AskDefine | Define castrato

Dictionary Definition

castrato n : a male singer who was castrated before puberty and retains a soprano or alto voice [also: castrati (pl)]

User Contributed Dictionary



  • Syllables: cas·tra·to
  • AHD: kăs·träʹtō
  • IPA: kæsˈtrɑː.təʊ


From Italian castrato, castrated, past participle of castrare, castrate.


castrato, plural castratos or castrati
  1. A male who has been castrated, especially a male whose testicles have been removed before puberty in order to retain his soprano or alto voice
  2. A male soprano or alto voice produced by castration of the singer before puberty



  1. castrated; especially castrated prepubescently
  2. having, using, or containing the voice of a castrato (noun)
  3. originally composed for a castrato
    Nowadays, either women or countertenors take the castrato roles.

Related terms




  1. castrated; past participle of castrare

Extensive Definition

A castrato is a male soprano, mezzo-soprano, or alto voice produced either by castration of the singer before puberty or one who, because of an endocrinological condition, never reaches sexual maturity.
Castration before puberty (or in its early stages) prevents a boy's larynx from being transformed by the normal physiological events of puberty. As a result, the vocal range of prepubescence (shared by both sexes) is largely retained, and the voice develops into adulthood in a unique way. As the castrato's body grew, his lack of testosterone meant that his epiphyses (bone-joints) did not harden in the normal manner. Thus the limbs of the castrati often grew unusually long, as did the bones of 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, as well as higher vocal ranges of the uncastrated adult male (see soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, sopranist, countertenor and contralto). Listening to the only surviving recordings of a castrato (see below), 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.
Castrati were rarely referred to as such: in the eighteenth century, the term musico (pl musici) was much more generally used, though it usually carried derogatory implications; another synonym was evirato (literally meaning "emasculated").

History of castration

Castration as a means of subjugation, enslavement or other punishment has a very long pedigree, dating back to ancient Sumeria (see also Eunuch). In a Western context, eunuch singers are known to have existed from the early Byzantine Empire. In Constantinople around 400 AD the empress Aelia Eudoxia had a eunuch choir-master, Brison, who may have established the use of castrati in Byzantine choirs, though whether Brison himself was a singer, and whether he had colleagues who were eunuch singers, is not certain. By the ninth century, eunuch singers were well-known (not least in the choir of Hagia Sophia), and remained so until the sack of Constantinople by the Western forces of the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Their fate from then until their reappearance in Italy more than three hundred years later is by no means clear, though it seems likely that the Spanish tradition of soprano falsettists may have "hidden" castrati (it should be remembered that much of Spain was under Arab domination at various times during the Middle Ages, and that eunuch harem-keepers and the like, almost always taken from conquered populations, were a commonplace of that society: by sheer statistics, some of them are likely to have been singers).

Castrati in the European Classical tradition

Castrati, many of them having Spanish names, first appeared in Italy in the mid-sixteenth century, though at first the terms describing them were not always clear. The phrase Soprano maschio (male soprano), which could also mean falsettist, occurs in the Due Dialoghi della Musica of Luigi Dentini, an Oratorian priest, published in Rome in 1553. On 9 November 1555 Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este (famed as the builder of the Villa d'Este at Tivoli), wrote to Guglielmo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua (1538-1587), that he has heard that His Grace is interested in his cantoretti, and offering to send him two, so that he could choose one for his own service. This is a rare term, but probably does equate to castrato. The Cardinal's brother, Alfonso II d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, was another early enthusiast, enquiring about castrati in 1556. There were certainly castrati in the Sistine Chapel choir in 1558, although not described as such: on 27 April of that year, Hernando Bustamante, a Spaniard from Palencia, was admitted (the first castrati so termed who joined the Sistine choir were Pietro Paolo Folignato and Girolamo Rossini, admitted in 1599). Surprisingly, considering the later French distaste for castrati they certainly existed in France at this time also, being known of in Paris, Orléans, Picardy and Normandy, though they were not abundant, the King of France himself having difficulty in obtaining them. By 1574 there were castrati in the Imperial court chapel at Munich, where the Kapellmeister (music director) was Orlando di Lasso. In 1589, by the bull Cum pro nostri temporali munere, Pope Sixtus V re-organised the choir of St Peter's, Rome specifically to include castrati. Thus the castrati came to supplant both boys (whose voices broke after only a few years) and falsettists (whose voices were weaker and less reliable) from the top line in such choirs. Women were banned by the Pauline dictum mulieres in ecclesiis taceant ("let women keep silent in church"; see I Corinthians, ch 14, v 34).

