What is the importance of castration

Neuters - the price of fame

Death by castration

As a result of the sensational fame and fortune of castrated opera singers in the first half of the 18th century, there was a veritable wave of castration: parents castrated their boys in the hope that they would also become successful opera stars.

The conditions in the back rooms in Baroque Italy must have been terrifying: Since castration was officially forbidden, it was mostly carried out by untrained barbers.

The boys were anesthetized and their spermatic cords cut. About half of all castrations ended in the boy's death.

But even a survived castration was no guarantee for later stardom. The cut with the sharp blade could not replace a lack of musical talent. Only around five percent of the castrati later actually earned their living with their voice.

Development out of control

The separation of the testicular cords results in a hormonal change which, during puberty, means that the secondary sexual characteristics do not develop. The castrato keeps his high-pitched child's voice, he becomes unable to reproduce, and his libido and potency are also restricted.

Growth gets out of control: a neutered's limbs become exceptionally long, which leads to a phenomenal height. In old age they suffer from extreme obesity.

In contrast to the rib cage, the vocal cords do not grow with the boy's development, which leads to a voluminous, bright voice. The short vocal cords produce high tones, which get a full sound through a large chest as a resonance body.

Why are boys neutered?

Castration does not originate in the lust for pleasure of decadent opera goers in the Baroque era, but in Catholic church choirs.

Because of a papal command at the end of the 16th century, women were no longer allowed to sing in the choirs. The castrati took over their part. The good sound of a church choir was more important then than it is today, because only a good choir secured high donations.

However, castrato singing experiences its absolute climax in the opera. For example, the Italian singer Farinelli was a celebrated superstar in the 1720s. In the course of his success, the operas of this time were written especially for the high castrato voices.

There was an official ban on castration, but that was regularly ignored. Parents kept inventing new accidents that supposedly led to their boys being castrated.

Fascinating voices

The phenomenon of "castration" is inextricably linked with the baroque. The baroque was an age of sensuality. The beautiful was cultivated and consumed en masse. No sensual pleasure could be intense enough for the nobles and clergy.

The plague and the Thirty Years War brought death and transience to people's consciousness. Those who could afford it tried to make their short time on earth as pleasant as possible. In these decades, war and disease faced an unprecedented display of splendor.

The term "vanitas", Latin for "empty appearance" and "vanity", shaped the way people thought at the time. The knowledge of the finiteness of earthly existence increased their desire for pleasure.

The high voices of the castrati are a perverse flower of this endeavor. With their supernatural sound, they should take opera visitors to another world and lead to an intense sensual experience.

Apparently that worked very well. It is reported that the higher society, whether male or female, was downright addicted to the castrato singing. With the demand for these voices, the supply grew. Nobody was interested in the psychological life of the castrati.

Exotics in the opera world

Despite their disfigured bodies, many castrati were not lacking in self-confidence. Contemporary stories show that some castrati felt very comfortable in their skin and in their exposed position. They also let the audience feel their vanity. Nevertheless, the royal houses outbid each other with highly endowed exclusive contracts.

Outside of the music business, however, the castrati met with a wave of contempt. They were considered eerie exotic species, not least because of their strange appearance. The admiration they received on stage was only superficial.

With age came the depression. Not only their social outsider position bothered them, the destruction of their natural hormone balance also affected their psychological well-being.

Castration today

The heyday of castrato operas ended with the baroque in the late 18th century. By then, one million boys are said to have been neutered in Italy alone.

Castrati could be heard in church choirs until the early 20th century. Vocal recordings by one of the last papal castrato singers - Alessandro Moreschi - have survived on old records.

Castration is allowed in Germany today, of course only at the request of the person concerned, who must be over 25 years old. Primarily, the law was created for the voluntary castration of sex offenders who hope to use it to control their sex drive.

Through intensive training of the vocal apparatus, so-called countertenors can now achieve similarly high notes as the castrati from back then - of course without castration.