Castrats & Countertenors by Predrag Gosta.

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Castrato - "primo uomo"

October 9, 1998

Castratto among AngelsOnly two centuries ago male sopranists have been the most popular singers. They sang in opera throughout Europe, they have been heroes on stage and their excellent vocal technique made them kings of the stage, the "primo uomo". Their art has been recognized throughout the world for several hundred of years... but today when we hear a man singing soprano or alto our reactions vary from excitement to ridicule.

However, this way of thinking grew from the lack of knowledge of historical facts and our conservativity. Although the last castrato died in the 20th century - only few decades ago - the ignorance of historical facts keeps this theme under a veil.. Even the practice of falsetto singing (countertenor) which has survived until the present day, mostly in church choirs, is still often a reluctant issue.

However, this taboo theme deserves to be talked about without prejudice and with no distance, as the world talked about it couple of centuries before...

Motives of Castration

October 9, 1998

The custom of castration has its roots much before Christ with many different motives. The Egyptians applied castration as a method of punishment, the Arabs in their obsessive religious belief and Turks in order to get sexually unstimulated men as harem guards. But in Italy castration has been used with a completely different purpose...

St. PaulIn the first century when the apostle Paul declared in his scripts "Mulier tacet in ecclesia" ("Women stay silent in church") he certainly couldn't imagine what consequence will the saying cause several centuries later. The choruses without female voices composed of countertenors (falsetists) and boys before mutation have been functional while church music was simple and didn't demand a big voice range. However, as the mood of composing changed and has set higher vocal demands it became necessary to appeal to the men with "female" voices - castrats. So the practice of castration in the middle of the XVI century travelled across from the Orient to Europe and the first castrat singer of the Papa's Chapel in Rome in 1562 was Francesco Soto.

Piazza di San Piedro - VaticanIn the beginning of the XVII century a new music form - opera had bloomed in Italy. To castrats it offered many opportunities for presentation because of one simple reason: opera appeared to be an attempt of revival of the old Greek tragedy in which, after the legacy of the god of the theater Dionisis, women couldn't participate. The audience of ancient Greece had indetified the characters not by the voice but masks which the actors wore (similar to Shakespeare's England where also all the cast have been men). And since in Venice the first public theater has opened in 1637 the castrats, beside their church monopoly, also took domination in opera and they become irreplaceable until approximately the middle of the XVIII century.

What is Castration?

November 15, 1998

Castration is in fact the removal of the sexual glands and as a consequence had the cessation of male hormonal secretion. Castration was performed on boys aged between 8 and 10 and one can only imagine the devastating psychological effects it created. This procedure however did not hinder physical development - it "only" prevented the appearance of puberty and voice mutation. A castrat's throat kept its softness and flexibility; the vocal chords remained short and thin, the chest and breathing organs were of normal dimensions. All this allowed an enormous vocal capability and a peculiar voice color, which lead to a great demand for castrats who were in turn very well paid.

In time castration became somewhat a social deviation as many poor families saw a way to see better days through the "institution" of castration. It is not hard to imagine how many boys were subjected to castration and without any singing results in the later years. A famous case concerns the Melani family (XVII century) in which the father gave almost all his sons (at least five of them!) to be castrated. The mother of Matteo Sassano sold him to the castrate agents who especially in Naples lurked for abandoned children. Even though castration was in fact strongly forbidden, it was not seldom that a sign would read (especially on barber shop windows): "We do castration for a good price!!!"


Education of Castratti

December 22, 1998

All around Italy there were voice schools which brought the art of belcanto to its peak. The education of a castrato would last six to eight years in such schools. A document of the time gives us ample information on how the coaching of a young castrat looked like in 1640: "In Roman voice schools students daily had to sing an hour of trill, one hour of fast passaggios, scales and spread cords, an hour excercise of perfect intonation and all this under strict supervision of a professor and in front of a mirror so that they would control the tongue and throat and facial expressions while singing. One hour would be also set aside for music literature. These were the morning classes. In the afternoon, students learnt about music theory, composition and counterpoint while the remainder of the day was to be spent playing the harpsichord or completing psalms, motets or other compositions, after each to the individual capability. Aside of all this we sang in church and listened to the music of the great masters which we would later have to describe to the professor. Often we would go to Porta Angelica on Monte Mario to sing and listen to the echo as to correct our mistakes."

Porpora's Exercises - Courtesy of YU "Continuo"There is evidence that the conduct towards a castrat student was much better than toward the "regular" one - a castrat would get better food, warmer clothes and clearer rooms. Aside of the voice schools there were private tutors, the most famous of them all - Nicola Porpora. In the XVIII century a Belgian musicologists published the following method used by Porpora: "Porpora would first ask his student if he had enough patience, if the answer was positiv he would take a paper and write down scales, intervals, trills and sustained tones. This one exercise sheet would be practised for one year. It would be used in the following year as well. In the third year the same exercise was still in use. The student would start to rebel in the fourth year but the professor would remind him of his promise [of patience]. During the fifth year of study the same exercise would be used. Nothing was added in the sixth year, and at the very end of the year when the student would finally believe that the real tutoring would commence he would be surprised by the following statement of his professor: "Go my son, there is nothing more to be learned, you are now the best singer in the world!" It does seem that Porpora's method was worthy as the best castrats were in fact his students - Farinelli and Caffarelli. As the vocal training would start at the age of 8, 9 or 10, castrats were ready singers by the age of 15.

Castrats on Stage

...coming soon

Next: Castrats in public

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The story about castrats and countertenors is brought to you by Predrag Gosta and Early Music Network with great help & support from Dragan Karolic and Yugoslav Early Music Magazine Continuo, ISSN 0354-4788