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Singing Saved His Life

Johan Botha, who sings his first Met Otello in February, believes that if you love music, music will love you back. RICHARD DYER reports.

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As Siegmund to Nina Stemme's Sieglinde in Vienna, 2007
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Production photo and portrait by Johannes Ifkovits in Vienna
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With Patricia Racette in the Met's Don Carlo, 2006

At forty-two, tenor Johan Botha—who sings his first Met Otello this month—is entering his prime years. He boasts a voice that balances dramatic power with lyricism, and when he is singing at his best, he is able to deliver strong feelings in sweeping lines that are invested with rich musical detail.

Sitting in his cinderblock dressing room at Tanglewood in summer 2007, after a rehearsal for Verdi's Don Carlo, the South African tenor says, "As a child I was dyslexic. I still am. Because of this, people thought I was stupid. I could not read words, and I couldn't spell. What I could do was read music. This proved to everyone that I could accomplish something, and singing became my life."

Botha looks far younger up close than he appears in costume and makeup under stage lights. His personality mingles self-deprecating humility with justifiable pride; he's intelligent, emotional and candid—and unafraid to speak openly of his profound religious convictions. "God has given me this talent to work with, and I trust in Him," he says. "I believe He has a plan for me and my life."

Botha's homespun earthiness and lack of glamour (at the Tanglewood rehearsals, he was dressed in a Paul Bunyan-style plaid shirt) may account for the fact that he is not a singer hotly debated in operatic cliques and internet chatrooms, nor does his name often enter into discussions about successors to the great tenors of the past—although he is well informed about his predecessors and considers a four-hour conversation about singing that he once had with Nicolai Gedda one of the pivotal experiences of his life. "Eighty percent of your career will be made by saying 'No,'" the senior tenor advised, urging Botha to alternate lyric and dramatic roles.

Soprano Patricia Racette, who appeared opposite Botha in Verdi's Don Carlo last season at the Met and at Tanglewood, says, "Johan's sound is both powerful and sweet, gigantic and gorgeous—you don't find that combination in one singer very often. Although he's singing the hugest roles these days, his voice is as fresh as ever - and he sings everything with great elegance and ease. When you hear him, you never say, 'Wow, that is such a big sound.' Instead, you hear the music."

Botha is forthcoming when questioned about looking more like Leo Slezak or Lauritz Melchior than some of today's matinée-idol tenors. "Sometimes I feel I am fighting a losing battle. Hotels and restaurants do not cater to people with weight problems, and by the time I have finished with a day of rehearsal or a long performance, I am bloody hungry. But I also think we have all been conditioned by television. Everyone on television looks like a model, and now people expect opera singers to look the same. But believe me, no anorexic could sing Otello."

"Weight has been an issue for female opera singers for a long time," Racette wryly notes. "Now it's beginning to catch up with the guys, too. But there are certain types of repertory—Madama Butterfly or Wagner for women, or the big Verdi and Wagner parts for men—that no waif of a person can do. It's just how bodies and vocal instruments are built."

Soprano Christine Brewer, who has sung with Botha in concerts with James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, says, "He's a great singer with a powerful instrument he uses very beautifully. He tore into the prison duet in that Boston concert performance of Fidelio with the kind of gusto that I love—we inspired each other to just let it rip. I have the feeling that if we had been in school together, we would have been the ones the teacher had to send to the principal's office for goofing off. When you are getting ready to sing these big powerhouse pieces, you have to cut up and say sophomoric and silly things, or you'd go nuts. But once Johan comes onstage, it's all about the music."

As a child of five, Botha heard his father's vinyl recording of La Traviata with Anna Moffo and Richard Tucker and gravely announced that he wanted to be an opera singer when he grew up. "I had a very high, boy-soprano voice," Botha recalls. "I could sing the Queen of the Night's aria from The Magic Flute."

When Botha was ten, he began the rigorous vocal study that continues today. His first teacher, Jarmilla Tellenger, worked with him for seven years, even during the period when his voice was changing. "We would vocalize every day, but only for ten minutes," Botha says. His voice initially settled into a bass-baritone, and after he had done two years of compulsory military service in the South African Air Force, he sang Falstaff in a school performance.

Botha's teacher in Pretoria, Eric Muller, experimented with developing his falsetto, and Botha found his voice moving upwards. He made his professional debut as a tenor as Max in Der Freischütz in Roodepoort in 1989; he was twenty-four. The next year he was engaged to sing in the chorus at the Bayreuth festival. A concert agent who had heard him in South Africa secured an engagement to sing Un Ballo in Maschera in Kaiserslautern. He began working his way up with engagements in Dortmund, Hagen, Hildesheim and finally Bonn.

