The golden age of castrati lasted for two centuries, from the beginning of the 17th Century to the dawn of the 19th Century. Officially admitted into the Papal choir from 1599, they performed in all large towns throughout Italy. First, they sang exclusively in religious choirs, however, they soon became used in musical dramas. In the 18th Century, a musical form known as "Opera Seria" was created for them. The last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi died in 1922.
The usual explanation given to justify the use of castrati was that women were forbidden to sing in church choirs or theatres in the papal states. However, their vocal supremacy was the real reason for their extraordinary popularity. They were frequently described as having the 'voice of angels'. This was no doubt due to the combination of a child's fresh voice with the vocal power of a man, and the high register of a woman. However, their particular brilliance, their unusual degree of expression, flexibility, purity and the ease with which they moved from one register to another, was unquestionably, the result of many hours of hard work with famous teachers such as Porpora, in the Conservatoires.
Naples, at one time had as many as four Conservatoires. If a young castrato was judged suitable, he was submitted to a very rigorous schedule. He could be forced to study for up to ten years, singing every day and taking courses in music history, musical composition and the harpsichord. Frequently, students would abandon their studies before finishing, and of those who finished, only the most talented could make a living from their art. Very few, if any, reached the heights of Farinelli.
The whole of Europe was infatuated with castrati. They were adored where ever they performed. In Austria, England, Germany, Poland and Russia they were received as deliriously at the courts of Emperors and Tsars as at public theatres. They were idolized as much as today's androgynous rock stars such as Michael Jackson, David Bowie or Prince who, two centuries later, have the same international notoriety and delight crowds around the world.
The history of castrati and their success is inextricably linked to the art form "Opera Seria" which died with them. It is difficult to measure their part in the creation of this art form, however there is no question that their vocal range influenced the structure and inspiration of those who composed for it. It, in fact, became the way in which castrati could show off their vocal acrobatics. "Opera Seria" was above all a popular art form, attracting crowds from all walks of life who watched it in a spirit very different to opera crowds today. However, some great composers did compose for it, namely, Handel, Gluck, Hasse, Mozart and Metastase.
Whilst the myth of the castrato is well documented it has never touched on the barbaric method used to create these 'heavenly' singers. For the handful of castrati of which 18th Century Europe and Italy in particular were so proud, many young boys were mutilated and many lives possibly ruined.
Whilst castration prevented the voice from breaking, it did not ensure that the voice created was one of pure gold. There is no doubt that most castrati never rose beyond the rank of choir-boy in church choirs. Worse still, although no statistics exist, historical research suggests that operations were frequently unsuccessful.
In Italy, in particular, the castration of young, usually poor, choir-boys was very common. Poor families offered their sons for considerable financial reward. However, few families admitted that they had deliberately had their son castrated. Medical alibis, such as a riding accident, an accidental blow, an animal bite, were used to explain the reason for the castration.