There are different traditions concerning why Giovanni Velluti was castrated as a young boy. Born in Montolmo, Italy in 1780, his father had planned a military career for him but this plan changed abruptly when Giovanni developed a high fever. According to the most common legend, his parents had taken him to a local surgeon for treatment and the surgeon, mistaking the parents` intentions, castrated Giovanni instead. That marked the end of any military career for the boy and he was sent to be trained as a singer.
Castration in boys between the ages of seven and twelve prevents the larynx from undergoing the normal physiological changes associated with puberty and enables boy sopranos to keep their large vocal range throughout their lives. While some testosterone continues to be produced by the adrenal glands, the reduced sex hormone levels in their bodies results in other physical changes including lack of facial hair, physical tallness, smooth skin, rounding of the hips and a high speaking voice. The very term "castrato" or "eunuch" was often considered offensive and words such as "musico" or "virtuoso" were preferred (political correctness has a long history).
While castrati have been around since ancient times, the use of castrated boys as Church singers was first introduced in 16th century Spain. Women were not allowed to sing in choirs (due to one of St. Paul's teachings requiring women to be silent in church) and castrati seemed ideal for falsetto roles. The angelic quality of their voices caused this innovation to spread across many European countries but it was in Italy where the tradition of the castrato singer took root. By all accounts, the purity of their voices combined the awesome vocal quality of boy sopranos with the lung capacity of adult men. The spread of opera across the continent made castrati widely sought after as singers and they often became the superstars of their day.
Despite the fact that castrations for non-medical purposes had become illegal by Giovanni`s time, there were still doctors (and even barbers) across Italy who practiced the operation discreetly. The castrations would then be explained away as being due to congenital problems or "accidents". While the primitive nature of the surgery meant that many boys died of blood loss or infection, most survived to continue their musical careers. It may never be known many boys were castrated over the years but some estimates suggest that there were thousands.
The competition among castrati was fierce and only the greatest singers were allowed to become opera stars. For the rest, there were the church choirs and the modest living that these positions provided. Many poor Italian families found that having one son castrated meant an opportunity for the entire family to have a better life as a result. Church doctrine banned castrati from marrying or taking holy orders and their lives tended to be focused exclusively on their music and providing for their families.
Giovanni Velluti is widely considered to be the last great castrato opera singer. While the popularity of castrati as singers and the sponsorship of the Catholic church ensured a steady market for centuries, this era came to an end during Velluti's lifetime. He mesmerized audiences across Europe and many operatic roles were written just for him. Although he was a prima donna by nature with singers and music directors often finding it impossible to work with him, Velluti was in a position to demand (and get) special treatment. He made his London debut in 1825 despite growing English opposition to castrato singers. As the first castrato to sing opera in England in twenty-five years, he certainly had his share of fans and critics. Velluti even became music director for a season but financial problems and poor reviews caused him to leave England. By 1830, he had retired from stage and became a gentleman farmer until his death in 1861.
Aside from his musical career, Velluti became legendary for his flamboyant clothes. feminine good looks, and romantic escapades with numerous women in high society. Contrary to popular belief, castrati are not sexless. If anything, many castrati are said to be able to hold an erection longer than an uncastrated male due to lack of ejaculatory tension. Women often saw Velluti as an ideal lover since there was no pregnancy risk (plus husbands seemed incapable of believing that a castrato could be romancing their wives).
After Velluti's retirement, there were no more roles for castrati in opera and, with a Papal declaration condemning the practice in 1878, few choir roles were available either. Despite official church doctrine, it was only in 1913 when Alessandro Moreschi, the last Vatican castrato, was removed from the Sistine choir. He made two gramophone recordings in 1902 and 1904 which are the only ones of its kind in existence. Even given the poor sound quality, Moreschi's voice evokes an earlier era although he was well past his prime by the time the recordings were made. It was his very public funeral in 1922 that truly marked the end of the castrato age.
While countertenors and falsettos are often used in opera to simulate the castrato effect and androgynous singers continue to have musical careers today, we can only imagine how it must have been during the long period when castrati reigned supreme as singers. It is hard to believe that sexual mutilation of young boys could have been allowed for so long but, like many other examples of similar practices, maybe it just seemed like a good idea at the time.