Humans used to castrate other humans for the sake of ART! There’s a lot to unpack, and Dr. Sophia Tegart and mezzo soprano Aleks Romano help to do it.

Aleks Romano can be found on Facebook at: Aleks Romano, mezzo soprano
And on Instagram at: arommezzo

This is our finale for the first set! But stay tuned next week – there will be a preview of what to expect with the next five episodes as well as how to support the show AND get access to incredible bonus content. 

Stay safe and stay weird!


Casey Bozell : 0:00

This episode of keep classical weird makes many references to a surgical procedure that is performed on the male anatomy. Just in case you have young ears nearby who wonder what some of these words mean. Today on keep classical weird, we get into one of the most bizarre, grotesque and curious things that humans have done to other humans for the sake of art. Have you heard of the term castrati? Joe Marfia : 0:34

I have not. Casey Bozell : 0:35

What if I told you it’s something to do with opera singers?Joe Marfia : 0:45

I don’t know.Casey Bozell : 0:46

Okay. Do you think castrati sounds like any sort of word in the English language?Joe Marfia : 0:50

It does. Casey Bozell : 0:51

What does it sound like?Joe Marfia : 0:52

It sounds like castration.Casey Bozell : 0:53

That’s right. Welcome friends to Episode Five of keep classical weird. I am your host Casey Bozell, and today we’re exploring the world of the castrati. Now, if the mention of this word has made you as wiggly and uncomfortable as it made my friend Joe in the last clip, congratulations, you have joined the rest of us. The idea of surgical sterilization in order to enhance vocal prowess seems like an awkward one to navigate. Our friend Dr. Sophia Tegart confirmed that suspicion for me.Sophia Tegart : 1:37

This is my least favorite topic to talk about with my students. Because, well, it’s just so awkward. Those poor students are sitting there listening, listening to me, you know, and then all of a sudden I start talking about castration and so it’s just – bam! Okay, anyway, castrati. Essentially, these were boys Who were castrated before they hit puberty, generally around the age of 10 but as late as age 12 and they would go into the church choirs, and sing as choir boys for the most part. study music, study singing and a few lucky castrati would be able to make a name for themselves on the stage in opera and travel around Europe, and they were a very popular vocal type and a singing type that lasted for way longer than I thought they would.Casey Bozell : 2:45

castration has been used as a form of control and subjugation since early recorded history. But the castrati first appeared in a musical capacity in Italy in the mid 1500s, shortly before the first opera took place, and the practice lasted for centuries, it was not officially outlawed everywhere until 1870. castrating a boy before he hits puberty will generally stop his voice from dropping, meaning that they could take on roles written in the upper registers of opera. But it wasn’t just the ability to hit the high notes. There were several physiological side effects on these men that combined together to help them become operatic superstars.Sophia Tegart : 3:26

That vocal quality was just incredibly unique, physical result of being castrated when they were 10 allowed larger rib cages. They grew very tall, and they were quite lean. And what happened was their voice was incredibly agile. And so, at a time when opera was becoming really popular, and especially when it went public, when opera went public, they had to rely on, you know, their, their stars to bring in the numbers, right? So in order to get a big audience, you had to bring in the big names and for a while or outside of Rome, like in Venice and other cities, it was always the sopranos, you know, they were they were paid six times as much as the composers who are writing the opera. So it was all about the stars that they had on the stage. And so what I what I assume is, although the sopranos were, you know, amazing voices and what have you, I think as opera became more and more popular and it spread across Europe, then, you know, be faster, louder and better just kept getting, you know, more expanded.Casey Bozell : 4:50

castration provided the opportunity for these bodies to become singing machines. their abilities became an operatic composers dream. Humanity had come very close to figuring out a way to design an opera singer. One of the last surviving castrati, Alessandro Moreschi made a series of recordings and was the only castrato. To do so. He was older and had less facility of his voice by this time, and the recording quality being in the early 20th century left something to be desired. But this recording of him singing Ave Maria still gives us a glimpse into the unique sound these men were able to produceAleks Romano : 6:29

