For any cool, modern champion of informed consent and bodily autonomy, there is perhaps no obsolete Western musical practice quite so untenable as the making of a castrato. The castrati (castrato in singular form) were singers surgically castrated prior to puberty and commonly associated with opera. The castration served to maintain the high vocal register present prior to some sexual maturation processes contingent on increased testosterone levels. One instinctive response to the past existence of castrati is revulsion. After all, many of us are understandably very sensitive about our genitals. But, despite the testicular anxieties the castrato figure evokes, castrati remain a fascinating case study for the cultural and sonic nuances of their era of European music.
The castrato singers were first documented circa in Italy 1550, and the last known castrato died only a century ago, in 1922. Historically, the Catholic Church has prohibited surgical bodily modification for nonmedical purposes; however, in an ironic twist, another one of the Vatican’s policies was a major factor in the emergence of and demand for castrati. The Catholic Church, following a Pauline prescription, banned women from making sound in churches, creating a need for boys or men capable of singing in high registers.
So, if castrati supplanted the forbidden female voice in churches, did they simply possess a simulacrum the normative cisgender female voice? Though that’s easy to imagine, it’s not quite true. Castrati were also known as soprani, facilitating the practice of equating of their sound to modern sopranos. However, the developmental consequences of castration create some significant differences. Side effects of pre-pubescent castration can include a protruding jaw, which provides greater resonating space in the mouth; a flexibility of the larynx that allows for finer vocal control; and a delay in the fusing of the ribcage bones to the sternum, allowing for the growth of a larger resonating chamber of the chest cavity[i]. Changes in musical pedagogy since the castrati can also account for their differences from modern counterparts of the same register.
Not quite so straightforward as any old soprano after all! While an enterprising mad scientist or human experimenter[ii] may be able to recreate the anatomical specificities that the castrato voice depends on, the actual experience of castrato sound also entails a vivid and defunct cultural context. For example, castrato performances primarily took place in the specific religious context of early modern European Christianity. In her book, The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds, Martha Feldman proposes that the physical mutilation inherent to castrati was of particular interest to audiences due to Catholic preoccupations with the bodily mortification of Christ and Christian martyrs; the audience becomes “engrossed in fantasizing back to the bloody bodily modifications that originally produced [the castrati].”[iii] Like most musical experiences, the castrato voice was entangled with a rich and irreproducible listening community.
Although we can easily think of them as purely subjects of cruel and bloody bodily transgressions[iv], castrati were not solely harried victims. What counts as a horrific bodily violation has always been fluid across time periods and cultures. For many castrati, the pros of the castration may have outweighed the cons. There were significant financial benefits to becoming a castrato, and church-singing careers were relatively stable. If the choice is between poverty and castration, well, worse exchanges have been made.
Though the choice to become a castrato—or the choice to make one’s child a castrato, if we go by modern frameworks of youth and consent[v]—is bound up in conventional economic considerations, there is something subversive about castrato identity. Castrati straddle the blurry line between an extinct natural—as much as the human body is considered “natural”—sound and a defunct technological sound. They embody surgical intervention’s production of a unique genre of human, lending them neatly to a reading as an early modern version of the cyborg[vi]—a synthesis of the natural organism and technological artifice, and a challenge to the normative limitations of what it means to inhabit a body.
Castrati do not fit the traditional image of the cyborg insofar as the cyborg is meant to have wires and metal plating, but they’re still results of technological action. The developmental trajectory of a castrated youth is organically produced by the body’s own equilibriums. However, the practice of castration seemed unnatural even for castrati’s contemporaries[vii], reflecting age-old human anxieties about the integrity of the body. Castrati occupy a liminality between conventional ideas of the “natural” and “unnatural,” troubling the relation of these concepts to human identity. When does the pure and natural body end, and where does technology begin? We can think of human bodies as separate from the human artifice of technology[viii], but the castrati are an obvious counter to that understanding. Anyways, technological and surgical interventions come from human sources. If human bodies are natural, then why aren’t human modifications? And why do we so often privilege the unmodified body in the first place? In a social and economic context, the modification of the castrato did not create a devaluation of the body as much as a metamorphosis. Consider bodily modification not as corruption, but as possibility.
Alas, the castrato cyborg is not a cyborg of our modern era or our modern ears. The last known castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, made the only extant castrato solo recordings in early 1900s. However, the records were made on phonographic cylinders, which can only “capture only part of [the human voice’s] resonance”[ix], losing some of the castrato voice’s nuance. While Moreschi’s “Ave Maria” recording is a salient artifact, modern performances can also be helpful to imagine the castrato. The 1994 biopic Farinelli digitally merged[x] the voices of a countertenor and a soprano to create the voice of the title character, one of the most famous and successful castrati of all time. Real-life soprano Michael Maniaci, who has been compared to a castrato, claims his voice never broke due to unknown reasons. However, the castrato sound is defined by more than the larynx, and Maniaci’s recordings cannot truly recreate the circumstances of castrati.
But of course, why would anyone want to? Barring acoustic curiosity, who would ever want to revive this particular practice? Despite their unique sound, castrati are understandably defunct; the youth of those undergoing castration very flagrantly transgresses against modern conceptions of consent, especially considering the economic vulnerability that may have driven them to the decision. Also, more churches allow women to sing now. The moment of the castrato—with all its cultural and anatomical specificity—is perhaps best left interred, along with every surgeon and doctor that ever made the fateful cut[xi].
Feldman, Martha. The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds. University of California Press, 2015.
Gordon, Bonnie. “The Castrato Meets the Cyborg.” The Opera Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 1, 2011, pp. 94-112, www.doi.org/10.1093/oq/kbr015.
[i] See the Martha Feldman book listed at the end of the article for more information.
[ii] The author does not condone human experimentation. Please don’t tell people the author condones human experimentation.
[iii] See Feldman, pp. xv.
[iv] The poor castrati, thought of usually with an appended exclamation of the cruelty and barbarism of past ages, which, surely, we civilized and enlightened music enjoyers are immune to perpetuating.
[v] I would argue that consent, especially for practices like surgical or medical procedures, is much more complicated than the simple formula of replacing of a child’s too-immature, too-inexperienced consent with their parent or guardian’s superior choice. After all, parents and guardians don’t always have a child’s best interests in mind. While I’m not to the point of, say, advocating for a child head of government or claiming that children possess some special moral purity, I do think it’s valuable to question the ways that our current social and legal institutions erase the agency of children. Like, yes, I remember what I was like at 11. I wouldn’t trust that version of myself with a lot of things. But that’s my problem.
[vi] See the Gordon article linked at the end of the article.
[vii] See Feldman, pp. xxi.
[viii] I would dispute this from personal perspective as well because I am pretty sure I become a completely different person the moment I take my glasses off. Even my mother wouldn’t recognize me.
[ix] See Feldman, pp. 82.
[x] I’m still waiting on a castrato Vocaloid…
[xi] Note that all such doctors and surgeons are interred because they are probably dead due to old age, because the last (known) castrato died in 1922. I am not implying that myself or anyone else has launched a concerted campaign to off any medical personnel ever present at a musically motivated surgery.
Despite their unique sound, castrati are understandably defunct; the youth of those undergoing castration very flagrantly transgresses against modern conceptions of consent, especially considering the economic vulnerability that may have driven them to the decision.