Obituary: Johan Botha, operatic tenor

South African operatic tenor Johan Botha. Picture: AP Photo/Hiroko Masuike

South African operatic tenor Johan Botha. Picture: AP Photo/Hiroko Masuike

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Born: 19 August, 1965, in South Africa. Died 8 September, 2016, in Vienna, aged 51.

The tenor Johan Botha was a large burly man with a thrilling voice that sang the demanding heldentenor roles in the Wagner operas with apparent ease. From Walter in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg to Siegmund in The Ring, Botha’s voiced soared with majestic facility. He was last seen in London in the challenging role of The Emperor in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten in 2014; Botha sang beautifully but one noticed that he was sitting down quite often during long passages when he was not involved in the action. The cancer from which he died was clearly debilitating his movement: otherwise his performance was hugely impressive.

It was his flexibility as a singer that impressed. Apart from his fame in Wagner he proved adept at tackling such challenging roles as Verdi’s Otello and Radames (in Aida), the Calaf in Puccini’s Turandot and Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio.

Johan Botha was born in a village near Johannesburg – his parents ran the local post office. He showed a keen interest in singing and was prominent in the local Dutch Reformed Church choir. The family moved to Rustenburg where Botha continued taking music lessons. After national service (1983-84) he sang some baritone roles and confessed to his teacher that he found the low notes difficult. The teacher told Botha: “You are a bloody tenor.”

Botha was heard by the chorus master of the Bayreuth Festival in 1990 and was asked to join that year’s chorus. His breakthrough came that autumn when was he asked at the last moment to sing Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in Paris. He caused a sensation and he later admitted, “Within two weeks I had signed contracts with Covent Garden, the Met, Vienna Volksoper and Berlin Opera.” Botha returned to Bayreuth for the 1991 festival in principal roles.

Botha’s powerful voice was always able to carry over a large orchestra for four or five hours but still sounded fresh at the end. He had the rare quality for a high tenor of combining vocal strength and a sweet musical delivery.

Botha conquered the challenging opening scene of Otello with a triumphant ease: he strode across the stage from the dramatic outset with a tremendous resolve: musically in total control and vocally as firm as a rock – he literally dominated the stage.

But it was those long Wagner roles with which Botha will be so closely associated. In 2014 he sang Walter at The Met in a thrilling revival under James Levine. Also in the cast was the Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill as Magdalene (The New York Times wrote “her rich and round voice was a pleasure to hear”.) The same newspaper wrote: “Johan Botha, with his beautiful voice and tremendous musicality, sang impeccably.”

One of his most memorable roles was the title role in Wagner’s Tannhäuser: he sang it unforgettably at Covent Garden in 2010 with Eva-Maria Westbroek conducted by Semyon Bychkov. He was also heard at Covent Garden in La Boheme, Tosca and Turandot.

His recordings concentrated on the Wagner repertoire (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg under Christian Thielmann) and Wagner Arias (conducted by Simone Young) but he also made acclaimed recordings of Otello (with Renée Fleming) and Aida.

Botha enjoyed a busy career on the concert platform and was heard with the leading orchestras in Europe under Claudio Abbado, Sir Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim.

Botha made a memorable appearance with Cargill at the BBC Proms in the Albert Hall in 2008. With the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra Botha and Cargill sang a spell-binding account of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde under David Runnicles.

The song cycle figured often in Botha’s career – especially in 2012 when he was enjoying a drink with friends in Vienna when the Musikverein telephoned and begged him to replace an ill colleague in a performance of the song cycle that night. Botha agreed but was worried as he had not seen the score in six years. The concert was a triumph and Botha simply commented, it all “seemed like being in a trance”.

Botha was a much esteemed colleague backstage. He helped young singers and was always encouraging to those making a debut in a role. Because of his large stature his acting was somewhat limited. He joked, “I’ve done every diet you can think of,” but admitted that he was hurt by suggestions that he was not believable as an on-stage lover. “I sing like one,” he insisted.

Botha was a devout man – he regularly attended church wherever he was singing. He was also a devoted family man – he married his wife Sonia in 1992 and she and their two sons survive him.

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