History of Urology Forum
Presentation Authors: Alex Hennessey*, Brooke Harnisch, Farmington, CT
Introduction: "Castrato" describes a male who is castrated before puberty in order to create a distinct style of singing voice equivalent to a soprano or mezzo-soprano. Originally employed for religious music (as women were banned from singing in church), castrati played influential roles in opera. In the modern era, this style of singing has been perpetuated by so-called “endocrinological castrati”: individuals whose voices are attributed to inherited forms of hypogonadism.
Methods: We reviewed musicology texts, video performances, and peer-reviewed articles to understand the historical significance of castrati and effect of androgen deprivation on vocal development.
Results: Castrati were handsomely paid and widely adored amongst the operagoing public. Many poor, Italian families saw a potential socioeconomic opportunity, and an estimated 4,000 boys were castrated annually in hopes of achieving operatic success, though few ultimately achieved this. Details of castration procedures are sparse. The anesthetic process - a combination of opium and bilateral carotid compression - led to significant morbidity and mortality. Aside from bilateral orchiectomy, there are also descriptions of atrophy via “constant” compression and a method employing incandescent tongs to remove the entire scrotum and its contents.
The castrato voice was physiologically inimitable. Prepubertal androgen deprivation prevents vocal cord elongation and thickening, allowing for both a higher vocal range and more nimble, delicate ornamentation. Additionally, low testosterone levels can delay epiphyseal closure, which led to unusually large ribcages and unrivalled lung power.
Castration was abandoned in the 1800s. However, the rise of increasingly dissonant music and the devastation of world war led to a resurgence of interest in simpler, more “orderly” Baroque music during the mid-20th century. As such, more opportunities were available for male sopranos. This includes a subset of “endocrinological castrati” whose voices are attributable to inherited forms of hypogonadism such as Kallmann’s and Klinefelter’s syndromes. These artists include Paulo Abel do Nascimento, Radu Marian, and jazz artist “Little” Jimmy Scott.
Conclusions: While the contemporary listener may perceive the castrato as an oddity, there is legitimate musical value conferred by the effects of prepubertal androgen deprivation. Castrati were enormously popular in early opera but their influence faded as castration was abandoned. A new generation of “endocrinological castrati” have continued this musical tradition.
Source of Funding: None