As a girl, Elizabeth Bowman dreamed of being a singer, performing recitals and finding roles in operas.
“As a young person you think that would be the life … you would just spend your life singing and you don’t necessarily look beyond that.”
It’s a very insular world, being a professional singer. “It’s all encompassing.”
But life would eventually take a different direction for her and today she runs Bowman Media and serves her clients, including Ottawa natives and friends Wallis Giunta and Joyce El-Khoury and the American conductor James Gaffigan, from her home in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York City where her husband Ben is concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. The business is a decade old this year, but its success is also a story about the paths that are possible for people for whom music is a dream career. Sometimes when one door closes, another opens.
Bowman is a soprano. more precisely, she says “I would say I am a lyric soubrette.” It is the sort of voice found in Mozart operas and in Baroque concerts.
In her youth, Bowman was head chorister in Ottawa’s St. Matthew’s women and girls choir. Her brother was the head chorister in the boy’s choir.
When Matthew Larkin came along to head up the choir, she was about 12. That’s when she got more serious about music. Bowman credits Larkin as her most important musical mentor.
She went to Lisgar High School and then off to McMaster University in Hamilton where she chose a more practical path and enrolled in a business program.
“But I really missed singing and so I found a teacher in Hamilton to study with and after a year I decided I wanted to come home to Ottawa. I had a rich musical circle there and I wanted to be surrounded by that type of support.
The University of Ottawa was a good place for her to be. At the same time she was in the Opera Lyra apprenticeship program. But it wasn’t easy at all.
“I suffered from some pretty crippling stage anxiety. I was performing and doing well but it was mentally challenging to get on stage before an audience. It’s a very difficult thing to get over and I wasn’t really getting over it.”
She was also wrestling with another passion, one that she had tried at McMaster.
“I took a class at uOttawa with Robert Cram called the Business of Music and when I took it, it opened my eyes.”
While she pursued singing, she was also asking about ticket sales and how to fill a hall for a concert.
Graduation from university often presents a fork in the road. For Bowman, the choice was singing or pursuing another option.
“I decided to do a post graduate diploma in arts administration and cultural management at Humber College. At that point the business side of the music business was really interesting to me. I thought that maybe I should see what it is that is pulling me in this direction.
“I did very well in that program.”
But the other itch was still there. The day after graduation from Humber, Bowman was on a plane to Berlin, Germany.
“I thought that living in Germany studying singing would be a good thing. I went there to give it my all. That’s what they say in the opera business: the best place to do it is to go do it.
“I went without anything lined up.” Within a few days of landing, she had a teacher and was taking lessons. Time passed and her money started to run out and “I felt I needed some stability in my life.”
It’s a lonely life taking singing lessons, preparing for auditions and not for a paying job. “It’s a gut punch if it isn’t happening.”
So her practical side kicked in.
“I felt I needed to believe in myself more that I did to achieve that dream.” So she moved home.
Three days into staying with her mom, Bowman bought an issue of Opera Canada with Alexander Neef on the cover. he was just about to take over as general manager of the Canadian Opera Company.
“A few days later the COC advertised for an executive assistant position. I applied and ended up getting the job. It was pretty exciting because it fit all the pieces together. It felt like it was meant to work out that way.”
The job was an 18-month contract, plenty of time to get immersed into the opera world.
She learned a lot about dealing with boards and administrators but she also learned “I was interested in helping artists.” She saw a lot of bad packages sent by struggling singers come into the office.
Near the end of her contract she was at an opening night party at the COC and was talking with Wallis Giunta about her plan to set up shop on her own.
“She immediately said ‘I’m happy to be your guinea pig’. I was like OK. Here we are we are still working together.”
Bowman is a publicist. She deals with everything that the public sees. She pitched to media outlets and does a lot of CD launches.
“I basically create a buzz about my clients.”
Another connection was with the soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian who asked her to do press for her.
“She was a bit of a launching pad.”
These days, Bowman’s slogan is Honesty resonates.
Her goal is to “help the world get to know my artists. In any business it is impossible to escape putting on a public face. It is easy to fall into a habit of not necessarily showing your real self.
“I coach my artists to share something real about themselves in each interview. That sounds very straightforward, but it’s not. Sometimes people don’t want to share too much.”
She draws a lot of satisfaction from watching her clients’ careers grow, having played a small part.
And she gets her musical fix in church in New Jersey where she is a proud member of the soprano section.
“I get satisfaction from that. It is different from what I used to do and the people are very nice. I enjoy singing on Sundays and getting it out of my system. I don’t need more.” She still has stage fright, she says. She has no regrets about not singing professionally. In fact her earlier pursuit of performance now helps her understand the pressures her clients face.