In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Castrato

  • Introduction
  • General Surveys
  • The Physiology of the Castrato
  • Marriage
  • Reception
  • Iconography

Music The Castrato
Patricia Howard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0133


Although the practice of castrating boys and men, for ritual, medical, or punitive reasons, extends back to prehistoric times, the term “castrato” generally implies a 17th- or 18th-century singer who has undergone castration in boyhood to preserve an exceptional treble voice. The practice received an initial stimulus from the increased complexity of 16th-century church music, requiring professional singers. The demand became acute in the 17th century, when the focus of both sacred and secular music was on the highest vocal part. Women were forbidden to sing in church, at least in Spain and Italy, and although male altos (falsettists) were regularly employed in churches throughout Europe, their voices were considered inferior to those of boys, whose training was thought to be too troublesome for the short duration of their unbroken voices. The castrato voice was an obvious solution. The practice was tolerated and sometimes encouraged by the Catholic Church, which continued to employ castratos until the early decades of the 20th century. Another trigger for the cultivation of the castrato voice was the invention of opera, a new genre in the 17th century. Requiring an ever-increasing degree of virtuosity, the leading roles in opera were soon seen as the natural preserve of the castrato, and by the 18th century, castratos were among the most highly skilled (and highly paid) musicians in Europe. Their training was more intensive and of longer duration than that of any other singer, and reports of their virtuosity were widespread, though difficult to verify other than through a scrutiny of the music they performed, and even here the written evidence can be misleading. In common with all 17th- and 18th-century singers, castratos were expected to provide their own ornaments for the arias they sang. Such ornamentation was rarely written out. In theory it was improvised, though singers probably drew on a well-known and widely used vocabulary of trills, arpeggios and passage work as illustrated in the singing tutors of the period. As the century progressed, these well-educated, cultured, and often highly intelligent singers were among the first to grasp the substance of the reform of opera, which required a new expressive style of singing and a less mannered approach to acting. Many castratos were also celebrated as effective teachers of singing. Scholarly interest in the castrato addresses various issues. Biographical studies of individual singers are often set in the context of studies of the profession as a whole. Styles and techniques of singing have been investigated both as examples of vocal pedagogy and as fulfilling the demands of specific operatic roles. The status of the castrato in society, involving both adulation and satire, has proved to be another fertile field for research, incorporating a uniquely interesting topic for gender studies, and more widely ranging reception studies of both the singer and his art.

General Surveys

There are a number of general surveys written for the nonspecialist reader that lack detailed references and often fail to distinguish between anecdote and history. Heriot 1960, Ortkemper 1995, and Barbier 1996 fall into this category, but are nevertheless good starting points because of the breadth of their content, which places all the major singers in context. Haböck 1927 covers the same ground in a more scholarly manner, though now appears dated. Rosselli 1992 is a good compromise, presenting a modern take on career structures, performance practice, and gender issues. Scholz 2001 is the best modern academic study, addressing the wider history of castration. Two shorter studies provide useful focus: Hodges 1993 indicates the range of sources available for a study of career structures, and Appolonia 1998 considers some of the ambiguities that surround the castrato in opera.

  • Appolonia, Giorgio. “Il fenomeno della voce castrato.” Nuova Rivista Musicale Italiana 32 (1998): 164–177.

    A compact survey investigating the appeal of the castrato voice in 17th- and 18th-century opera and reasons for the voice’s mythical reputation. Outlines a brief history of the castrato and touches on legal and physiological issues.

  • Barbier, Patrick. The World of the Castrati. Translated by Margaret Crosland. London: Souvenir, 1996.

    A translation of Histoire des castrats (1989). Attempts to bring Heriot 1960 up to date. Includes an account of the history of the voice in Western art music, with useful chapters on career structure and social roles. Although the book is better supplied with references than Heriot, some of these are inaccurate.

  • Haböck, Franz. Die Kastraten und ihre Gesangkunst. Berlin and Leipzig: Deutsche Verlag, 1927.

    The classic overview of its age. Some factual content (e.g., names, dates) has been overtaken by recent research, but still an essential account of eunuchs in history and the rise of the castrato. Contains a valuable index of primary sources.

  • Heriot, Angus. The Castrati in Opera. London: Calderbooks, 1960.

    Still the most readable and comprehensive general survey in English. Much of the content derives from Haböck 1927. Perceptive and informative; usefully assembles most known anecdotal literature, but lacks precise references. Valuable commentary on Balatri (see Wunnicke 2001, cited under Filippo Balatri).

  • Hodges, Sheila. “A Nest of Nightingales.” Music Review 54.2 (1993): 79–94.

    Focuses on the careers of castratos in 17th- and 18th-century opera. Accurate references and useful source material.

  • Ortkemper, Hubert. Engel wieder Willen: Die Welt der Kastraten; Eine andere Operngeschichte. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1995.

    Relies heavily on anecdotes to trace the changing role of the castrato. Notes the key role of Porpora as teacher (see Pedagogy and Performance Practice). Examines the career of Velluti (see Giovanni Battista Velluti) in the context of the decline of the castrato. Includes a list of compositions featuring the castrato.

  • Rosselli, John. Singers of Italian Opera: The History of a Profession. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    Although only one chapter is specifically devoted to the castrato, much of the book is relevant to the training, career opportunities, and the market for singers in Italian opera. Rosselli’s study is the fullest and most perceptive available.

  • Scholz, Piotr O. Eunuchs and Castrati: A Cultural History. Translated by John A. Broadwin and Shelley L. Frisch. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2001.

    Wide-ranging scholarly survey of the history of emasculation from myth to the Renaissance. Chapter 10, “Voices of the Angels” (pp. 271–290), outlines the changing role of the castrato in the 16th to 18th centuries. Argues that cultural life in the 17th and 18th centuries would have been very different without castratos.

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