Johan Botha (tenor)
Vienna State Opera Orchestra
rec. live, Wiener Staatsoper, 1997-2014 by Österreichischen Rundfunks ORFEO C906171B [72:57]
Johan Botha died of cancer in Vienna at only 51 on 8th September 2016. On his website there is now a moving sentence under the sign indicating he’s deceased, with the dates of his birth and death – Eine der bedeutendsten Stimmen unserer Zeit ist für immer verstummt (One of the most significant voices of our time has forever fallen silent). It is a description that does justice to Botha. It is also moving and sad, illustrating what an outstanding talent the world of opera has lost.
Botha was born on 19th August 1965 in Derby, c. 120 km west of Johannesburg, South Africa. His parents headed the local post office and, encouraged by the minister at the Dutch Reformed Church, which they attended, sent him to singing lessons with a Czech refugee. The boy Johan possessed a fabulous voice and could reach extremely high notes easily (as for example the top notes in the aria of the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte). Later, the family moved further North and his father found work in a chrome mine. There Johan continued his education. Eventually he did two years of military service where he was part of the South African Air Force Choir and also played percussion and guitar in a military jazz band. The two years he spent in the army left scars and he needed therapy when it ended in 1984. After this he joined the Pretoria Technikon Opera School and curiously started as a bass-baritone. His first role was as Sir John in Verdi’s Falstaff. He told Opera magazine in 2010 that his voice began moving into a higher register around 1986-87. Apparently his then teacher, Eric Muller, is said to have told him: “You are a bloody tenor. You’re going to be one of the best Wagner tenors in the world.” And as we know, that is exactly what happened.
Johan Botha’s professional debut was in 1989 in Johannesburg as Max in Weber’s Der Freischütz. It so happened that he was heard by Norbert Balatsch, at the time chorus master at Bayreuth. He promptly invited Botha to join the Wagner chorus in the following summer. Botha then sang in a variety of German opera houses for a while but his big break came when he was asked at the last minute to step in and sing Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the Bastille in Paris in 1993. He learned the part in Italian in only two days. After his success he quickly received contract offers from some of the greatest opera houses in the world, such as Covent Garden, the Met, Vienna Volksoper and the Berlin Opera. By this time he was already living in Vienna. He eventually took Austrian citizenship and in 2003 he was appointed Kammersänger by the Vienna State Opera, the youngest singer to ever be granted the honour.
Botha was a large man and some critics did not find him believable when singing romantic heroes. They occasionally wrote some stingy comments about that fact. Botha was always honest and open about his weight problems and, according to his own words, tried all possible diets without success. His glorious voice however more than compensated for his physical appearance and he always said himself that although he might not look like a lover, he sang like one – a fact that is undeniable.
Botha is best remembered for his big Wagnerian roles: the title role in Lohengrin, Walther in Die Meistersinger, title role in Parsifal, Siegmund in Die Walküre and of course the title role in Tannhäuser. However, he was equally exceptional and at ease in Mozart, Puccini, Strauss and Verdi. His voice was extraordinary but he possessed an outstanding vocal technique and never forgot, for example, that Wagner actually wanted bel canto singers for his operas because they can sing and keep a legato line. This realisation, to my mind, is what turned him into a great Wagnerian, as he never made the mistake, as some singers do, of shouting or, worse still, “barking” when singing Wagner.
Botha was unforgettable in Wagner but not only there. His performances in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, Daphne and Ariadne auf Naxos or as Radamès in Verdi’s Aida and in the title role of Verdi’s Otello were equally memorable. The last time I saw and heard him sing live was in October 2012 at the Met as Otello to Renée Fleming’s Desdemona and Falk Struckmann’s Iago. He appeared tired at the end but his singing was never short of magnificent. This is a performance that we can all luckily enjoy on DVD or Blu-ray and that really should not be missed.
The present CD, entitled Johan Botha, is very clearly a tribute to the great tenor and his singing legacy. He appeared a total of 222 times at the Vienna State Opera between 1997 and 2014 and this CD is a collection of highlights recorded live from some of these performances. It focuses on Wagner and Strauss though there is also a special treat with his rendition of Gott, welch Dunkel hier… from Beethoven’s Fidelio. As it comprises a variety of live recordings, the sound quality of the featured pieces is not always the same but they are all generally good. If one doesn’t know Botha’s singing ability well, then this is an ideal first approach to his radiant voice. His delivery of the difficult Hör an, Wolfram, hör an! from Tannhäuser is flawless and is outstanding in Morgenlich leuchtend from Die Meistersinger and Wehe! Wehe! Was tat ich… from Parsifal. For me personally, however, it his rendition of Atmest du nicht from Lohengrin that I find the most memorable and poignant and where his wonderful vocal technique and his bel canto skills make the biggest impact. There are eight arias in total, the first five the Beethoven and the four Wagner, as mentioned above. The remaining three are from Strauss’s works and you will find that Botha is equally at home in Amme! Wachst du? from Die Frau ohne Schatten;Zu dir nun, Knabe! from Daphne or the glorious finale of Ariadne auf Naxos.
The orchestra of the Vienna State Opera is excellent throughout as is to be expected, and the pieces are conducted by a variety of conductors: Seiji Ozawa in Beethoven; Simone Young, Franz Welser-Möst and Donald Runnicles in Wagner; Giuseppe Sinopoli, Semyon Bychkov and Christian Thielemann in Strauss. As the recordings were made live, they also feature many other soloists – too many to list here but who can be found in the CD booklet, which contains a fair amount of information about Botha and his work. It must be said however that all the famous conductors mentioned above are secondary in this context. This is Botha’s CD, a loving tribute from the Vienna State Opera to one of the greatest tenors ever to grace their stage and so it is the singing that is important. Botha’s luminous, magnificent voice and his interpretations are to my mind outstanding throughout the album. I think it is a must for any Botha fan or for anyone who admires extraordinary singing.
We lost a great singer and, as stated in his website obituary that I mentioned earlier, one of the most significant voices of our time has forever fallen silent. But aren’t we lucky to live in a world where technology allows such sound to be preserved? I think the answer is yes. So, a posthumous bravo to Mr Botha and long may his glorious voice continue to delight us.
(Margarida writes more than just reviews, check it online at
www.flowingprose.com/) Contents Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Fidelio – Gott, welch Dunkel hier! – In des Lebens Frühlingstagen [7:52]
Richard STRAUSS (1864–1949)
Die Frau ohne Schatten – Amme! Wachst du? [5:03]
Daphne – Zu dir nun, Knabe! [6:16]
Ariadne auf Naxos – Bin ich ein Gott, schuf mich ein Gott [13:37]
Richard WAGNER (1813–1883)
Tannhäuser – Hör an, Wolfram, hör an!Inbrunst im Herzen [12:37]
Lohengrin – Atmest du nicht mit mir die süßen Düfte? – Höchstes Vertrauen [7:56]
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Leuchtend im rosigen Schein [7:29]
Parsifal – Wehe! Wehe! Was tat ich? [11:27]
Also with the following artists:
Christian Gerhaher, baritone
Cheryl Studer, soprano
James Rutherford, baritone
Angela Denoke, soprano
Marjana Lipovšek, contralto
Michael Schade, tenor
Ricarda Merbeth, soprano
Solie Isokoski, soprano
Valentina Nafornita, soprano
Rachel Frenkel, soprano
Olga Bezsmertna, soprano
Daniela Fally, coloratura soprano
Conductors: Seiji Ozawa, Franz Welser-Möst, Simone Young, Donald Runnicles, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Semyon Bychkov, Christian Thielemann