Biology is all around us, seeping deep into history and art. In the castrato, we see the manipulation of hormones to fulfill a certain artistic need. Pope Paul I had banned women from singing in public based on the 1 Corinthians verse that says, “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says”.
The other voices that could sing the soprano parts were those of young boys or men who sang with their falsettos. Both of these options had their disadvantages. Young boys’ voices broke and became lower as they went through puberty, while men who sang with falsetto’s did not have the same type of power behind their voices.
So, what is a castrato (plural: castrati)? It is the soprano or alto voice a male singer castrated in boyhood. Castrating a grown man would not lead to the same results because they have already gone through puberty. Removal of testicles was not necessary, contrary to popular belief. Back alley surgeons would snip the spermatic cord of boys (8-12 years of age). Without the nutrients coming from the arteries, the testicles would wither away and disappear. The lack of testosterone meant that the boy’s voice stayed high, the epiphyseal lines (growth plates) didn’t harden, and the rib cages became large and wide, giving the singer even more power behind his voice.
Exceptions to the Rule
As is the case in biology, there are always exceptions to the rule. It is possible to be a natural castrato. Men whose voices never broke, despite having gone through puberty, are the rarest types of “natural castrato”. Another possibility is those with endocrine and genetic mutations, called Klinefelter or Kallmann syndrome. In these cases, men do not produce or produce low levels of testosterone. The outcome is the same as happens to castrati: high voices, absence of puberty, and long bones.
Castrato Today (there are none)
The practice of force castrating young boys was eventually outlawed. For those who are curious, there has only ever been one recording of a castrato’s voice and many argue that it is not a good representation of what they were supposed to sound like. While we may be able to recreate the voices with AI in the future, for now we only have the written accounts of those who admired, idolized, and was in awe of the angel-like voices of the castrati.