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Hey, Matt, Whazzup:

What is the deal with castrati singers? I first thought this only happened back in the baroque period, but recently I was listening to an actual recording of one in a history of music CD. So it was happening at least as late as the 19th Century, when they were able to record them. Would any modern singer actually consider this procedure to maintain a youthful singing voice for the rest of his life?

-- Herman the German, the net

I gotta figure the answer to that one is no, but not for the obvious reasons. First of all, the procedure is illegal in some countries. Even where it's not illegal, good luck finding a competent surgeon willing to do the work. Second of all, it was not a choice made by the singer. If the surgery wasn't done before a boy was 11 or 12, he wouldn't retain his youthful pipes. By the time he's old enough to decide independently that castrato is a promising career choice, it's too late.

Most histories trace the popularity of castrati back to the Roman Church's very strict interpretation of scripture, banning women from taking part in services and in the theater. Little boys sang any high parts until music composition and vocal parts got too athletic and complicated for them, after the medieval period. Then Italy imported falsetti from Spain, adult men with trained high voices or maybe the first castrati, nobody's sure about that. (Spain probably got the idea from the Middle East, where some eunuchs were trained to sing.) By the turn of the 16th Century, Italian castrati were warbling the high notes in the Sistine choir.

Removal of the testes before puberty kept a boy's voice from deepening but didn't stop other growth. The best of the castrati had the volume and agility of an adult voice, but with a high, sweet tone, apparently in the soprano or alto range. The altered gentlemen were trained by special voice teachers to strengthen their breath control and singing muscles and were all the rage in operas. Unfortunately, because there were a few very rich and famous castrati in the 17th and 18th Centuries, poor families who saw no future for their sons often had them castrated with the hope of turning them into matinee idols. But if you had a lousy voice to begin with, castration wouldn't change that. Nobody wanted a castrato who sang off key. Eventually castrati were passé on the stage but continued in choirs into the mid-1800s.

The only existing recording of a castrato comes from the first decade of the 1900s. Alessandro Moreschi, director of the Sistine Chapel choir from 1883 to '98, had his surgery in the 1860s. According to reviewers of the CDs that preserve his voice, aside from the crappy recording quality, his voice was long past its prime and sounds kinda spooky. Today the vocal parts written for the castrati are sung by countertenors or sopranos.

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