James Bowman may not have been Britain’s first prominent countertenor in the modern era – that distinction is usually accorded to Alfred Deller – but he was a major force in popularising the voice. A ubiquitous and genial presence on the early music scene in the last three decades of the 20th century, he combined a warmly expressive tone with a keen musical intelligence, setting new standards and helping to define the role of the countertenor voice in both early and contemporary repertoire.
Bowman, who has died aged 81, had a voice of considerable amplitude yet developed a soulful, plangent tone with a mournful edge ideal for Elizabethan lute songs, Handel opera and much more. A 1987 recording of Handel’s Ombra Mai Fù from Serse with the King’s Consort (one of many he made with the ensemble) exemplifies the clean, focused tone, with minimal vibrato, that he championed. The immaculately controlled crescendo on the opening note, from barely perceptible vibration of vocal cords to full-throated lyricism, heralding an exquisitely shaped first phrase, is spine-tingling.
Many aspects of his technique, he once said, were learned from period-instrument players: “their phrasing, bowing, the way they shape bass lines”. Bowman brought these skills to a wide range of repertory, from Dowland, Monteverdi, Purcell and Handel to Britten and Tippett. Works were also written for him by Richard Rodney Bennett, Alan Ridout, Robin Holloway, Elisabeth Lutyens and Michael Nyman, and he spanned the centuries stylishly in Carl Orff’s song of a medieval roasted swan, Olim Lacus Colueram, from Carmina Burana.
After graduating from Oxford, where he read history, he joined the choir of Westminster Abbey but soon came to the notice of Benjamin Britten and was auditioned in the crush bar at Covent Garden for the composer’s English Opera Group to take over from Deller the role of Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He made his stage debut in the role at Aldeburgh in 1967, bringing it alive with his stage presence and command of the lower tessitura. He went on to sing it all over the world in 10 different productions, eventually recording it under Richard Hickox. In the same year he made his London debut, singing under Britten at the opening concert of the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
He sang too with the Early Music Consort, founded by David Munrow and Christopher Hogwood, from its inauguration, also in 1967, to its dissolution in 1976, following the suicide of Munrow. Then with Hogwood’s Academy of Ancient Music, founded in 1973, he sang a range of Baroque repertoire, most memorably Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, which they recorded to great acclaim. In all, he made more than 150 recordings on a variety of labels.
He became the first countertenor to sing at Glyndebourne, appearing in fetching shepherd’s garb as Endymion in Cavalli’s La Calisto, alongside Janet Baker, under Raymond Leppard.
Born in Oxford, he was the younger of two sons of Cecilia (nee Coote) and Benjamin Bowman. He sang as a chorister at Ely Cathedral, then joined the choir of New College, Oxford, on a choral scholarship, while taking his degree at the university. He was subsequently a lay vicar for a time at Westminster Abbey. For a number of years he sang with the early music group Pro Cantione Antiqua.
His success as an imperious Oberon led to other roles in contemporary opera. He created the Priest-Confessor in Peter Maxwell Davies’s Taverner (1972), his Covent Garden debut, and Astron in Tippett’s The Ice Break (Covent Garden, 1977). He also sang in Ridout’s one-act opera Phaeton for BBC Radio (1977) and Britten dedicated his fourth Canticle, Journey of the Magi, to him, Peter Pears and John Shirley-Quirk.
But it was his creation of the Voice of Apollo in Britten’s Death in Venice (Aldeburgh, 1973) that attracted most attention. It had been Pears who had suggested the role be given to a countertenor as being “colder, not manly or womanly, and a sound that hasn’t been used before”. Deploying his signature minimal vibrato, Bowman produced an otherworldly, gender-ambiguous tone that ideally captured the god’s essence. Its disembodied quality was enhanced by the part being sung offstage, though it was later revealed that this only happened because Bowman was unavailable for any of the rehearsals for the original production.
He revelled in such characterisations as his six-foot Venus, played bare-chested with one ornamented nipple, in Boyce’s Secular Masque for Opera da Camera (St John’s Smith Square, London, 1971). His height alone gave him considerable stage presence, despite his unduly self-deprecating admission that he was “not a natural actor” but “could make a lot of noise” – as he once put it: “I tend to come on as if I’m announcing the last train.”
Indeed, there was a certain nonchalance about his stage manner that added to the feel of spontaneity. What he undoubtedly did not lack was a sense of humour. He was a renowned and uproarious anecdotalist who could be wickedly indiscreet.
In the late 1970s, in the wake of the deaths of first Munrow then Britten, and at a time of vocal over-activity, his voice underwent a crisis. It subsequently emerged, he felt, more secure in technique and with darker colours, albeit with the sacrifice of notes at the top of the range.
Having performed on many international opera stages, he decided to devote his attention to concert work, confessing that the “noise and confusion and hysteria” of places like La Scala were anathema to him – not that he felt any more comfortable on the lieder stage with the “singer coming on in tails” to face a “hushed, tight-arsed audience”. He was more comfortable in an Anglican setting similar to that of his youth and sang in the choir of the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, from 2000 to 2009 while continuing to give recitals; his last in London was at the Wigmore Hall in 2011.
He is survived by his partner, Terry Winwood.
• James Thomas Bowman, countertenor, born 6 Nov 1941; died 27 March 2023