Researchers exhume opera singer’s skeleton, finds castration and constant practise caused massive changes
London, June 29: Up until the end of the 1800s, a gruesome practice was performed on male opera singers to preserve their mezzo-soprano voices. Singers were castrated before reaching puberty, allowing their young voices to carry on through adulthood.
It may be no surprise that castration at an early age altered their bodily development, but according to a new study on the skeleton of 19th century ‘extensive soprano’ Gaspare Pacchierotti, singing itself had physical effects as well.
Researchers from the University of Padua in Italy exhumed the body of Pacchierotti to understand more about these singers, known as ‘castrati.’ The remains were taken to the laboratory in the Museum of Pathological Anatomy at the university, where CT scans and X-rays were conducted on the bones.
Until now, only one other castrato skeleton has ever been examined – a singer named Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi, who went by the stage name Farinelli. The castrati were often much taller than their unaltered peers, researchers explain in a paper published today in Scientific Reports.
Pacchierotti stood more than six feet tall. ‘Castrato were unusually tall, with a large barrel-shaped chest, infantile larynx, long, spindly legs,’ the authors wrote.
‘Pacchierotti’s bones confirmed these characteristics, in particular the height, that was estimated measuring femurs, tibiae, and humeri length and gave a value of around 191cm.’
he analysis showed the presence of epiphyseal lines on Pacchierotti’s iliac crests, which are typically fused at 23 years old and disappear by the time a man is older than 35.
CT scans revealed vertebral fractures and a decrease in bone density, and researchers say the hormonal effects of castration led these singers to develop osteoporosis and disorders of the spine.
But, the singer’s skeletal anomalies weren’t only attributed to castration.
‘Pacchierotti’s cervical vertebrae were all strongly eroded with signs of osteophytic lipping in the body, because of osteoporosis and of continuous movements of head and neck during singing exercises,’ they wrote.
‘These conditions can be considered as an occupational marker for the singers, as it was confirmed by the Pacchierotti’s vertebral conditions.
‘These findings are very significant, because it is the first time that they can be observed in the remains of a castrato.’
They also found other ‘changes in his body and bones,’ including modifications in the insertion of three respiratory muscles, which work to elevate certain ribs and assist in breathing.
Along with this, the analysis revealed markings on the scapulae that indicate Pacchierotti used his arms frequently during performances.
The analysis of Pacchiarotti’s bones confirmed the singer practiced a particular posture to optimize his voice.
This posture, with the back of the neck elongated to avoid tilting, lifting, or stretching of the voice box and the extension or lifting of the jaw, ultimately led to the erosion of his cervical vertebrae.
The results provide a unique look at the little-examined development of the castrati, and help to reveal some of the ‘secrets behind [Pacchierotti’s] sublime voice.’
Despite his castration and bone conditions, the researchers say the famous singer, who died at the age of 81, still ‘had many amorous relationships during his life.’