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Alfred Deller: Celebrating A High-Flying Singer

Countertenor Alfred Deller, c. 1960.
Erich Auerbach
Getty Images
Countertenor Alfred Deller, c. 1960.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of pioneering singer Alfred Deller. Unless you're an early music devotee, his name might not be familiar. But it's not to too much to say that Deller almost single-handedly resurrected a voice type, the countertenor, which had faded from popularity since Handel's days and vanished completely outside of church choirs (before the arrival of falsetto in doo-wop and Motown).

Born in the English seaside town of Kent, Deller grew up singing in his local church choir before joining the choirs of Canterbury and St. Paul's Cathedrals. Composer Michael Tippett said that when he heard Deller sing at Canterbury, he experienced the sensation of "the centuries rolling back." By the late 1940s, Deller had appeared on the BBC and was starting to record treasures like the songs of John Dowland and Henry Purcell.

In 1948, he formed his own Deller Consort — one of the first groups dedicated to the idea of historically informed performance of early and Baroque music. But his work was not restricted to pre-1750 material: Benjamin Britten wrote the role of Oberon in his opera A Midsummer Night's Dream specifically for Deller. Though he died in 1979, even today's countertenors, including superstars like Andreas Scholl, still cite him as a primary influence on their own work.

Though there aren't many videos of Deller available, here are a few performances to whet your appetite.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a correspondent on NPR's Culture desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including the trial and conviction of former R&B superstar R. Kelly; backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; and gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards.