James Bowman did not invent the counter tenor voice. Male altos have been serving for centuries in cathedral and collegiate choirs almost unnoticed by the general population. What he did do, in the late sixties, was to reinstate it to the sort of pre-eminence it enjoyed in the sixteenth century and blazed a trail for counter tenors today where they are a regular presence on concert platform and opera stage.
The game changer was the fact that Benjamin Britten heard him sing and asked him to sing the role of Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The role had originally been written for Alfred Deller, but his voice was too small for the larger opera houses. Bowman went on to do so many performance of Oberon that he earned the soubriquet ‘rent-a-fairy’
This fact can be verified by virtue of the fact that it was vouchsafed by the man himself at this lunchtime recital and talk. Now into his seventies Bowman is still working. His voice is now a little rough around the edges, but he has lost none of his power to deliver a song and hold an audience in thrall. As a raconteur Bowman is equally entertaining. His description of trying to sustain a performance on the stage of La Scala whilst the chorus were brawling in the wings (a common occurrence apparently) was tremendous.
Never one to be content with the traditional repertoire (although he gave us some beautiful Byrd, Gibbons and Dowland) Bowman has always encouraged contemporary composers to write for the voice. Nothing too avant-garde was offered on this occasion but we did get Host, Rubra and Britten.
But it was the encore which was the real spine-tingler. Although he must have sung Purcell’s Music For A While, hundreds (if not thousands) of times he still managed to imbue it with a freshness and piquancy that was quite delicious.