“Have you done any stage work?” Britten asked James Bowman on a July afternoon in 1966. They were in the Crush Bar at Covent Garden where Bowman, 24 at the time, had just undertaken an audition for the role of Oberon in a new English Opera Group production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When he admitted that he had no stage experience at all, the composer replied, “We’ll soon put that right.” Rehearsals followed for performances of the opera that would take place the following year in the new Snape Maltings Concert Hall and would go further afield to the 1967 Montreal Expo. It was a pivotal moment for the young countertenor, opening a new strand of his career, and an important new friendship that we mark at news of his death.

Bowman was a postgraduate student at Oxford at the time of that first meeting. Britten’s music had a strong appeal to him, and he admitted to being understandably nervous at the prospect of singing in his presence. He, like many young singers, had been in awe of Alfred Deller for whose voice Britten composed the role of Oberon in 1960. He approached the part knowing that he neither could nor should try and take Deller’s place. But it is an operatic role that he went on to make his own, performing it in houses worldwide, including Peter Hall’s 1981 landmark Glyndebourne production. (An excerpt from the 1967 production can be seen in Tony Palmer’s film Benjamin Britten and his Festival.) We are also fortunate to have the 1990 recording that he made with Richard Hickox.

Early music was of course the staple of Bowman’s career. His name is synonymous with the revival in the genre that occurred in the UK during the sixties and seventies when he worked with musicians such as Emma Kirkby, Christopher Hogwood and David Munrow. Aldeburgh played a unique part in bringing him into connection with music of the past and present. Bowman appeared at the Festival on several occasions with Munrow’s Early Music Consort and with organist Ralph Downes playing music from the Middle Ages to the Restoration. He shared Britten and Pears’s passion for the work of Henry Purcell and the year in which he debuted on the Maltings stage also saw him take part in a companion piece to the Dream, a concert version of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen devised by Peter Pears and edited and realised by Britten and Imogen Holst.

Britten’s realisations of other Purcell works were well suited to Bowman’s voice. He performed a number of these with Britten, Pears and baritone John Shirley-Quirk at a 1971 Festival concert entitled ‘Voices and Piano’. The programme included Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac (which Bowman sang with Pears) and a new canticle, a setting of T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi which Britten wrote especially for this combination of performers. It carries the dedication ‘To James, Peter and John’.

Bowman had verified in a relatively short amount of time the faith the composer placed in his musicianship. Pears assured him that Britten was open to a performer sharing his or her expertise. He would look again at what he had written if the part offered difficulties. Yet, Bowman’s technique and the strong, melodic timbre of his voice made such concessions unnecessary.

The opportunity to write again for him nourished Britten’s imagination, particularly when he was composing what would be his final opera, Death in Venice. Near the conclusion of Act I the words of the god Apollo infiltrate the mind of the writer Gustav von Aschenbach offering him a replenished sense of life, hope and inspiration. Librettist Myfanwy Piper suggested that a countertenor sing the role and Bowman accepted the invitation enthusiastically. A busy schedule led to his inability to attend rehearsal which influenced the idea from producer Colin Graham that he should sing off-stage in the original production. On-stage appearances of Apollo occurred later. He joined the other principal singers, the other two dedicatees of Canticle IV, in a Decca recording of the opera made under the direction of his friend Steuart Bedford in 1974.

Bowman’s strong personal and professional friendship with Pears continued after Britten’s death. They often performed together until Pears’s own decline in health brought his singing career to an end. He made frequent visits to Aldeburgh in later years, keen to see the ways in which Britten and Pears’s legacy developed at The Red House and the Maltings. Always willing to share recollections of his work with them, he spoke generously about the impact they had on his life and career. His singing voice was heard again in 2002 in The Red House library, where he had often rehearsed with both men, when he embarked on what would be become a new recital partnership with pianist and then member of The Red House staff Andrew Plant. His final appearance at the Maltings was, appropriately, a performance of Oberon’s aria ‘I know a bank’ at a concert to commemorate Steuart Bedford in the summer of 2021.

James Bowman will be remembered for playing a major part in the renewed prominence given to the countertenor voice during the last six decades. Those who knew him either as a friend or solely through his appearances on stage will recall his wit and great sense of humour, which he shared liberally. His performances, recordings and intelligent reading of music of all periods will be valued universally. Britten Pears Arts proudly remembers his unique and significant connection with Aldeburgh.

James Bowman as Oberon

James Bowman as Oberon, 1967.

Credit: John Richardson