Allister, Jean Maria (1932–2012), contralto singer, was born on 26 February 1932 in Ballymoney, Co. Antrim, the first child of Samuel Allister, a driver and salesman, and his wife Margaret (née Hill). She had a younger brother. At first the family lived in Margaret Avenue in the town, and later in the townland of Lislagan, just outside. The area round Ballymoney provided many opportunities for a musically talented youngster, and Jean was encouraged by her local clergyman and the church organist. From her early teens, she was a soloist in church services and local concerts. The musician and broadcaster Havelock Nelson (qv) heard her singing in a concert in her school, Dalriada, recognised her ability, and arranged for her to become a regular performer on BBC Children's hour programmes. During the late 1940s she won prizes in several music festivals in Northern Ireland. In 1950, probably one of the few northerners competing, she won a silver medal in the Dublin feis ceoil, and the next year won gold.
An attractive and vivacious woman, Jean had a commanding stage presence. Her strong, warm-toned and vibrant mezzo-soprano or contralto voice, confident and expressive throughout her vocal range, quickly marked her out as star quality. She had planned to become a schoolteacher, but in 1951 won a three-year scholarship for free tuition in the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) in London. In 1954 she was accorded an enthusiastic review for her performance in 'Elijah' in the Royal Festival Hall, London, and thereafter was seldom long away from the stage. In December 1954 she was awarded the Robertshaw exhibition for best contralto of the year in the RAM, and studied for another year under a very well-known teacher, Norman Allin. Her growing reputation was noted in Northern Ireland; in 1955, rather unusually, Antrim County education committee announced publicly that they were proud to be awarding her a grant to provide extra support for her studies. She became a fellow of the RAM in 1968.
Noted as a versatile performer, Allister was equally at home in religious oratorios, concerts, light opera, early music recitals, and particularly in works by Gilbert and Sullivan. She returned often to Northern Ireland to perform locally, and hosted at least two series of A golden treasury of music and song on BBC NI in 1963/4, appearing with James Simmons (qv). Performing regularly in broadcasts on BBC national radio and television, she featured almost weekly on Radio Éireann during the late 1950s.
Allister joined the mezzo-soprano Heather Harper (b. 1930), her Northern Ireland contemporary, in a celebrated choral group, the Ambrosian Singers (founded by John McCarthy, OBE (1916–2009), a Londoner of Irish parentage). She made her debut in the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall in 1959, and performed in fifteen Proms concerts thereafter until 1970. Every year from 1961 to 1977 she took part in the prestigious Three Choirs Festival in English cathedrals. She first appeared at the Covent Garden opera house in Strauss's 'Salome' in 1971.
In the latter part of her career, she moved increasingly into teaching, most notably in the Guildhall School of Music. Later, especially after she retired from the stage in 1980, she taught in the City of Leeds College of Music, and had many private pupils, who benefited from her huge experience of performance and her forthright assessments of novice abilities. A headline in 1979, 'She tells men how to sing!' (Sunday Independent, 6 May 1979), expressed a journalist's surprise that Allister confidently adjudicated male as well as female competitions in music festivals throughout the British Isles.
Despite lasting local celebrity in Northern Ireland, and winning prizes and awards throughout her career, Allister was less well known internationally than her English-born contemporary, Kathleen Ferrier (1912–53), and less often recorded on LPs and other media. She has probably been underrated because of her modest, self-effacing demeanour and her concentration on light opera rather than the classics. However, a number of recordings, particularly of Gilbert and Sullivan songs, successfully preserve the memory of her beautiful voice. She edited a book for Oxford University Press, Sing solo soprano (1985).
In 1955 she married a fellow RAM student, Edgar Fleet (1931–99), who became a very distinguished singer, choral director and musical historian. The couple often sang together as soloists in concerts and recitals, and formed the nucleus of a chamber consort, Accademia Monteverdiana, which helped to revive interest in mediaeval and renaissance music. They had a son in 1964, but the marriage ended. Allister remarried on 20 February 1974; her second husband was René Atkinson (d. 2004), a pianist and accompanist from Newcastle upon Tyne. After suffering ill health for some time, Jean Allister died in Church Crookham, Hampshire, on 11 July 2012.