Botha's repertory was eclectic, including Pedro in d'Albert's Tiefland, Pinkerton, Don José, Rodolfo, and both Turiddu and Canio; like another future Otello, Plácido Domingo, he started off in that opera as Cassio. The turning point came when he sang Pinkerton in Robert Wilson's highly-publicized production of Madama Butterfly at the Opera Bastille in Paris in 1993. "People from all the major opera houses came and heard me, and the offers started coming in."
This led to unpleasantness in Bonn, where he was still under contract, in a situation that did not make him happy. "I felt I was being pushed to sing too much," he says. "In one week I sang seven shows. And the Intendant did not want to release me to sing anywhere else." Once those issues were cleared up, Botha was free to go anywhere he was asked to, and soon he was singing in Berlin, Paris, Milan and London, building a repertory of more than thirty roles and appearing in concerts led by such top conductors as Georg Solti, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Lorin Maazel, Christoph von Dohnányi and James Levine. In Vienna, he started at the Volksoper before moving on to the Staatsoper, which has become his artistic home; he lives in Vienna with his wife and two sons. Botha arrived at the Met in 1997 as Canio in Pagliacci, and over the past decade, he has sung forty-nine performances in seven roles there.

From the beginning, people were eager to push the young tenor into the big Wagner roles, but he was in no hurry. He began with Lohengrin, then moved on to Walther in Die Meistersinger and the title role in Parsifal. Earlier this season he sang his first Siegmund in Vienna, and Tannhäuser is coming up in the future. But as Gedda advised, he continues to sing Italian operas and lighter roles.

The result, Botha says, "is that my voice keeps growing, and it will probably keep growing for another few years. The minute I think I've learned something, my voice has changed again, and I have to figure out how to cope with it. It's not just a question of vocal size. With experience my timbre has changed, the quality is more mature. What is really important in the heroic roles is to go for the line, and not to settle for barking. We know from his letters that Wagner wanted bel canto singers for his operas—people who knew how to keep the legato line."

Since going to Europe in 1990, Botha has worked with the vocal pedagogue Irmgard Hartmann. When he made his debut in Berlin, singing Pagliacci, in 1994, Botha remembers, she said, "'Johan, why are you screaming at me? Why are you killing yourself?' She has perfect ears, and she immediately knows when I am not doing something correctly. She brought the pianissimo culture into my technique. I was not born with this ability, but with her, I have learned to sing softly."

On Botha's recording of "Celeste Aida" on his Italian Arias disc, he sings the dolcissimo ending on the high B-flat that Verdi asked for and has rarely received; the tenor repeated the feat on his Met broadcast of the opera, and the audience's astonishment is audible—it has been a long time since Franco Corelli and Carlo Bergonzi attempted it. There is a stunned silence following the end of the aria, and then an explosion of applause.

"Well," says Botha, "Verdi put four ps on the note, and I was crazy enough to want to try to do it." This ability to sing with dynamic variety, and the eagerness to study and respond to the markings in the score, are what have made Die Meistersinger and the title role in Otello possible for Botha. "Before my first performance in Meistersinger I was so scared I felt as if I were walking in my sleep, but then I started to sing and have fun with it. Eighty percent of Otello's part is marked pianissimo."

Botha sang his first Otello in Vienna last season. On the broadcast from Vienna State Opera, he sang with his usual scrupulous attention to detail. The characterization was embryonic, but it had nobility, and there was never any doubt of what basic emotion the tenor wanted to communicate in every episode.

"Part of our operatic training in South Africa was in acting and in movement," Botha says. "We learned costume and makeup, we practiced fencing. And all of us had to take ballet lessons. You can imagine how I looked in ballet clothes, but it taught me how to move onstage. And we had to learn how to recite and declaim Shakespeare. For me, in preparing Otello many years later, it was important to study the Venice scenes in Shakespeare's play that are not in the opera. These scenes tell you things about the character. Otello was an intelligent person—that's how he came to be in the position he was in. But he was uncertain of himself, and there was one person, Iago, who saw his weak point. In addition to reading and studying, you also have to bring your experience of life to a role like this. Otello did not know who his real friends were."

Botha has also listened carefully to the recordings of the great Otellos of the past and developed a special admiration for the interpretation of Jon Vickers. "I don't feel worthy to walk in the footsteps of some of the people who have sung Otello before me, and there were points when I wondered what I had gotten myself into. But once I had sung the first performance in Vienna, I could relax a little. I knew I could sing it, so I could concentrate on nuances and colors, and I know the more I sing this role, the more I will find in it. If you love and respect the music, the music will love you back."

RICHARD DYER is recently retired from The Boston Globe after thirty-three years of writing about music.

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