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").
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).
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 practicing trills, one hour practicing 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.
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.
Marge: I've been looking over this list for the ceremony. I've got the extra wine glasses but I'm still short a Tandoori oven, an elephant and four castrati.
Bart: What's a castrati?
Marge: I don't know but I'm sure it's something spicy.