Farinelli is perhaps the most well known castrato singer and the new West- End production of Farinelli and the King brings his story back to life for the stage.
Between the 17th and early 20th centuries, many castrati became famous. Indeed, they were the darlings of the opera house; they played prestigious male and female lead roles, and classical composers wrote music specifically for castrati voices.
It is believed the practice was started around 1500, and the number of castrati declined during the 19th century.
Women were banned from the Vatican choir and much church music was written for high voices, therefore castrati were often employed. The unique voice of a castrato combined the pure sound of a boy soprano with the lung capacity of an adult male.
Castrati occupied a middle-ground between male and female, biologically they were male but psychologically and socially they weren’t considered to be men. They were forbidden from marrying, becoming priests or holding political posts.
Alessandro Moreschi was the Church’s last castrato singer, he died in 1922.
Here Alessandro Moreschi sings “Preghiera” by Francesco Paolo Tosti, recorded in the Sistine Chapel in 1902.