Inside the Music | Castratos | Early Baroque | Classical
From the late sixteenth century, castratos were engaged as singers by the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Although castration had been forbidden by Pope Gregory XIII, some children who had suffered mutilation were trained as castrato singers. Their voices were found to be much stronger, and their vocal ranges wider, than those of falsettists, whom they gradually replaced in the papal chapel. Initially castratos were engaged solely as church musicians, but with the growth of opera their careers diversified and there was a great demand for them both in Italy and in many foreign countries. In 1639 Johann Georg II, the Elector apparent at Dresden, engaged Giovanni Andrea Bontempi (c. 1624–1705) as the court’s first Italian castrato.
As Italian opera grew in popularity, the demand for castrati intensified. By the end of the seventeenth century singers such as Giovanni Francesco Grossi, ‘Siface’ (1653–97) and Pier Francesco Tosi (c. 1653–1732), now remembered chiefly for an influential singing treatise Opinioni de’ cantori antichi e moderni (‘Theories on Ancient and Modern Songs’, 1723), were among the highest-paid musicians of their day. In the eighteenth century castratos were often international celebrities, creating most of the great roles as heroes and lovers (Handel’s Julius Caesar, Gluck’s Orpheus), and commanding almost any fee they liked.
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