Castrati: The Superstars of the Church and Opera in 16th Century Europe

Castrati: The Superstars of the Church and Opera in 16th Century Europe

“Long live the knife, the blessed knife!” screamed ecstatic female fans at opera houses as the craze for Italian castrati reached its peak in the 18th century. When Farinelli, the most famous castrato of his time, sang in London, one woman squealed "One God, one Farinelli!" Farinelli was later summoned by the Queen of Spain to sing her husband, Philip V, out of his depression, and went on to become the most potent politician in Spain as well as owner of his own opera house.

A castrato was a male singer with a vocal classification of a female or a child’s voice—a soprano, mezzo-soprano, or alto. From about 1550 CE to the late 19th century, those voices were created by castrating boys before they reach puberty, thereby preventing their voices from deepening. A castrato, then, would have the lung capacity and muscular strength of an adult male, and the vocal range of a prepubescent boy. The only difference between a castrato (collectively known as castrati) and a eunuch is that historically most eunuchs were castrated after puberty, thus the castration had no impact on their voices.

Portrait of the castrato singer Domenico Annibaldi

Portrait of the castrato singer Domenico Annibaldi (Public Domain)


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