The Castrati Advantage

This article is part one in a six part series on the rise and decline of the castrati in Western music. The six sections are:

Castration and Christianity
Castrati in Opera
The Castrati Advantage
The Castrati Effect
Decline
Modern Mythology and Unseen Influence

Lack of testosterone caused physical abnormalities in the castrati, some of which accounted for their unique range and tone. Mostly, however, their vigorous training accounted for their vocal virtuosity.
Lack of testosterone caused physical abnormalities in the castrati, some of which accounted for their unique range and tone. Mostly, however, their vigorous training accounted for their vocal virtuosity.

The Castrati Advantage

In cursorily observing the accomplishments of the castrati it is easy to conclude that the procedure of castration does something amazing to a boy’s throat to make him an incredible vocalist. This, however, is evidently not completely true as we are told that many young castrati-in-training never did develop spectacular or even particularly pleasant voices. Some even completely lost or ruined their voice and were directed to take up another instrument or vocation.[1] Indeed, by the 1770s we are told that for every famous castrato that made it big in opera, countless mediocre or voiceless ones littered the churches of every major Italian city.[2] Certain abnormalities caused by pre-pubertal castration, however, in conjunction with extensive training did equip castrati to potentially sing in a way that cannot without these procedures be replicated.

Castration (in the manner practiced on these singers[3]) causes several physical oddities—some that change vocal production to the desired aesthetic as well as some that are just strange. The removal of the testis in a pre-adolescent boy prevents the secretion of testosterone and its metabolite dihydrotestosterone at the onset of puberty. The larynx and therefore the vocal folds do not grow as they would in a normal teenager and stay at about the size of a female high soprano. However, the resonating chambers of the pharynx and oral cavities do increase as they would in an adult male. The resulting tone is a hybrid of pre-pubertal male phonation with adult male resonation, a sound unlike that of any other normal human.[4]

In addition to the special development of the larynx and pharyngeal cavities, the lack of dihydrotestosterone fails to signal the cessation of bone growth at the normal time and so castrati were known to be unusually tall (about 6 feet) and to have very round and barrel chests, thereby developing unusually large lungs. An increased breath supply in conjunction with small and thin vocal folds requiring less air to phonate allowed castrati to sing much longer phrases than normally possible.[5]

With these “desirable” mutations came several others that caused castrati to look strange. They had an over-abundance of hair on the scalp but no facial or body hair, and their body had a tendency towards certain feminine characteristics: pale skin, narrow shoulders, excessive fat around the hips and chest, little heads, and of course a high speaking voice.[6] It not difficult to conceive of such abnormally tall and barrel-chested yet small-headed, rear and chest-heavy people being ridiculed in the periodicals of the time.[7] In addition, it was said that castrati had a particular gift for longevity, though Jenkins attributes this solely to lifelong coddling.[8]

Physical equipment, though, was not so much the secret to their success as the training that castrati received: probably more than any other group of musicians before or since. Most castrati underwent extremely intense training at a conservatory for about ten years. Since castration had dedicated their life solely to music to music and singing, they spent nearly all their time studying singing, music theory and composition, keyboard, literature, dramatics, history, languages, and religion.[9]

The most famous conservatories were the four in Naples: Poveri di Gesu Cristo, Sant’Onofrio, Loreto, and Pieta dei Turchini.[10] Though conditions varied at times, they were known for turning out the best castrati and collaborated with the best teachers and composers of the day.[11] Daily schedules at these schools typically included several two-hour periods for instruction on literature, counterpoint, and music lessons, as well as periods for individual work. Three or four times a week students would attend two to three-hour masterclass-style lessons when the boys would show their completed counterpoint exercises to the teacher for correction. Visiting from France, the Abbé Raguenet admired of these conservatories:

they learn how to sing as in France they learn how to read; they go when they are at a very young age and spend nine or ten years there; as a result the children sing there as they read here when they have learned to read well, that is to say steadily, confidently, and without even thinking about it.[12]

Of his instruction in Naples with the famous teacher Porpora, castrato Caffarelli described his daily schedule as thus:

In the morning
1 hour singing passages of difficult execution
1 hour studying letters (value of words stressed)
1 hour singing in front of a mirror, to practice deportment and gesture

In the afternoon
½ hour theoretical work
½ hour counterpoint over cantus fermi (improvisation)
1 hour studying counterpoint with a cartella (portable blackboard)
1 hour studying letters
Remainder of day practicing harpsichord, composing vocal music, dealing generally with music theory.[13]

Pupils in Rome were also instructed to go outside of the city and sing into Mount Mario so as to hear their own voices in the echo and make corrections. Both in Rome and Naples, the young castrati regularly performed in all kinds of religious ceremonies in the city and put into practice what they were learning.[14]

In their actual voice lessons, castrati trained meticulously in breath technique, developing the muscles controlling inhalation and exhalation and developing deep costal-abdominal breathing that ensured regularity and flexibility of support and longevity of singing. The mastery of this breath technique allowed the incredible virtuosic Baroque ornamentation techniques the castrati acquired and mastered in school including trills, ports-de-voix, and messe di voce, as well as breath management that helped them to sing notes and runs up to a minute long in one breath. Porpora was said to require his students every day for six years to sing a sheet of exercises that included all the possible difficulties of vocalization. Exercises and techniques were repeated ad nausium until completely solid in the student’s singing; students sometimes had to practice the messa di voce for months before singing the slightest melody. In addition to being able to sing the most difficult ornaments and passagi, the years of careful training and repetitive refining gave castrati solid technique that allowed them to sing healthily and beautifully in spite of sickness or expressivity into old age.[15]

Notes

[1] Barbier, 55.

[2] Charles Burney, The Present State of Music in France and Italy (London, 1771), 128, quoted in Roselli, 144.

[3] Not like the eunuchs of north Africa and the middle east who were often castrated post-puberty and had their entire organ removed. (Scholz, 14-6)

[4] J. S. Jenkins, “The Voice of the Castrato,” The Lancelot (1988) 351:1877.

[5] Jenkins, 1877

Philip A. Duey, Bel Canto in Its Golden Age (New York: King’s Crown Press, 1951), 53.

[6] These descriptions are likely somewhat exaggerated since in the late 16th century it was fashionable to ridicule and caricaturize castrati. It is likely that since castrati often played female roles and were facetiously considered incomplete men, they were said to have had more female characteristics than was really accurate.

[7] Bergeron, 173.

[8] Jenkins, 1877.

[9] Eric Street, “Castrati in the Italian Baroque,” NATS Journal 44:1 (1987): 5-7+.

[10] The term “Conservatory” (a place to conserve or safely transmit musical knowledge) incidentally, originates from these four conservatorios. They were originally orphanages but soon shifted into musical instruction school and survived off the income they earned from having their pupils perform at church services and private parties and weddings. (Barbier, 37)

[11] Barbier, 46, 53.

[12] Barbier 48

[13] Heriot, 48.

[14] Barbier, 59.

[15] Barbier, 53-4.

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