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James Bowman

Posted on 28 March 2023

Nigel shares his memories of the inspirational countertenor James Bowman, who passed away yesterday afternoon.

“Immense sadness today to hear of the loss of one of my earliest musical inspirations, countertenor James Bowman. Listening to a recording of James singing the alto arias from Handel’s Messiah on a recording made in King’s College Chapel had a profound impact on me just as my voice was breaking. I couldn’t sing tenor or bass, but I somehow found that trying to imitate James (or at least singing in falsetto!) was relatively easy and comfortable. I loved how he made the acoustic in that huge chapel absolutely ring with his incredibly strong and clear voice.

James was a huge character in the early music world when I was just starting out as a young professional, and I was lucky enough to have the chance to meet and work with him when I was just 19 years old. I was studying at the Royal College of Music when a dep was suddenly required at very short notice to sing in an opera in the beautiful theatre of Reggio Emilia, Italy. My singing teacher, Professor Keith Davis, said I had to seize the opportunity. I was hesitant to say the least, never having sung in an opera, been to Italy, or indeed even been on a plane! When Keith told me the other countertenor in the opera was James, however, I instantly changed my mind, and was bound for Italy later that same day. It was an unforgettable experience, but mostly because of getting to know James. He was immensely charming and caring, but also hugely irreverent and had an irresistible  and irrepressible school-boyish sense of humour. We had such a fun 6 weeks performing together in opera houses in northern Italy and became firm friends.

When I got back to London I decided I wanted to be a professional singer. Unfortunately, however, I learned that I had lost my place at the RCM owing to having disappeared for 6 weeks during term time without the proper approvals from College authorities! On hearing of this, James was outraged and swung into action finding me singing engagements here, there and everywhere. He told agents and conductors about me, and whenever he was ill or needed a rest he would put all those opportunities my way. Not only that, but he and Keith Davis gave me free singing lessons for another year and a half – the length of time I should have been a student at the RCM. He came and sang with Tenebrae in a piece I’d written called The Dream of Herod (as always he came up with an amusing alternative title), and was so supportive of the choir in its early days, offering to help in any way he could and also kindly becoming a Patron. He was such a brilliant, instinctive singer and musician, a huge character and incredibly kind and generous; but my fondest memories will be always be of him giggling and snorting loudly at something totally outrageous he’d just whispered in the ears of anyone standing close by. He was a Godsend to the musical world and I’ll miss him terribly.”

James Bowman centre front next to Nigel at an early Tenebrae performance.