Remembering Opera Singer Johan Botha

Friday, September 09, 2016 - 08:04 AM

Johan Botha as Otello and Ana Maria Martinez as Desdemona in 'Otello' at the Lyric Opera Chicago. Johan Botha as Otello and Ana Maria Martinez as Desdemona in 'Otello' at the Lyric Opera Chicago. (Dan Rest/Lyric Opera Chicago)

Less than three weeks after the opera world was surprised and saddened by the death from cancer at age 59 of the Italian soprano Daniela Dessì, that terrible disease has taken another wonderful singer at too young an age. Johan Botha, perhaps the foremost heldentenor of our day, died on Sept. 8 in Vienna at the age of 51.

Botha’s illness was not quite the secret that Dessì’s was. He had battled cancer in the past couple of years but was told that he had beat it. In May, he was supposed to sing with James Levine, Christine Goerke and the Met orchestra in an all-Wagner concert at Carnegie Hall. Botha’s absence caught my attention and made me wonder if he again was ill.

His last appearance was three weeks ago in Cape Town in support of CANSA, the oldest cancer charity in his native South Africa. The promotional material for the concert described him as a cancer survivor who had been given a clean bill of health. But he was quite ill and unable to complete his performance. The audience gave him a standing ovation. Here is a South African news report in Afrikaans, his first language, on his death.

Botha, his wife and two sons lived in Vienna and took Austrian citizenship. He was especially adored there in a way that only the Viennese seem able to passionately love their opera singers.  The Vienna State Opera released a long statement on his death and announced that a black flag would be hung outside the opera house in his memory. A friend at the theater told me that Botha had been in rehearsal last week with the intention of singing Calaf. He became ill, went to the hospital and died a few days later. The Sept. 10 performance of Turandot will be dedicated to his memory.

He sang 222 performances of 22 different roles at the Vienna State Opera and was named a Kammersänger, an honorific conferred by the company not unlike an operatic knighthood. His death was one of the leading news items on Austrian national television. Can you imagine any American opera singer receiving this attention from our television networks? Here he is singing “In fernem Land” from Lohengrin in concert in Vienna in 2005. 

Botha was born in a farming community, some 80 miles from Johannesburg, where his parents ran the post office. His family later moved to Rustenburg and his father worked in a chrome mine. Botha had heard a recording of La Traviata at the age of 5 and informed his parents that he wanted to be an opera singer. He received lessons and also sang at the Dutch church (Botha was quite a religious man). When his voice changed during puberty, he revealed a glorious tenor sound that was both romantic and manly. He also became very heavy and found that no diet enabled him to lose weight. 

He continued his studies in Europe, sang in the chorus at Bayreuth and solo tenor roles in regional opera houses in Germany. In Nov. 1993 he made a big splash replacing an indisposed colleague as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly at the Paris Opera. I attended that new production because I was interested in what Robert Wilson would do with this work. But my memory is of Botha’s warm sound, impassioned singing and beautiful diction which were extraordinary that day. He quickly received invitations to appear in the world’s top theaters. 

Despite the notion of him as a specialist in the heroic tenor roles of Wagner and Strauss, he continued to balance them with lyrical and dramatic Italian parts.  In the U.S., he sang Otello in San Francisco, a character whose psychological complexity he discussed in a video made at the time. In Chicago he sang Enzo (La Gioconda), Canio (Pagliacci), Calaf, Lohengrin, Walther (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), Otello and Tannhäuser. He made his Met debut as Canio opposite Diana Soviero on Jan. 6, 1997.  In all, he sang 81 performances at the Met, including Walther (17 times), Radamès (11), Otello (10), Florestan (7) and Tannhäuser (7) as well as Don Carlo, Calaf, Lohengrin, and one performance as Siegmund in Die Walküre. Vienna heard all of these parts, more Italian roles and challenging tenor parts by Strauss in Die Frau ohne Schatten and Daphne.