Castrati in opera

Castrati had parts in the earliest operas: in the first performance of Monteverdi's Orfeo (1607) they played subsidiary roles, including that of Euridice. By 1680, however, they had supplanted "normal" male voices in lead roles, and retained their hegemony as primo uomo for about a hundred years; an opera not featuring at least one renowned castrato in a lead part would be doomed to fail. Because of the popularity of Italian opera throughout 18th-century Europe (except France), singers such as Ferri, Farinelli, Senesino and Pacchierotti became the first operatic superstars, earning enormous fees and hysterical public adulation. The strictly hierarchical organisation of opera seria favoured their high voices as symbols of heroic virtue, though they were frequently mocked for their strange appearance and bad acting. The strongest objection against castrati in Europe of the last few centuries was based on the means by which the preparation of future singers frequently led to their premature deaths. To prevent the child from experiencing the intense pain of castration, many were inadvertently administered lethal doses of opium or something similar.
Writing of an earlier time, the music historian Charles Burney was sent from pillar to post in search of places where the operation was carried out: "I enquired throughout Italy at what place boys were chiefly qualified for singing by castration, but could get no certain intelligence. I was told at Milan that it was at Venice; at Venice that it was at Bologna; but at Bologna the fact was denied, and I was referred to Florence; from Florence to Rome, and from Rome I was sent to Naples... it is said that there are shops in Naples with this inscription: 'QUI SI CASTRANO RAGAZZI' ("Here boys are castrated"); but I was utterly unable to see or hear of any such shops during my residence in that city."
The training of the boys was rigorous. The regime of one singing school in Rome (c. 1700) consisted of one hour of singing difficult and awkward pieces, one hour practising trills, one hour practising ornamented passaggi, one hour of singing exercises in their teacher's presence and in front of a mirror so as to avoid unnecessary movement of the body or facial grimaces, and one hour of literary study; all this, moreover, before lunch. After, half-an-hour would be devoted to musical theory, another to writing counterpoint, an hour copying down the same from dictation, and another hour of literary study. During the remainder of the day, the young castrati had to find time to practice their harpsichord playing, and to compose vocal music, either sacred or secular depending on their inclination. This demanding schedule meant that, if sufficiently talented, they were able to make a debut in their mid-teens with a perfect technique and a voice of a flexibility and power no woman or ordinary male singer could match. In the 1720s and 1730s, at the height of the craze for these artificially-preserved voices, it has been estimated that upwards of 4000 boys were castrated annually in the service of art. Many came from poor homes, and were more or less sold by their parents to the church or to a singing-master, in the hope that their child might be successful and lift them from their lowly status in society (this was the case with Senesino). There are, though, records of some young boys asking to be operated on to preserve their voices (e.g. Caffarelli, who was from a wealthy family: his grandmother gave him the income from two vineyards to pay for his studies). Caffarelli was also typical of many castrati in being famous for tantrums on and off-stage, and for amorous adventures with noble ladies. Some, as described by Casanova, preferred gentlemen (noble or otherwise). Modern endocrinology would suggest that the castrati's much-vaunted sexual prowess was more the stuff of legend than reality. Not all castrated boys had successful careers on the operatic stage; the better "also-rans" sang in cathedral or church choirs, while some, trained as they were in acting, may have turned to the theatre, or perhaps even prostitution.


By the late eighteenth century, changes in operatic taste and social attitudes spelled the end for castrati. They lingered on past the end of the ancien régime (which their style of opera parallels), and two of their number, Pacchierotti and Crescentini, even entranced the iconoclastic Napoleon. The last great operatic castrato was Giovanni Battista Velluti (1781-1861), who performed the last operatic castrato role ever written: Armando in Il Crociato in Egitto by Meyerbeer (Venice, 1824). Soon after this they were replaced definitively as the first men of the operatic stage by the new breed of heroic tenor as incarnated by the Frenchman Gilbert-Louis Duprez, the earliest "king of the high Cs", whose successors are singers like Caruso, Franco Corelli, and Luciano Pavarotti.
After the reunification of Italy in 1870, castration for musical purposes was made officially illegal (the new Italian state had adopted a French legal code which expressly forbade the practice). In 1878, Pope Leo XIII prohibited the hiring of new castrati by the church: only in the Sistine Chapel and in other papal basilicas in Rome did a few castrati linger. A group photo of the Sistine Choir taken in 1898 shows that by then only six remained (plus the Direttore Perpetuo, the fine soprano castrato Domenico Mustafà), and in 1902 a ruling was extracted from Pope Leo that no further castrati should be admitted. The official end to the castrati came on St. Cecilia's Day, 22 November 1903, when the new pope, Pius X, issued his motu proprio, Tra le Sollecitudini ('Amongst the Cares'), which contained this instruction: "Whenever . . . it is desirable to employ the high voices of sopranos and contraltos, these parts must be taken by boys, according to the most ancient usage of the Church." The last Sistine castrato to survive was Alessandro Moreschi, the only castrato to have made recordings. On Moreschi, critical opinion varies between those who think him mediocre and only interesting as an historical record of the castrato voice, and others who regard him as a fine singer, judged on the practice and taste of his own time. He retired officially in March 1913, and died in 1922.
The Catholic Church's involvement in the castrato phenomenon has long been controversial, and there have recently been calls for it to issue an official apology for its role. As long ago as 1748, Pope Benedict XIV tried to ban castrati from churches, but such was their popularity at the time that he realised that doing so might result in a drastic decline in church attendance.
There have also long been rumours of another castrato sequestered in the Vatican for the personal delectation of the Pontiff until as recently as 1959, but these have been definitively shown to be false. The singer in question was a pupil of Moreschi's, Domenico Mancini, such a skillful imitator of his teacher's voice that even Lorenzo Perosi, Direttore Perpetuo of the Sistine Choir from 1898 to 1956 and a lifelong opponent of castrati, thought he was a castrato. Mancini was in fact a moderately skilful falsettist and professional double-bass player.

