MUSICTEACHERS.CO.UK VOLUME 2 ISSUE 4, OCTOBER 2000  
Online Journal
FEATURE INTERVIEW:

Music for a While

Internationally acclaimed countertenor, James Bowman, looks back over a lifetime devoted to music.
 
 

On Desert Island Discs, Sue Lawley introduced James Bowman as a man whose 'career started in March 1967, and who's never been out of work since!' True, since despite approaching what he calls his "twilight years", his appointments schedule seems as busy as ever. Recently appointed a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, something he regards as a "gentle retirement," he now works in a world that is far removed from the paint and makeup days of his early career as an opera singer. He shot to fame with a 1967 Aldeburgh Festival staging of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, something he describes as 'lucky. There weren't that many countertenors around; Alfred Deller was always abroad and there were few others.' Had he been fifteen years younger, he feels that such a success might not have been so easy. 'I was jolly lucky to have been around in the right place at right time, and to be able to sing that particular opera immediately gave me a very high profile.'

When you are a young singer, and you get offers of an engagement, it can be too easy to take it without thinking about what you are doing.

James (centre) with members of the Early Music Consort of London: Christopher Hogwood and David Munrow (seated right and left respectively). Photo: Martin Keeley

There was no shortage of work to fill his diary, but he finds that it all came rather too easily. "I didn't have to sit an a La Bohème-like garret and suffer. But I was singing on a wing and a prayer - my technique was a bit out of order and eventually I had to go back to having some serious singing lessons. When it's all thrust on you so early, your voice isn't given time to mature, to grow with the roles you take on. In retrospect, I was just singing the notes without having very much to say. I have similar fears for some of the young singers today; their voices are wonderful but enormous singing contracts and busy careers are potentially dangerous. Nowadays, when I sing something particularly well, I often think how I would have liked to have sung it like that twenty or thirty years ago since today it all feels much easier. We have the right instruments and the right approach and there certainly isn't the same pressure that was a constant burden then." He remembers that when he first did the Bach B minor Mass, he didn't understand what it was all about; today he feels that he can look at it with a more "reflective" viewpoint, since performing the works of a mature musician often requires a mature stance from the singer. "You can't sing something like Bach and not put over that you've given it some weight and consideration. When I recorded the Purcell odes with the English Chamber Orchestra, we virtually sight-read them, something I hated doing, but it was a means of fulfilling an engagement. When you are a young singer, and you get offers of an engagement, it can be too easy to take it without thinking about what you are doing."



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