The sopranist, i.e. an adult male singer in the range of a soprano, was very popular during the Baroque and Classical era, when castrati sang in the opera in whole Europe. The "primo uomo" was the hero on the stage and his excellent technique was frequently much more important than the synopsis of the opera. The most famous castrato was Carlo Broschi, called "Farinelli". In the 19th century the art of the castrati fell more and more into oblivion, and the last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, died in 1922. Their predecessors were the famous Spanish Falsettists in the cathedrals in the 16th century.
At the time of Moreschi's death, the revival of the Baroque opera began in Germany. The performances had, however, become completely different: the castrato parts were transposed and sung by baritones and basses, only sometimes by women in the original range. In the early 50s Alfred Deller began to perform as a solo countertenor. This pratice of falsetto singing had survived in the English Cathedral choirs, but the solo countertenor voice, although having a great tradition, was forgotten. The usual performance practice since then has been that countertenors sing the alto parts whereas women sing the soprano parts. The education of these singers, however, goes back to the 19th century, quite different from that of the virtuoso of the Baroque era.
Another milestone was achieved in the 80s when Aris Christofellis began to perform the castrato rôles in the original soprano range. The combination of an extraordinary high voice and a breathtaking virtuosity allowed for the first time since Farinelli's days to perform Baroque operas with a true "primo uomo". It shall, however, not be withheld that even the sopranists of our days are still different from a castrato and some aspects may be better represented by a woman.
The majority of the singers mentioned here are falsettists like Alfred Deller, but either they developed special techniques to extent their ranges or they are just tenors whose falsetto range goes beyond the alto range. This page also includes singers with unusual high voices even if they do not sing in the soprano range. One case are extremely high tenors, also called tenor altino or simply male alto. Examples are Russell Oberlin (who employed the term countertenor for his voice type) and Rodrigo del Pozo who don't use their falsetto register. Another example is the very rare case of a so-called endocrinological castrato (cf. Kallmann's syndrome), where an hormonal disorder prevents the voice from breaking. Paulo Abel do Nascimento, an alto, and Jimmy Scott, a high tenor as well as the sopranist Radu Marian are such singers.
In our days the composers like Alfred Schnittke, Thomas Bloch, Helmut Oehring or Peter Eötvös even wrote pieces especially for sopranists. Usually, they cannot be performed by "normal" countertenors or female singers. But how did the famous castrati sound? We cannot answer this question. The castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, was the only one whose voice was recorded. Unfortunately, his performances are by far away from that of those singers who once inspired the whole of Europe, but their renaissance has begun, at least a little bit.