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The High, Heavenly Voice Of David Daniels

By NPR Staff | NPR
Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"You very quickly forget whether it's a male voice or a female voice. ... Because he's such a terrific musician, and so expressive, the fact that it's a man singing in a woman's range becomes irrelevant, and what we hear is the music."

That's how Morning Edition music commentator Miles Hoffman describes the voice of David Daniels, one of the world's most celebrated countertenors. Most simply defined as a "male alto," a countertenor is a male vocalist who sings in a range that is — at least in modern times — ordinarily associated with women.

This weekend, Daniels will put that impressive voice to work in an opera written especially for him: Theodore Morrison's Oscar, based on the writer and wit Oscar Wilde, premieres Saturday at the Santa Fe Opera, with Daniels in the title role. Click the audio link for more on the history of countertenors, and read on for three examples of Daniels' voice in action — including a sneak preview of Oscar, recorded during this week's dress rehearsals.

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Handel: 'Va Tacito' (From 'Julius Caesar')

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This Handel recital, recorded in 1998, was a breakthrough album for David Daniels. It shows off the complete voice. From Handel's slowly unfolding laments, suffused with agony and eloquence, to hard-driving, highflying arias of outrage, splashed with a fireworks display of notes, Daniels is robust, rounded and confident throughout the registers.

Schubert: 'Nacht Und Träume'

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Here, David Daniels busts another countertenor myth. For so long, countertenors feasted principally on early music, with baroque arias and Elizabethan songs as staples. But Daniels approaches his concerts and recordings as would any other singer, making smart choices in repertoire that ranges from German lieder (like this gorgeous performance of Schubert) to 20th century songs.

Morrison: 'My Sweet Rose' (From 'Oscar')

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Thanks to Philip Glass' Akhnaten, in 1983, the idea that an opera could star a countertenor no longer sounds crazy. The highly anticipated Oscar, by composer Theodore Morrison, receives its world premiere July 27 at the Santa Fe Opera. Daniels played a huge role in getting Oscar to the stage: He backed the project from its birth, even funded a demo recording, and shopped for the right company to premiere it. Judging from this dress rehearsal excerpt, Daniels will have some gorgeous music to sing.

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