The Voice | The Castrati | Early & Middle Baroque | Opera
A castrato was a male singer whose boyish singing voice was preserved by castrating him before his voice changed during puberty. The castrato had an important part to play in the performance of opera, since women were barred from performing on stage and the male soprano or contralto was employed instead. If anything, a castrato’s voice was the more effective, since castration did not entirely eliminate maleness. This was especially significant in terms of the strength of the lungs, which made the castrato voice more flexible, more penetrating and more sensuous than female voices could normally manage.
Castrati were first mentioned as early as 1562, when they were employed in religious services; the church went on using castrati for another three centuries. The advent of opera in the seventeenth century gave these singers an additional outlet – and a chance for riches and fame that the church could not offer. The opera house also provided an opportunity for lavish praise that flattered the proverbial vanity of the castrati. For example, the tone of one castrato was said to put a nightingale to shame with a sound that seemed barely human. The creation of castrati became illegal in 1870.
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