The phrases and castrato roles are like incredibly long. So like when little old me goes to sing some long, very famous castrato aria, I’m like, why is this phrase so long? Like there’s nowhere to breathe.Casey Bozell : 6:46

This is mezzo soprano Alex Romano. The practice of unnecessary castration has ended. But the opera roles that were written for the castrati are of course still sung today. Sometimes you’ll see them performed with men. Who have excellent facility of their high voice, but they’re often performed by women like Aleks with a similar vocal range to the castrati.Aleks Romano : 7:07

In a lot of the cases of the most famous castrato singers. The vocal floridity is incredible. So like Carlo Grossi, who’s the Farinelli, like the very famous there’s a movie about him, you know, he’s he’s referenced a lot of sort of more pop circles. His music in particular has these crazy, like two octave jumps and like, you know, crazy florid passages traveling over multiple registers, and you just kind of sign on for the that virtuosity.Casey Bozell : 7:40

There are several categories of operatic voice and for context, I thought it would be most helpful to have them quickly defined. So here comes Aleks with a huge amount of informationAleks Romano : 7:50

for the most part. opera singers quote unquote opera singers, singers and classical musicians function with five I would say five major voice parts. So we have soprano, which is functionally the highest voice part, mezzo soprano, which is like a mid level female voice. Then we have countertenor, which is a male voice that sings in a mezzo soprano register. So a super high register. Baritone, which is like a – Oh, I skipped tenors! Oh, they’ll be so mad! So under countertenor is tenors who are the most important member of the vocal family, really because they sing all of the most famous arias because they’re the most incredible musician athletes. So you have tenors, and then baritones, and then basses at the bottom of the register, and then each of those has like select gradients, which talks about sort of how florid your music is how many notes you sing in a particular phrase. So like for myself, I’m categorized as a lyric mezzo soprano, which means I sing things like Rossini, that requires a lot of notes and it requires me to like use my whole range and my voice is of a medium weight. So that’s kind of you know, there are certain vocal characteristics that lend themselves to where you fall. For the most part, I would say sex generally delineates some vocal characteristics. But they’re the deciding factor is really a balance of comfortable range, which we call tessitura, and then timbre of the voice like what I what I’ve been calling vocal weight.Casey Bozell : 9:39

Alex’s song major mezzo soprano roles specifically written for women, but her vocal category also means that she sings castrati roles. And there’s one more gender bending definition to include here. There are characters and Opera that are known as pants roles.Aleks Romano : 9:55

The pants role is typically written for a female voice and was intended on stage to be a woman playing a man. Whereas in our modern age, women have started to play castrato roles because of the like, as I said, the tessitura, that comfortable range, isn’t typical of most tenors and baritones. There are a couple of theories as to why there was this adoption of women playing a man on stage. Kind of like, you know, the Shakespeare tradition of men playing every character regardless of of gender. But the theories are that young boys most most of these roles are young boys, so a character like Carobino in The Marriage of Figaro is the page and so he’s like, 14, and it’s maybe his voice hasn’t changed yet. And so he can be played by a woman because it’s going to be a higher voice anyway. But then there’s another sort of like more, I guess. second wave feminism theory, that is really about the power dynamics on stage. And the idea that Carobino and say Octavian in Strauss’s der Rosenkavalier, these are two young men who most of their interactions on stage are with women. And to that end, like a lot of the plot twists and their sort of actions are dependent on a woman influencing them. And so in order for the audience to believe that it couldn’t be a man on stage, right? In order for the audience, this is one of those like very subversive ideas that have subversively sort of sexist ideas. In order for an audience to believe that a woman could have power over a man, that man had to be functionally a woman.Casey Bozell : 11:55

What is the experience like when you are preparing for an operatic role for a character whose gender does not match your own?Aleks Romano : 12:06

