ModernGhana logo
24.10.2019 Feature Article

Castrato: The beginning of Testosterone deprivation & who are they?

 Raphael Nyarkotey Obu, RND, PhD
LISTEN OCT 24, 2019
Raphael Nyarkotey Obu, RND, PhD

Testosterone is an important chemical in the body to keep men (and women) well. Proper levels are associated with lower cardiovascular disease, lower (not higher) incidence of prostate cancer, and overall well-being.

But what does that mean for men on androgen deprivation therapy (ADT), also known as hormone therapy, where chemical castration is induced medically for prostate cancer?

The history of testosterone show that, for thousands of years men were physically castrated for many reasons.

One of those reason's was for sopranos, collectively call the Castratis to keep a high pitch voice. According to Wikipedia, A castrato (Italian, plural: castrati) is a type of classical male singing voice equivalent to that of a soprano , mezzo-soprano , or contralto . The voice is produced by castration of the singer before puberty , or it occurs in one who, due to an endocrinological condition, never reaches sexual maturity .

Castration before puberty (or in its early stages) prevents a boy's larynx from being transformed by the normal physiological events of puberty. As a result, the vocal range of prepubescence (shared by both sexes) is largely retained, and the voice develops into adulthood in a unique way. Prepubescent castration for this purpose diminished greatly in the late 18th century and was made illegal in the Papal states , the last to prohibit them, in 1870.

As the castrato's body grew, his lack of testosterone meant that his epiphyses (bone-joints) did not harden in the normal manner. Thus the limbs of the castrati often grew unusually long, as did the bones of their ribs . This, combined with intensive training, gave them unrivalled lung-power and breath capacity. Operating through small, child-sized vocal cords , their voices were also extraordinarily flexible, and quite different from the equivalent adult female voice. Their vocal range was higher than that of the uncastrated adult male.

Castrati were rarely referred to as such: in the 18th century, the euphemism musico (pl musici) was much more generally used, although it usually carried derogatory implications; another synonym was evirato, literally meaning " emasculated ". Eunuch is a more general term since, historically, many eunuchs were castrated after puberty and thus the castration had no impact on their voices.

According to one article also published in the guardian, Most people think castrating choirboys is inhumane - but not singer Ernesto Tomasini. "I regret not having been castrated," he says. "I would have perfectly happily given up my masculinity for my art." Just over a century ago he would have got his wish: at the height of the craze for male sopranos, 5,000 boys a year were castrated in order to preserve their unbroken voices. Those who proved mediocre mouldered away in parish choirs, but the successful "sacred monsters" were cosseted and adored. The last official castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, retired from the Sistine Chapel in 1913, though some historians suspect that Domenico Mancini, who sang in the papal choir until 1959, was a secret castrato.

Growing up in 1970s Sicily, Tomasini was all too aware of the castrato legacy. At 10, he was kicked out of the choir by the priests of the Santissimo Salvatore for "singing mass as Julie Andrews", while his mother wrung her hands at his coloratura hallelujahs. "She never said, 'Don't mince when you sing,' " he recalls, "but that was what she meant."

In his teens, he would sing when he was home alone. "The neighbours said, 'Oh, you've got such a lovely soprano voice, Mrs Tomasini.' And she said, 'I don't sing.' So then it was 'What do you do when I'm out? You sing like a woman!' "

Tomasini eventually unleashed his four-octave voice on the Italian cabaret circuit, and still performs at the ICA and the Soho revue bar Madame JoJo's as The Techno-Castrato and as The Amazing Tomasini. But he has also started singing the castrato roles that, since Moreschi died in 1922, have been sung by women. The postwar countertenor Alfred Deller inspired Tippett and Britten to write high-pitched male parts, but it is only recently that countertenors - including artists such as Andreas Scholl and David Daniels - have reclaimed castrato roles.

Such performers have proved that it is possible to achieve some of a castrato's range without recourse to surgery, but Tomasini longs for the frenzied glamour of 18th-century opera, in which castrati reigned supreme. Lucy Powell, who wrote True or Falsetto, the show that Tomasini is taking to this year's Edinburgh festival , cannot quite bring herself to agree with him on the benefits of castration. "The difficulty is that you can't make that decision as an adult. I know there are many fetish sites where people are making that decision on a daily basis, but they're not doing it for music."

Eight was the average age for choirboys to be castrated in the 17th century, though officially it was against canon and civil law. Pope Clement VIII admitted castrati into the papal choir in 1599, quoting as justification St Paul's directive: "Let women be silent in the churches." Presumably St Paul would have been satisfied with boys, but Clement VIII had been captivated by the castrati's "angel voices". The Vatican was complicit in recruiting singers not just for the church but, after Pope Innocent XI banned women from appearing on stage in 1686, for opera houses. Last year human rights groups and historians called for a papal apology, but according to Powell, "He was too busy apologising to other people." Tomasini suspects that "many documents have been destroyed".

For poor people, castrating a talented young singer in the family could be a passport to wealth. Still, they shrank from admitting it. Castrated boys often seemed to have met with curious accidents: kicked, bitten, born deformed and (most implausibly) gored by wild boars. Many castrati found it psychologically expedient to believe the euphemisms. One singer, castrated around 1840 after - his parents claimed - a pig attack, once grabbed a knife and said: "If I learnt that it was my father who reduced me, I would kill him with this knife."

The orchidectomies (as they are technically known) were shrouded in secrecy. Only the dodgiest surgeons would attempt them, and they were often a lucrative sideline for village barbers. In the absence of anaesthetic, boys were doped with opium and bathed in milk before having their testicles removed by slitting the groin and severing the spermatic chord. Those who survived were tall, beardless and tended to run to fat. They also had no Adam's apple (the famous 18th-century castrato Farinelli wore a tactical cravat) and their voices did not break. Their larynxes failed to put on the growth spurt that occurs in boys at puberty, meaning that their vocal chords stayed close to the resonating chambers, creating a sound that was sublime, voluptuous and strange.

So otherworldly were these voices that young castrati were hired out, dressed as angels, to keep vigil over the corpses of children. We will never know quite how they sounded - all we have are some 1902 recordings of Moreschi, well past his prime, on single-sided shellac discs. In his inaccurate but sumptuous 1994 film, Farinelli, Il Castrato, Gérard Corbiau suggested the sound by morphing the voices of a countertenor and a soprano.

Created by artifice, the castrati spurned simplicity; instead, they soared, plummeted, scooped and prolonged notes for up to 60 seconds without pausing for breath. Their ability to sing like birds inspired arias full of trills, coloratura and rococo fripperies. Castrati were known for the virtuosita spiccata (where they separated the notes in the trills) and the messa di voce, where they started a note pianissimo, inflated it to a climax and then let it very slowly die away. Farinelli, who liked to duel with a trumpet, competing for agility and breath control, was said to be able to prolong a note for a full minute without taking a new breath, a feat that was showcased in his "portmanteau aria" (all the castrati had them, so-called because they carried them everywhere, inserting them into operas despite their irrelevance).

The castrati's preening extended beyond rewriting the score; Marchesi, an 18th-century castrato with a reputation for bombast, stipulated that he should always enter, whatever the opera, on a hilltop, carrying a sword and a lance, wearing a helmet topped with 6ft-tall red-and-white plumes and beginning with the words, "Where am I?" Their groupies screamed, swooned and tactlessly yelled " Eviva il coltello! " ("Long live the knife!").

In his epistolary novel Humphrey Clinker, Tobias Smollett has Lydia Melford twitter about "a thing from Italy - it looks for all the world like a man, though they say it is not. The voice to be sure is neither man's nor woman's but it is more melodious than either; and it warbled so divinely that while I listened I really thought myself in paradise." When Farinelli sang in London, one woman squealed "One God, one Farinelli", a scene Hogarth lampooned in The Rake's Progress. The charismatic castrato was later summoned by the Queen of Spain to sing her husband, Philip V, out of melancholy. He succeeded, became the most potent politician in Spain, and ran an opera house where he was especially proud of inventing a new way of simulating rain.

Castrati were also supposed to be great lovers: "They could last long," says Tomasini. To Montesquieu they "would have inspired a taste for Gomorrah in people whose taste is the least depraved"; and when Casanova fell in love with a "castrato" who conveniently turned out to be a woman in drag, he asked her to dress as a castrato in bed. For those women who chose, as Dryden put it, to "in soft eunuchs place their bliss/ And shun the scrubbing of a bearded kiss", affairs were idealised and safe. But bedhopping could be risky for the castrati. One was assassinated by his lover's furious family and another, who wrote to the Pope requesting permission to marry on the basis that his castration had been ineffective, received the reply: "Let him be castrated better!"

While the Italians called them "virtuosi", the French sneered at the "cripples" or "capons". Voltaire's character Procurante drawlingly urged Candide to "swoon with pleasure if you wish or if you can at the trills of a eunuch quavering the majestic part of Caesar and Cato". In 1753 the scholar Laurisio Tragiense derided "the insolence of the castrati... who will not tolerate any costumes apart from those in which they hope to appear handsome and dashing". His tone is crushing; he obviously found the castrati anything but. By the 19th century, most people found castration grotesque, leading one virility-obsessed singer with a high voice to splash his posters with the line that he "had the honour to inform the public that he is the father of a family". In 1902 Pope Leo XIII placed a ban on any new castrati joining his choir. Moreschi retired in 1913.

The golden age of the castrati
But the golden age of the castrati came in the 17th and 18th centuries when they became the stars of the opera stage. Francesco Bernardi – or Senesino as he become known – was born in 1686 and went on to appear in many of Handel’s works, including the operas Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda. One contemporary account says: “He had a powerful, clear, equal and sweet contralto voice, with a perfect intonation and an excellent shake. His manner of singing was masterly and his elocution unrivalled… he sang allegros with great fire, and marked rapid divisions, from the chest, in an articular and pleasing manner.”

Farinelli came a little later but quickly rose to become one of the most famous musicians of his age. Born Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi in 1705, his parents probably decided to find someone to operate on him as a result of his father’s death – having a castrato in the family could bring in a lot of money.

The last castrato
The last role to be written for a castrato was that of Armando in Meyebeer’s Il crociato in Egitto. And castration was made illegal after the unification of Italy in 1861.

But it wasn’t until 1878 that Pope Leo XIII banned the church from hiring castrati. And the official end came in 1903 when Pius X declared ‘Whenever it is desirable to employ the high voices of sopranos and contraltos, these parts must be taken by boys, according to the most ancient usage of the Church.” Alessandro Moreschi was the last castrato to sing in the Sistine Chapel choir.

The last enuched Man in China spills sex secrets

Many castrated men lived to their 90's or older. The last castrated (also known as enuched) man died in 1996 at the age of 94 years old. The article was published online to be accessed at . According to this interestingly article:

China’s last eunuch was tormented and impoverished in youth, punished in revolutionary China for his role as the “Emperor’s slave” but finally feted and valued, largely for outlasting his peers to become a unique relic, a piece of “living history.”

He had stories of the tortuous rituals of the Forbidden City, Emperor Pu Yi’s last moments there and the troubled puppet court run by the Japanese during the 1930s. He escaped back to the heart of a civil war, became a Communist official and then a target of radical leftists before being finally left in peace.

This turbulent life has been recorded in the “The Last Eunuch of China” by amateur historian Jia Yinghua, who over years of friendship drew out of Sun the secrets that were too painful or intimate to spill to prying journalists or state archivists. He died in 1996, in an old temple that had become his home, and his biography was finally published in English this year. It unveils formerly taboo subjects like the sex life of eunuchs and the emperor they served, the agonizing castrations often done at home and also often lethal, and the incontinence and shame that came with the promise of great power.

“He was conflicted over whether to tell the secrets of the emperor,” said Jia, adding that Sun preserved a loyalty to the old system because he had dedicated so much of his life to it.

“I was the only person he trusted. He did not even confide in his family, after they threw away his ‘treasure,’” Jia added, using traditional eunuchs’ slang for their preserved genitals.

They were discarded during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when having anything from the “old society” could put lives at risk.

“He only cried about two things; when telling me about the castration and about the loss of his ‘treasure’,” said Jia, who works as an energy bureaucrat, but devotes all his spare time to chronicling the dying days of Imperial China after a childhood enthralled by the eunuchs and princes who were his neighbors.

Over years of painstaking research, he has gleaned arcane details about every aspect of palace life, along with secrets about the emperor’s sexuality and cruelty that would look at home on the front page of tabloid newspapers.

For centuries in China, the only men from outside the imperial family who were allowed into the Forbidden City’s private quarters were castrated ones. They effectively swapped their reproductive organs for a hope of exclusive access to the emperor that made some into rich and influential politicians.

Sun’s impoverished family set him on this painful, risky path in hopes that he might one day be able to crush a bullying village landlord who stole their fields and burned their house.

His desperate father performed the castration on the bed of their mud-walled home, with no anesthetic and only oil-soaked paper as a bandage. A goose quill was inserted in Sun’s urethra to prevent it getting blocked as the wound healed.

He was unconscious for three days and could barely move for two months. When he finally rose from his bed, history played the first of a series of cruel tricks on him — he discovered the emperor he hoped to serve had abdicated several weeks earlier.

“He had a very tragic life. He had thought it was worthwhile for his father, but the sacrifice was in vain,” Jia said, in a house stacked with old books, newspapers and photos.

“He was very smart and shrewd. If the empire had not fallen there is a high chance he would have become powerful,” Jia added.

The young ex-emperor was eventually allowed to stay in the palace and Sun had risen to become an attendant to the empress when the imperial family were unceremoniously booted out of the Forbidden City, ending centuries of tradition and Sun’s dreams.

“He was castrated, then the emperor abdicated. He made it into the Forbidden City then Pu Yi was evicted. He followed him north and then the puppet regime collapsed. He felt life had played a joke at his expense,” Jia said.

Many eunuchs fled with palace treasures, but Sun took a crop of memories and a nose for political survival that turned out to be better tools for surviving years of civil war and ideological turbulence that followed. “He never became rich, he never became powerful, but he became very rich in experience and secrets,” Jia said.

So, based on my clinical experience and some knowledge of the history of castration, men on ADT for prostate cancer should not fear of dying prematurely due to ADT. But eating clean, weight resistance exercise, and specific supplementation is a cornerstone to staying well while on hormone therapy.

NB : all my articles are for informational purposes and not to be use as a substitute for medical advice. Always discuss your treatment with your Healthcare practitioners.

Dr. Raphael Nyarkotey Obu, PhD, Is an honorary Professor of Naturopathic Medicine with research interest in Naturopathic & Holistic Urology, Vinnytsia State Pedagogical University, Ukraine. He is the president of Nyarkotey College of Holistic Medicine, Tema Community 7, Post office, Formulated of FDA approved Men’s Formula for Prostate Health, Women’s Formula for wellness & Nyarkotey Tea for cardiovascular Health. 0241083423

ModernGhana Links

Join our Newsletter