“Who Can Resist a Man Who Sings Like a Woman?,” an interesting piece by Fernanda Eberstadt:
The countertenor is a 20th-century phenomenon, the approximation of an art that has luckily been lost to us. Much of the sacred music and opera roles sung today by Jaroussky or by mezzo-sopranos like Cecilia Bartoli were originally composed for Farinelli and his peers — male singers who were castrated before they reached puberty in order to preserve their high, pure voices. This act of oversophisticated barbarism, supposedly a response to St. Paul’s edict in the Corinthians (mulier taceat in ecclesia, “women should be silent in church”), kept the papal choirs and ducal courts of Europe supplied with sopranos for their Vivaldi oratorios. By the 17th-century, when public decency laws forbade women to appear onstage in the papal states, castrati were moving into the recently invented art of opera, playing male and occasionally female roles, much as boys did on the Elizabethan stage. By the 18th century, a large percentage of male opera singers were castrati.