The boy from Highgate choir now has a starring role

A former pupil returns to sing with the choir on March 5

When Highgate Choral Society takes on Handel’s Messiah at St Joseph’s in Highgate next month it will be with a countertenor singing the alto arias. Though that may sound adventurous to older listeners who’d rather hear Dame Janet Baker, it’s a common enough thing to do.

Ever since it premiered in 1742, countertenors have had a claim on at least some of this music and, now there are so many of them around, they turn up in Messiah all the time. They’re not the rare, exotic creatures they once were.

But countertenors from Sudan – well, that’s another matter.

As probably the only Sudanese countertenor in the business, Magid El-Bushra can’t help but stand out (which is no bad thing when you’re building a career).

Given that places like Sudan have almost no contact with the tradition of western music – still less the tradition of period performance in which countertenors function – you might wonder how Magid (whose name is pronounced like magic but with a d) got started. The answer is that, although he was born in Khartoum, his family moved to Britain when he was four, and then got stuck here.

“I don’t want to suggest we were refugees, we weren’t, but because my father was Sudanese and my mother English, they used to go back and forth. Then my father, who was an academic Egyptologist but involved in politics, got posted to the embassy in London as cultural attache. Then came civil war, a military coup, so he couldn’t go back. I haven’t seen Sudan since I was six’.

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Living initially in Fitzjohn’s Avenue, Magid went to Hampstead Comprehensive and then on to Magdalen College, Oxford, as a choral scholar.

After that, the Royal College of Music as a postgrad, with further study in Paris and Flanders which edged him into the heart of the period performance world – singing with ensembles like Les Arts Florissants.

But if there’s one person he holds responsible for what’s now, at age 30, a career on the threshold of real significance, it’s Ron Corp, conductor of the Highgate Choral Society.

The reason being that in another department of his multi-faceted life, Corp also conducts the New London Children’s Choir and, as a small boy, it was with them that Magid first learned to sing.

“Being in the NLCC was the most enjoyable thing you could do with your childhood,” he says. “I loved every minute of it and Ron was hugely important in encouraging me to believe I really did have a voice.

“So we’ve always kept in touch and I’m always happy to work with his choral society, where I still know some of the singers. One of them’s my cousin. Another is a former teacher.”

Last year, Magid premiered a Ron Corp song cycle at Aldeburgh and new or new-ish music beyond the “period” canon is, in fact, a large part of his repertory.

The kind of countertenor who doesn’t feel limited by stylistic boundaries, he happily sings Debussy and Poulenc “because I think there’s an ambiguity in my voice type that suits that kind of music”. Not so long ago he was singing the (normally female but in any event freakish) role of Baba the Turk in Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress – an excursion into drag that’s starting to look habitual.

“Last year, on the Glyndebourne tour, I covered and eventually went on as the Nurse in The Coronation Of Poppea and I’ve done the Sorceress in Dido And Aeneas.

“They were both good things to do but it will be a relief to be a man again the next time I’m on an opera stage. This will be in Germany in May in a production of Handel’s Saul where I play David – sensitive but male.”

Between now and then come concerts in Oxford and Belgium, a tour through Switzerland and Austria with the Basel Chamber Orchestra and this Highgate Messiah, which he approaches from the interesting perspective of someone born to a Muslim father, a Unitarian mother, but with no strong religious conviction either way.

“With a piece like this which everyone does and knows, you have to try to make it your own. This means finding some way to make it relevant to yourself, whatever your background, and communicate it meaningfully. That’s the task.”

o Highgate Choral Society with soloists including Magid El-Bushra performs Messiah on Saturday March 5 at St Joseph’s, Highgate Hill, at 7.30pm. For tickets, call 020-8883 5631.