbing tale of how they came to be remains.
Female Singers Were Banned From The Stage - And Castrated Boys Were Put In Their Place
Opera and opera singers have been celebrated throughout history, particularly by medieval Romans who enjoyed its ability to transcend the listener. And a huge part of that experience was the inclusion of female singers who could hit notes at high registers. At this time in history, however, the Catholic Church didn't allow women to sing in any kind of religious setting.
Thus beings the story the castrati. In 1588, Pope Sixtus V took the female singer ban even further by restricting them from singing on any kind of stage, period. This posed a major problem for the world of opera, as sopranos were particularly essential to the art. Young male singers are capable of hitting the same notes as adult female sopranos, but their immature voices crack and lower as they approached manhood. What soon began was the manipulation of nature, a deviant process of castrating promising young boys at just the right time to stunt their vocal cords and capture their high, youthful voices forever.
Thousands Of Boys Were Castrated And Not All Of Them Survived
Creating young eunuchs was the ideal way to harness the pitch and power of an adult voice while not compromising the ethereal, light, and strangely disembodied sound of a youth. It was a true artistic hybrid. Italian boys with gifted voices were taken to back-alley surgeons who would heavily sedate their subjects with opium and place them in a hot bath. The expert would snip the ducts leading to the testicles, which would then wither over time and leave the boys in a state of perpetual boyhood.
By the early 1700s, it was estimated over 4,000 young men a year received the operation, and only 80 percent of them survived. The average age of a boy receiving the operation was eight, and while the practice was extremely common, it was technically illegal.
Castrati Were Extremely Sexualized, And Desired By Both Men And Women
As Casanova once said, "Rome forces every man to become a pederast," and it was never more true than in the case of the castrati. In his memoirs, he recounted an orgy between several women and castrati stood in a line and made participants guess who were female and who were male. Castrati were biological men who looked female, and often acted like it too. They lived outside the scope of normal gender, creating a sexual temptation for both men and women who fantasized about unconventional ways to find pleasure. Castrati were seen as neither female nor male.
In fact, castrato singers had a reputation as being extremely sexual, and their sexual exploits could be compared to those of modern day celebrities.
A Castrato's Body Physically Developed In Unusual Ways
As the bodies of a castrato grew, a lack of testosterone restricted his bone joints from hardening in the normal way. The limbs of a castrato often grew unusually long, giving them a seraphic look. This, combined with intensive vocal training, gave them unrivaled lung power, breath capacity, and large chests. Singing through small, child-sized vocal cords, their voices were also extraordinarily flexible and quite different from the equivalent voice of an adult female. Their physical appearances and unique voices made them stick out.
But while the form of the castrato was seen as elegant, the repercussions of the surgery were often felt later in life when their large bones developed osteoporosis and their organs began to struggle beneath the weight of their extremely tall bodies. It was also common for castrati to become depressed as they aged. Many felt extreme mental anguish, were extremely sensitive, and often had an erratic mental state. Researchers aren't sure why exactly, but research of castrati bones show the many of the singers developed hypertosis frontalis interna. The rare disease occurs when the front bone of the skull thickens, and causes seizures, headaches, and affects the sex glands.