Opera Scotland

James Bowman Suggest updates

James Thomas Bowman CBE.

Born Oxford, 6 November 1941.

Died 27 March 2023.

English counter-tenor.

James Bowman was the first major successor to Alfred Deller as a concert and opera performer at the counter-tenor pitch.  Beginning as Britten's chosen interpreter as Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream, he made a major career in revivals of the then little-known baroque repertoire - Monteverdi, Cavalli, Purcell and Handel.  He also created new parts by Britten, Tippett and Maxwell Davies.

He began singing as a treble in Ely Cathedral choir.  A few years later he returned there as a bass before he discovered the alto pitch suited him better, and he went on to work with several major cathedral choirs. His debut in Handel opera was in 1966 at the Unicorn Theatre, Abingdon, as Gandartes in the Kitchings' first modern revival of Poro.

He auditioned for Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears at Covent Garden in 1966 for a planned new staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Snape Maltings the following year.  He appeared in that English Opera Group production for several years, including in 1969 at Sadler's Wells Theatre.  He first worked with Scottish Opera in Toby Robertson's 1972 production, revived frequently, including tours abroad.  Further productions of AMND that he sang in included John Gielgud's at Covent Garden, Peter Hall's at Glyndebourne (1981) and Elijah Moshinsky's at Sydney. He also performed the role with WNO and in Strasbourg.

In 1971 he sang in the premiere of Britten's fourth Canticle The Journey of the Magi.  The opening run of Britten's final opera Death in Venice included performances at Snape Maltings, the Edinburgh Festival and New York Met.

He made an important contribution to the revival of little-known baroque works.  Raymond Leppard's edition of Cavalli's La Calisto featured him as Endimione, alongside Janet Baker as Diana, in Peter Hall's Glyndebourne staging (with Ileana Cotrubas in the title role).  He later took a second Cavalli/Leppard part, Lidio in L'Egisto, first at Santa Fe and later when John Cox's production moved to Scottish Opera. However when they took it 'home' to Venice (at the Fenice), it seems that continental audiences were not yet ready for a counter-tenor (how things have changed) and Lidio was sung by a baritone. 

Over many seasons he appeared in the annual productions of the Handel Opera Society at Sadler's Wells Theatre, in leading operatic parts such as Orlando and Polinesso Ariodante.  He also sang Orlando with Scottish Opera. With ENO he sang Ptolemy Giulio Cesare in a cast that included Janet Baker (Caesar) and Valerie Masterson (Cleopatra).

Operatic parts he created include Priest-Confessor Taverner (Maxwell Davies 1970); Voice of Apollo Death in Venice (Britten 1973); Astron The Ice Break (Tippett 1977). 

Recordings include a DVD of the Peter Hall's classic staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream.  He also recorded Oberon with Richard Hickox.  The Glyndebourne production of La Calisto was recorded for audio and eventually issued on CD.  Both that staging and Scottish Opera's of L'Egisto were televised by the BBC but neither has been issued on DVD.  The ENO staging of Julius Caesar has been issued on both CD and DVD.  Further Handel recordings include the title role in Orlando, Polinesso Ariodante and Jonathan Saul .

His recordings also include works by Vivaldi and Bach.  In the 1970s he worked with David Munrow's Early Music Group of London in their pioneering work in reviving mediaeval repertoire.

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