This is a screen shot from the 1994 film Farinelli, which is about the most famous castrato soprano of all time, Carlo Broschi.
Castrati were a rather short-lived phenomenon, for good reason. Beginning around 1550, physicians who removed young boy’s testicles to treat hernias noticed the effects on the voice after castration-it remained a high soprano into adulthood in some cases. Economic hardships led many to castrate young singers on purpose (an illegal operation) in order to prevent puberty and preserve a soprano singing voice.
While some did achieve fame and relative fortune, hundreds more died in poverty for many reasons, including social ostracism and violence, voices that changed anyway, and health problems caused by the initial surgery or later repercussions from castration. Many castrati also suffered from alcoholism and other addictions, as well as depression, anxiety disorders, and other effects of their celebrated and condemned existence.
A castrato’s voice was not like a modern female soprano’s voice for several reasons. First of all, castration prevented hardening of bones after puberty, so not only did castrati grow in excess of seven feet tall at times, their ribcages were trained through various exercises to expand to allow ever greater lung capacity. Their range was greater than a female soprano’s, both upper and lower registers, and they could hold notes for such a long time that music written specifically for them can no longer be performed without modification. Most castrati performed women’s roles in operas, although they performed male roles as well.
Farinelli, as a film, is mostly candy-coated garbage in regards to plot and characterization, although it does remain in the spirit of showcasing how castrati were both revered and reviled by the society they lived in. It is more interesting for how it was made than anything else about it, although the costume and character design are also quite amazing. In order to recreate the castrati voice, a male countertenor and a female soprano’s voice were combined digitally, and then subsequently enhanced to increase volume and range.
If you’ve never heard a male countertenor, well here is what happens when one shows up at a modern-day singing contest (and to be perfectly honest it’s a bad example but quite funny to watch).
This clip from the film Farinelli demonstrates not only the castrati reputation as difficult “divas”, but also demonstrates how something beautiful can also become almost grotesque and somewhat frightening. It is also kind of funny; a showdown between an arrogant singer and someone in the audience he feels isn’t paying enough attention.
Only one recording exists of an actual castrati singer, Alessandro Moreschi, and he was both old and sick when the recording was made, not to mention it is more than 100 years old.
The only modern female soprano who has attempted to take on the music written for castrati is Cecelia Bartoli; it is well worth watching this clip in which she attempts to replicate the Agitate De Due Venti from Griselda by Vivaldi. Watching her heave, sweat, and grimace her way through the impossible trills gives a very good idea of the difficulty involved in a human being making these kind of sounds.
I do kind of wonder what Diana Demrau could do with some of the music written for castrati; this clip of her performing Queen of the Night/Der Holle Rasche/The Magic Flute is one of the best female soprano vocals that I know of. (It also is quite evocative of the grotesque and/or superhuman ability).
Anne Rice wrote a rather prurient and occasionally ghastly book about castrati called Cry to Heaven, which is mostly porn. It’s not terrible but it’s not great, either. To be perfectly fair, there’s not much in the way of knowing what the lives of the castrati were like, and I suppose a dank gothic tale of sex and dismemberment is as valid as any interpretation.
So basically yes, castrati did exist, and there is a sort of half-aware cultural consciousness of it. A lot of people make jokes along the lines of “I’ll have you singing soprano” as a threat, or the equation of testicular injury with a high-pitched voice. It’s one of those human rights abuses that was rather unique and generally goes unremarked when cultural history is discussed. They existed for nearly four centuries, starting in the 1550’s, until the last castrati died in 1922.