Such was the beauty of his voice and the exquisiteness of his singing that most audiences and critics acknowledged his physical size but then returned to his vocalism. David J. Baker, in Opera News, went a little further. He wrote about the tenor’s 2006 Don Carlo at the Met, “Johan Botha has one of those prodigious, massive sounds, especially in the upper register, that can make up for a lack of nuance and an awkward, even unfortunate, stage presence.” 

That Don Carlo had a wonderful cast including Patricia Racette, Olga Borodina, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, René Pape, Samuel Ramey, with James Levine conducting. Botha and I had dinner after one of those performances. Like many singers, he would get quite hungry after a long opera and ate heartily. Aware of this, he raised the topic of weight and “believability” in certain roles. He said that he moved on the stage with no effort and acted with his voice. That is true. I asked him what he thought in Fidelio when the audience learns that his character, Florestan, had been living for two years on bread and water. “I would like to remind them that bread and water can create a lot of yeast,” he said with a smile.

The very last time I heard him live was also the best one. His final Met performance as Tannhäuser was on October 31, 2015. It was broadcast that day in HD and I fervently hope the Met will release it in DVD. Botha really pulled out all the stops in that very difficult role—vocally radiant and secure, dramatically much more intense than he was ever given credit for. He had already battled illness and I expect that some of that emotion was poured into this extraordinary performance of one of the hardest roles in opera.

By the third act of Tannhäuser, most tenors have exhausted their resources. In the long “Rome Narrative” near the end of the opera, some have lost their voices or resort to what critics call “bleating.” Not only did Botha avoid any sort of  ovine utterance, but he sang with strength and passion about a man trying to hold onto his faith in the face of adversity and rejection. I recall every detail of that performance, including his raging eyes and the mad shifting of Tannhäuser’s walking staff. A tour-de-force.

Botha was very well-matched with Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek in that Tannhäuser. Here they are Siegmund and Sieglinde in a 2013 concert version in Bayreuth of the first act of Die Walküre, conducted by Christian Thielemann.


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Comments [6]

CastaDiva from New York, NY

Glad I had the opportunity to hear him in last season's Tannhaueser.

"Can you imagine any American opera singer receiving this attention from our television networks?"
No, Fred, I cannot, unfortunately. When Pierre Boulez died last year, I learned of his death from BBC News; our TV channels did not deem is important enough to report on, even though Boulez had been a conductor of the NY Phil. for years.

Oct. 15 2016 04:56 PM
Christopher Hosford from Bronx, new York

Fred, beautiful, thoughtful article on this great artist. Thank you for your contributions to our cultural life.

Sep. 30 2016 02:16 PM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

A sad loss to the opera world. Too bad, though, that it took his dying to get WQXR to play a recording of him singing.

Sep. 10 2016 04:21 PM
Charles Powell from Astoria,NY

Hi Fred,
Thank you for that wonderful tribute.I was lucky to see him in that Tannhauser last year and he carried the day. He will be missed.
On another note I am doing a short survey (certainly not complete) of notable tenors who have died in the month of September and it is quite strange.
Licitra--Sept. 5th/Pavarotti--Sept. 6th/Kraus and Bjorling--Sept.9th/McCormack 16th/Wunderlich Sept.17th and now Botha and soprano Callas Sept.16th. All different years of course.But this month is somehow a jinx to tenors.
And by the way this 17th is the 50th anniversary of the death of the great Wunderlich---sorely missed too.

Sep. 10 2016 09:18 AM
DPBF from Chicago

A lovely tribute to a lovely singer. Bravo, Mr.Plotkin, and requiesce in pace, Mr. Botha.

Sep. 09 2016 03:13 PM
Suzanne from New York

Fred, thank you so much for this appreciation of Johan Botha. The news of his passing hit me harder than I would have thought. Wagner is not my favorite repertory, but there was no denying that Botha's was a special and superior vocal endowment. It was also illuminating to read something of your personal interaction with him. His early death was a terrible loss, most of all to his wife and family, but also to those of us who admire great singing.

Sep. 09 2016 11:40 AM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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