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Orchestration... Or Castration?

The controversial decision to uncover the remains of the famous 18th-century castrato Farinelli in Bologna may or may not prove insightful for music historians ... while an exhibition on castrati in London illuminates this exclusive profession for the wider public.

On July 12th this year, the remains of the legendary castrato Farinelli (Carlo Broschi 1705-82) were disinterred in La Certosa, the main cemetery in Bologna, Italy. In moderate condition, Farinelli’s remains were reported at first sight as confirming that the singer had been a tall, sturdy man. The bones of the great castrato are to be examined further to discover more about the physical shape of the castrati, their lifes­tyles and the changes brought about by a combination of the operation performed on them at an early age and their intensive voice training schedule.

The practice, in part a reaction to Catholicism’s traditional ban on females singing in church, began in the sixteenth century and reached its peak in seven­teenth- and eighteenth-century Italian opera, in which the male heroic lead would usually be written for a castrato singer. When such operas are performed today, a woman or counter-tenor takes these roles. In 1870 the practice of castrating pro­mising young singers was outlawed in Italy, the last country where it was still customary.

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