It is the autumn of 1734 and the King’s Theatre on London’s Haymarket is packed to the rafters. As the last notes of the opera fade away, the fashionable audience erupts into frantic applause. The star singer steps forward to take a bow, when from the pit a well-heeled woman screams out: “One God! One Farinelli!”
Farinelli was the stage name of Carlo Broschi (1705–82), the most famous opera singer of the 18th century. He was something akin to a modern-day rock star. He commanded huge fees, audiences reacted hysterically to his performances, women lusted after him and he was seen as a threat to the establishment. But there was something very unusual about Farinelli: he was a castrato.
Castrati, as their name suggests, were opera singers who had been castrated before puberty in order to preserve their youthful singing voices. As these unfortunate boys turned into men, their voices developed in a unique way, producing a sound that many found exquisite.
This unusual practice originated in 16th-century Italy, where castrati could be found singing in courts and choirs, including that of the Sistine Chapel. As women were banned from singing in churches, these high male voices were welcomed. They soon became so popular that by the 18th century there was scarcely a performance of Italian opera that did not feature one among its cast.
The castrati craze reached its zenith in the 1720s and 1730s, when these singers became superstars. Audiences would frequently exclaim “Long live the little knife”, in praise of the tools that had created these unique voices. At the height of this fashion, it is estimated that 4,000 Italian boys were castrated every year in the name of music. But how and why was this procedure carried out?
Many castrati were from poor families who had their sons castrated with high hopes that they would find success and bring prosperity. Others, including Farinelli, were from wealthier families. Records suggest that some, including the celebrated Caffarelli, even requested the procedure themselves. Nevertheless, many in the 18th century found the genital mutilation of young boys just as barbaric and distasteful as we do today. When the music historian Dr Charles Burney (1726–1814) travelled through Italy, trying to discover where the procedure was carried out, no city was willing to admit responsibility. He recorded: “I was told at Milan that it was at Venice; at Venice that it was Bologna; but at Bologna the fact was denied, and I was referred to Florence; from Florence to Rome, and from Rome I was sent to Naples…”
As it was not practised openly, little evidence exists to build a complete picture of exactly how castration was performed. Historians believe, however, that the operation was often conducted by village barbers, who frequently performed minor surgeries in this period. Boys were typically castrated between the ages of seven and nine. In order to ease the pain they were given opium, or pressure was applied to their carotid artery until they passed out. They were then soaked in a hot bath before their spermatic cord was severed or, in some cases, their testicles were completely removed.
Castration was a dangerous procedure, and many boys are believed to have died during the process. Those who survived found that a lack of testosterone meant that their joints did not harden, which gave them very long limbs and ribs. As a result, castrati were often tall and barrel-chested, which accentuated their strange voices.
After being castrated, the young boys received rigorous training at singing schools. Here they spent intense hours singing and studying, with very little time for leisure. Those with talent and determination typically made a debut in their teenage years. But only the best made it to the operatic stage. The remainder tended to join church choirs. Dr Burney called these unfortunates “the refuse of the opera houses”. For a select few, however, great fame and wealth lay in wait.
One of the first castrato superstars was Senesino. He spent much of his career in London, where he commanded vast sums and mixed with high society. Senesino is best remembered for his volatile working relationship with Handel. He took 17 leading roles in the composer’s operas yet, at one point, left Handel’s Royal Academy to join the rival Opera of the Nobility. With the latter company, he famously appeared on stage alongside the younger castrato, Farinelli. During one performance an incident occurred which has passed into operatic legend. According to Dr Burney: “Senesino had the part of a furious tyrant, and Farinelli that of an unfortunate hero in chains; but in the course of the first air, the captive so softened the heart of the tyrant, that Senesino, forgetting his stage-character, ran to Farinelli and embraced him…”
Farinelli was by far the most famous castrato. He thrilled audiences across Europe, amassing a huge fortune. His wealthy patrons showered him with gifts and his portrait was painted countless times. His vocal skill was unsurpassed. On one occasion he famously had a contest with a trumpet player, easily beating the instrumentalist with his vocal ornamentation.
While singers such as Senesino and Farinelli were hugely popular, they were not universally adored. Many in Britain saw the castrati as dangerously degenerate figures, symbolising the worst excesses of Catholic southern Europe. Some saw them as a threat to British order, while others disapproved of the vast salaries they commanded.
