Castrati are male singers, castrated before puberty in order to preserve a strong soprano singing voice. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, castrati were used extensively in Italian church choirs and were famous throughout Europe as stars of the Italian opera.
Castrati were generally castrated between the ages of eight and ten, or before their voices broke, by removal of the testicles. As a castrato's larynx doesn't descend at puberty and his Adam's apple doesn't develop, the vocal chords remain closer to the cavities of resonance, creating a clearer sound and a higher-pitched vocal timbre. Castrati voices were distinctive: Neither female nor childish, clear, strong, high-pitched, flexible, and powerful, they were often likened to the imaginary voices of angels.
The use of castrati in religious ceremonies dates to at least the third or fourth century. Castrati were used frequently in Byzantine church music, and this practice spread into the West, particularly southern Italy and Sicily. By the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church had long condemned the practice of castration and thus employed children and falsettos for soprano parts in its choirs (women being prohibited from performing on stage). Castrati were commonly used in church choirs in Spain, however, and by 1599, the Vatican had begun to allow castrati in the Papal choir. By 1625, the pope had replaced all the Papal Choir's falsettos with castrati, who were now lauded as "natural" sopranos.
Castrati were generally Italian, from lower-class families, and were usually trained in Italian conservatories. Though castration by no means ensured a high-quality voice or a successful singing career, many families deemed the risk of an unsuccessful operation worth the benefits that might accrue to a castrato. Successful castrati were well compensated, received expensive gifts from rulers and nobles, mingled freely with the upper classes, and might become famous throughout Italy and Europe. In the seventeenth century, choirs and conservatories spread throughout Italy, and there was great competition to attract and retain castrati. The birth of opera in the same period provided an additional source of competition for musical talent. As the fame of Italian opera grew in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, so too did the fame and wealth of the castrati, who were feted by the nobility and became known for their romantic escapades with noble women.
By the turn of the nineteenth century, however, society's attitude toward the castrati had begun to change. Enlightenment thinkers—particularly among the French, who had long considered the castrati an abomination—criticized the practice of castration for its barbarism, deeming it an insupportable infringement of the rights of man in a modern, enlightened civilization. In 1798, Pope Pius VI (r. 1775–1799) revoked the ban of women on the stage, reducing the need for castrati, and in the early nineteenth century Napoleon I (1769–1821) began working to end the practice of castration in Europe. Although papal choirs continued to use castrati throughout the nineteenth century, the baroque operas of the castrati were now out of favor. In 1902, Pope Leo XIII (r. 1878–1903) banned the use of castrati in Church music. In the years following the papal ban, the last seven castrati left the Sistine Chapel choir. Alessandro Moreschi (1858–1922), the last castrato, left the choir in 1913, leaving behind the only existing recordings of a castrato's voice.
Barbier, Patrick. 1996. The World of the Castrati: The History of an Extraordinary Operatic Phenomenon, trans. Margaret Crosland. London: Souvenir Press.
Scholz, Piotr O. 2001. Eunuchs and Castrati: A Cultural History, trans. John A. Broadwin and Shelley L. Frisch. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener.