A castrato (Italian, plural: castrati) is a man with a singing voice equivalent to that of a soprano, mezzo-soprano, or contralto voice produced either by castration of the singer before puberty or one who, because of 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 Italy 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, as well as higher vocal ranges of the uncastrated adult male. To prevent the child from experiencing the intense pain of castration, many were inadvertently administered lethal doses of opium or some other narcotic, or were killed by overlong compression of the carotid artery in the neck (intended to render them unconscious during the castration procedure).
The training of the boys was rigorous. The regime of one singing school in Rome (c. 1700) consisted of one hour of singing difficult and awkward pieces, one hour practicing trills, one hour practicing ornamented passaggi, one hour of singing exercises in their teacher's presence and in front of a mirror so as to avoid unnecessary movement of the body or facial grimaces, and one hour of literary study; all this, moreover, before lunch. After, half-an-hour would be devoted to musical theory, another to writing counterpoint, an hour copying down the same from dictation, and another hour of literary study. During the remainder of the day, the young castrati had to find time to practice their harpsichord playing, and to compose vocal music, either sacred or secular depending on their inclination. This demanding schedule meant that, if sufficiently talented, they were able to make a debut in their mid-teens with a perfect technique and a voice of a flexibility and power no woman or ordinary male singer could match.
In the 1720s and 1730s, at the height of the craze for these voices, it has been estimated that upwards of 4,000 boys were castrated annually in the service of art. Many came from poor homes and were castrated by their parents in the hope that their child might be successful and lift them from poverty. There are, though, records of some young boys asking to be operated on to preserve their voices