Just a couple of hundred years ago, sopranos were at the height of their popularity. They travelled around Europe singing opera and were considered on-stage heroes, and their art has been appreciated worldwide for centuries.
The last castrato died just a few decades ago, during the 20th century. The custom of castrating predates Jesus Christ, and the original motives were somewhat different. Egyptians used castration as a punishment, the Arabs used it for religious reasons, and the Turks employed it to create a groupof men with no sexual urgess to guard their harems. However, in Italy castration had a completely different purpose.
During the first century AD, when the apostle Saint Paul wrote: “Mulier tacet in ecclesia” (“women shall remain in silence when they are in church”), he could hardly have imagined the effect his words would have some centuries later. Choirs without female voices, composed of countertenors and pre-puberty children, worked for some time, but as musical composition demanded an ever-wider vocal range, choirs needed men with a female voice, that is to say castrated men. So, in the mid-16th century the practise of castration arrived in Europe from the East.
At the beginning of the 17th century, a new type of music, opera, was taking shape in Italy. For castrati this was a golden opportunity for one simple reason: women were banned from taking part. As a result, from when the first public theatre was opened in Venice in 1637 until the mid-18th century, castrati dominated the world of opera and became irreplaceable.
Castration produced extraordinary vocal skills and a rather peculiar colour to voices, which meant castrati were in great demand and also highly paid. Singing schools sprang upall over Italy to raise the belcanto art form to its highest possible level. Castrati were normally trained for between six and eight years at such schools, and private tutors also offered their services outside schools.
Castrati – (Italian Castrato) Male singers, castrated before reaching puberty in order to retain their soprano or alto voices. In this manner the childlike timbre is kept, allowing them to sing soprano in a strange manner due to the normal development of their lungs. Castrati were much more common within ecclesiastical institutions, where women were not allowed to sing, and in theatres during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. They were held in very high prestige during these times.