Yeah, yeah, I mean, for me, I’m a big nerd. And so I love source material and I love digging into the psychology of a character. That’s my favorite thing. So, when it comes to portraying a character whose gender does not sort of match my own, I really make an effort to actually my my inroad is literature. And so I read a ton of memoir specifically for this purpose because I want to know what the articulated psychology is of a person in this position. So I then there’s a ton of memoir, thankfully, like this is a this is a rebirth genre that I have taken full advantage of. Because it means that I have access to anything from, you know, a woman going through a particular experience to a man going to a particular experience through, you know, a trans journey through a particular experience, you know. All of those things are articulated and available in a way that they haven’t ever been before. And so that has really been my inroad is literature and, and reading memoir and delving into the psychology of a character. Beyond that, you know, my training training was hard for pants roles, because often the fix this is gonna sound terrible, and I’m, I apologize to everyone who told me to do this in advance, but literally the advice was, stick a sock in your pants and walk around for a little while. Right?Casey Bozell : 13:51

Is that effective?Aleks Romano : 13:53

I mean, I don’t know what it would be doing. It doesn’t actually change my thoughts about anything. You know, like Okay, so and it goes back to that question of like, what are the physical attributes of gender? Is it really just the way that I walk? Is that the most important thing about gender? I mean, I disagree. But um, and so that tool didn’t particularly work for me. In The Marriage of Figaro, there’s a scene where Carabino has to dress up like a woman. And so, but he’s already a woman. Right? So we’re in this like, 12th night space. And as a woman playing a man who’s dressing up as a woman, you know, we’re in this like, crazy Twilight Zone of like, what is gender? Right and what are the markers like what are the what are the tells, you know, of gender and how do we communicate them which to a modern audience is super interesting because like, we have totally different perceptions about what that actually meansCasey Bozell : 15:01

singers like Alks are constantly navigating the boundaries of gender, artistic integrity and refining their craft. The practice of castrati has made her job description much more complicated than one would expect. I had a wonderful conversation with Aleks where we delved even deeper into the subject. I’ll let you know next week where you can access this extended interview. One of the big questions we haven’t yet tackled is why? We know the outcome for this procedure was sometimes a lucrative career. But what is the initial motivation behind signing up for this?Sophia Tegart : 15:38

This was often a wave for maybe sons in a family a like if a family had a multiple sons, right? Usually the first son would get all the money and then the rest had to make a career for themselves of some sort. And so the younger son would often You know, look for different means. But really at a time when opera was becoming really popular in the 17th century, castrati were becoming more well known towards the 18th century. This was a good way to not totally ensure that their sons would have a career. But it certainly opened up a lot of opportunities. Because castrati, if they were famous and well known, would be able to move through the upper echelon of society really easily. And they were when they maybe got to a point where they couldn’t sing anymore. A lot of them transitioned into roles as ambassadors from certain courts. So I mean, it was it was not just a musical decision. It was a career future and societal decision. In Rome, women were banned from the stage they couldn’t perform music in public. So if you had an opera that was a love story, you’re gonna have to have a castrati singing the female role. So I think that that is another reason why that took off.Casey Bozell : 17:13

Women were not only banned but so banned, that, that the choice the preferable choice was genital mutilation, right? I mean, that’s, that’s what people chose over writing roles for women. Sophia Tegart : 17:33

I like to think of it more as those men were so willing to sacrifice their manhood to save women the embarrassment of being on stage and being oggled by a male view.Casey Bozell : 17:50

So they weren’t so that was the ultimate form of chivalry is what you’re talking about.Sophia Tegart : 17:54

Really. I really think that’s that’s what it was. Except for it wasn’t. It was definitely oppression.Casey Bozell : 18:04

And that’s our show. Many thanks to our guest Dr. Sophia Tagert at Washington State University and mezzo soprano Aleks Romano. You can find Aleks on Facebook at Aleks Romano mezzo soprano Aleks is spelled a-l-e-k-s and on Instagram at arommezzo. Those will also be up on our show page at Our theme music you’re hearing is by the always fabulous Thomas barber check him out at Web development support is provided by Tina at Keep classical weird is created and edited by me Casey Bozell, find us on Facebook and Instagram. This episode wraps up our first set of shows next week we’ll have a trailer episode available for the next set. So keep tuning in. Thanks so much for listening everyone. Stay safe and stay weird.