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The Castrati Were Music’s Original Sex Gods

Nothing was more baller in 19th century European courts than a ball-less male opera singer

April is Testicular Cancer Awareness Month, and we’re grabbing it right by the balls. Every day for the entire month, we will be publishing a new story aimed at getting men to better consider — and cherish — their family jewels in hopes of helping prevent a diagnosis that, if caught early enough, shouldn’t prove fatal. Read everything here.

From the mid-17th to early 19th century, Europe’s hottest male sex symbols were castrated opera singers. Despite being rendered ball-less as boys, the castrati singers of small towns and villages in Italy were revered across Europe — both for their angelic voices and as instruments to satisfy female desire

For some, the sound of the castrati’s uniquely operatic voices inspired ecstatic pleasure, and many opera groupies were willing to risk everything to be ravished by a eunuch. Courtesans and other members of the European aristocracy who lusted after the irresistible singers even shared a saying: “Long live the knife, the blessed knife!” Essentially, castrati were their era’s Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison and Robert Plant — not as singers, but as sex symbols.

From British newspaper The Morning Chronicle, 1824

Many may assume that the loss of testosterone-producing glands after castration correlates to a loss of sexual vigor. But the body isn’t such a simple machine — and arousal begins in the brain, not the balls. Which means, a long as a human has a brain, sexual arousal isn’t only possible, but highly likely. The same held true for the castrati. Once snipped, they could still maintain full erections — they just didn’t shoot any loads.

Giovanni Francesco Grossi, also known in the opera game as Siface, appeared as an erotic carnival character in the courts of Europe — both as a profound castrato singer and skilled women-pleaser. The Casanova-sans-testicles and his sexual escapades were whispered about with breathless excitement, especially after the opera singer was rumored to have had an affair with Countess Elena Forni of Bologna. This, of course, was unacceptable to Countess Forni’s family, who took her out of the city and attempted to hide her away at a convent. But her lothario was undaunted. Siface found out where his forbidden lover was stashed, and it’s said he literally sang his way into the convent, charming the nuns to open the doors.

Meanwhile, when he was a boy, the future Italian composer Gioachino Antonio Rossini was nearly castrated. Sometime around 1800, his uncle told his parents that their son should give up his nuts for the good of the family. His uncle was a barber — the workers of the villages typically tasked with making boys into eunuchs to supply the church and opera houses with castrati — and if the family procured a famous castrato for a son, they could benefit. 

As Rossini once told the story of his near-castration: “I came within a hair’s breath of belonging to that famous corporation — or rather let us say de-corporation. As a child, I had a lovely voice and my parents used it to have me earn a few paoli by singing in churches. One uncle of mine, a barber by trade, had convinced my father of the opportunity that he had seen, the breaking of my voice should not be allowed to compromise an organ which — poor as we were, and as I had shown some predisposition towards music — could have become an assured future source of income for us all. Most of the castrati in fact, and in particular those dedicated to a theatrical career, lived in opulence.”

If the testicles were snipped at the right time, a boy’s voice would sound not only feminine, but it could reach beyond typical human limits. After a boy with a talent for singing was taken from his family — or perhaps snatched or sold — he would be brought to a barber like Rossini’s uncle or a surgeon of the court, where he’d be plied with enough opium to put down an adult. Next, while the child was under, his scrotum would be pinched, vesicles and tubules cut and the two nuts squeezed out. 

Too often, though, the boy would die — not from the effects of the knife or infection, but from an opium overdose. Thus, the safer “hot tongs technique” became preferred. The metal pincers would be fire-heated to a bright glow, hot enough to cauterize a wound. Then, as the boy was sodden with wine, the fire-heated metal would tweeze off the entire scrotum with a single searing, steaming, smoking tug. When the boy awoke, he would have a surgically sealed wound where his balls used to be. From there, he’d be trained to express his soul with a heaven-sent voice that would never change. 

The castrati craze actually began in the 1500s when Spain and France started to supply the Turkish courts with castrati. But in 1589, Pope Sixtus V changed church doctrine with a papal bull that allowed castrati singers to be accepted into the Vatican choir. He apparently loved the sound of a testicle-snipped boy’s voice. Either that, or he really didn’t want to hear women’s voices. Along those lines, in 1599, Pope Clement VIII claimed that St. Paul would agree with him that the Vatican should “let women be silent in the churches.” As such, the Italians took over the world’s castrati-making industry and created the infrastructure for a century-long run for eunuchs, buoyed in large part by the rise of opera across Europe.

“Within a century of the start of this phenomenal practice, castrati became the best known Italian commodity export on the continent,” Valeria Finucci writes of this strange time in human history, which, at its height, saw roughly 4,000 Italian boys go under the knife each year. 

The eunuchs who chose the opera house over the church were kept like house cats and fattened up by owners who spoiled them. They enjoyed the decadence and opulence of the Age of Exploration, when European courts were regularly dazzled by stolen wealth and far-flung booty from around the globe. Hyper-sexualized eunuchs fit with the zeitgeist. 

This, of course, couldn’t last. 

By the early 1800s, as the Romantics seized the culture with their ardent love of love, the castrati fell out of favor. The composer Rossini, who was nearly rendered a eunuch to protect his voice, wrote just a single opera — Aureliano in Palmira (it was composed to feature a castrato singer). And by 1824, Richard Wagner decided against writing a role for a castrato in his final opera, Parsifal.

Still, it’s not hard to understand why so many lusted after the castrati for so long: A eunuch lover could give them a taste of heaven with the sound of their voice, and a bite of hell with a forbidden affair, all while never compromising a woman’s earthly virtue with the risk of an unwanted child. As sex symbols, they were otherworldly. And as men, they had the goods to match the desire projected onto them. Their ball-lessness was the ultimate mojo.