A satirical print reflecting these concerns appeared in 1735, entitled The Opera House or the Italian Eunuch’s Glory. It was dedicated to “those generous encouragers of foreigners, and ruiners of England”, and listed the gifts that Farinelli had “condescended” to accept from his British patrons. These included a diamond ring and a golden snuff box.
Ironically, castrati were also seen as a sexual threat. The devotion these singers inspired among women caused great unease. Historians have described the ‘groupies’ who lavished the castrati with gifts and affection, even wearing medallions featuring portraits of their favourite singer. Many society women had affairs with castrati, seeing them as ideal candidates for discreet liaisons as there was no risk of pregnancy. Rumours soon began to circulate that these singers were generous and voracious lovers in spite of their castration. Some even believed that castration could enhance sexual performance. These ideas were fuelled by popular songs and pamphlets. Just one example concerned Farinelli’s prowess: “Well knowing eunuchs can their wants supply, / And more than bragging boasters satisfy; / Whose pow’r to please the fair expires too fast, / While F—–lli stands it to the last.”
In 1766 a scandal erupted when the castrato Tenducci (1736–90) eloped with a 15-year-old Irish heiress. Her father tracked them down and had Tenducci thrown into prison.
However, by the late 18th century taste was changing, and the glory days of the castrati soon passed. Upon retirement, some singers took on young proteges as adopted sons. Others developed new careers entirely.
The last great operatic castrato was Velluti (1780–1861), who was known for his diva-like behaviour. He performed in London in the 1820s, where he was the first castrato to appear in 25 years. Castration was made illegal in Italy following unification in the mid-19th century, and the Catholic church prohibited the employment of castrati in 1878. Some singers still lingered in church choirs, however. Moreschi (1858–1922), known as ‘the last castrato’, survived into the 20th century and even made some recordings towards the end of his life. These scratchy and haunting records, widely available online, give us a vague sense of what these extraordinary men might have sounded like.
Although the reign of the castrati has long since passed, their fame still resonates. In Bologna, where he lived from 1761 until his death, a Farinelli Study Centre has been established. In 2006 Farinelli’s skeleton was exhumed for scientific study, which revealed that his body had indeed been impacted by castration. He was taller than average, with long limb-bones that hadn’t fused adequately.
In 1994 Farinelli’s life was the subject of an eponymous film, made by Gérard Corbiau. Producers attempted to digitally recreate Farinelli’s voice by merging recordings of a countertenor and a soprano. Despite these attempts, nobody can really know what this most celebrated of all castrati actually sounded like. We can only imagine the strange and powerful voice of the man who inspired that famous exclamation of 1734: “One God! One Farinelli!”
Three castrati whose colourful characters and brilliant voices made waves in high society
The doomed lover: Siface (1653–97)
Giovanni Francesco Grossi, known as Siface, was born in Tuscany. He was a fiery individual, who on one occasion offended the French ambassador to Rome by refusing to perform without payment.
Siface spent some time in London, where he performed at the home of Samuel Pepys, before leaving as he could not tolerate the climate. He was murdered on the road to Ferrara in 1697, purportedly on the orders of a nobleman with whose wife Siface had enjoyed a sexual liaison.
The socialite: Senesino (1686–1758)
Senesino, whose real name was Francesco Bernardi, was the son of a barber from Siena. He was castrated at the relatively late age of 13. After making his debut in Venice in 1707, he quickly gained a European reputation. He passed much of his career in London, where he mixed with the upper echelons of society and amassed a huge collection of fine art and rare books. He eventually retired to his home town, where he lived out his years in an eccentric fashion. He built a house in the English style and resided there with his black servant, a monkey and a parrot.
The loose cannon: Caffarelli (1710–83)
Caffarelli was the stage name of Gaetano Majorano, who hailed from the Italian town of Bitonto. Unusually, records indicate that he requested castration himself. He attained great success in Italy, being the first to sing Handel’s famous aria ‘Ombra mai fu’. Louis XV invited him to France, but his career here was cut short after he wounded a poet during a duel.
Caffarelli was notoriously temperamental. He often sang whatever he wished on stage, sometimes even mimicking or heckling other singers as they performed.
Anna Maria Barry is a historian who specialises in opera singers of the 19th century. She is completing her PhD at Oxford Brookes University.