Modern castrati and similar voices

So-called "natural" or "endocrinological castrati" are born with hormonal anomalies such as Kallmann's syndrome, or have undergone unusual physical or medical events during their early lives that reproduce the vocal effects of castration without the surgeon's knife. Javier Medina and Jorge Cano are examples of this type of high male voice. The case of Michael Maniaci is somewhat different, in that he has no hormonal or other anomalies, but for some unknown reason, his voice did not "break" in the usual manner, leaving him still able to sing in the soprano register. Other uncastrated male adults sing soprano, generally using some form of falsetto, but in a much higher range than the more common countertenor. Examples are Aris Christofellis, Radu Marian, Jörg Waschinski, and Ghio Nannini. All these are gifted performers, but it must be remembered that, having been born in the twentieth century, they and the few others like them have not undergone the type of rigorous training through adolescence endured by the castrati of the eighteenth century. Thus their technique is distinctly "modern", and they lack the tenorial chest register that the castrati possessed. An exception is the jazz vocalist Jimmy Scott who uses only the low register, matching approximately the range used by female blues singers.

In popular culture

  • The Franco-Italian film Farinelli deals with the life, career, frustration and brother (a director-composer) of the castrato Carlo Broschi (stagename Farinelli). His voice was "reconstructed" by a mixture of counter-tenor and female soprano, and the film takes enormous liberties with history in the pursuit of cinematic effect.
  • The disinterment of Farinelli's body in 2006 for scientific analysis was widely reported.
  • Anne Rice's novel Cry to Heaven, although a romantic novel, is based upon solid research and, notwithstanding the novelization, captures a strong sense of the training and world of castrato singers in 18th Century Venice and Naples.
  • Kingsley Amis's novel The Alteration deals in part with Hubert Anvil, a ten-year-old singer in the choir of St. George's Basilica, Coverley, whose mentors decide his voice is too precious to lose and that he should become a castrato (hence the title). The novel's setting is an imaginary Europe where the Reformation never took place.
  • In Russell T Davies' 2005 version of Casanova, Nina Sosanya played Bellino, a woman pretending to be a castrato, whose true sex was, however, eventually revealed.
  • Jeanette Winterson's novel Art & Lies includes a subplot dealing with castration, eroticism, and the Church.
  • Ross King's 2002 novel Domino has a long subplot about castrati in early 18th-century Italy.
  • In the Pirates of the Caribbean movie trilogy (2003-2007) the character Captain Jack Sparrow often tells other characters as a running joke that his acquaintance Will Turner is a eunuch/castrato with a "terrific soprano." In the final film of the trilogy, one of the pirate lords of the Brethren Court is revealed to have a very high-pitched voice, suggesting that he is in fact a real castrato.



Bontempi, G: Historia Musica (Perugia, 1695) Casanova, G: Memoirs (tr Machen, A., with additional tr by Symons, A; London, 1894) Haböck, F: Die Kastraten und ihre Gesangskunst (Berlin, 1927) Heriot, A: The Castrati in Opera (London, 1956) Scholes, P (ed): Dr Burney's Musical Tours in Europe (London, 1959) Pleasants, H: The Castrati ("Stereo Review", July 1966) Sherr, R: Guglielmo Gonzaga and the Castrati ("Renaissance Quarterly", vol 33, no 1, Spring 1980, pp 33-56) Rosselli, J: The Castrati as a Professional Group and a Social Phenomenon, 1550-1850, ("Acta Musicologica", LX, Basel, 1988) Moran, N: Byzantine castrati ("Plainsong and medieval Music", vol 11, no 2, Cambridge, 2002, pp 99-112) Tougher, S (ed): Eunuchs in Antiquity and Beyond (London, 2002) Clapton, N: Moreschi, the Last Castrato (London, 2004)
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