Obituaries

Obituaries

Tenor Johan Botha, sopranos Daniela Dessì and Patrice Munsel.

Obituaries Botha Tannhauser hdl 1116
As Tannhäuser at the Met, 2015
© Beth Bergman
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As Walther in Die Meistersinger at the Met, 2007 © Beatriz Schiller

JOHAN BOTHA
RUSTENBERG, SOUTH AFRICA, AUGUST  19, 1965—VIENNA, AUSTRIA,  SEPTEMBER 8, 2016  

THE TENOR, whose career spanned two decades, with regular appearances at the Metropolitan Opera, the Wiener Staatsoper, Bayreuth, Covent Garden and many other houses, died, reportedly from cancer, at fifty-one. 

Botha rose to the top rank of tenors thanks to his sky-blue-pretty voice. His stolid stage presence was offset by a remarkably limber tenor—a sensitive yet forceful instrument that could sound ethereal even in its middle range. His beautiful singing earned the admiration of critics, audiences and colleagues.

Born in Rustenberg, South Africa, in 1965, Botha was dyslexic, but as a child he discovered that he could read music. “This proved to everyone that I could accomplish something,” he told OPERA NEWS in 2008, “and singing became my life.”

He trained initially as a bass-baritone and sang Falstaff as a student, but a teacher helped move his voice upward. He made his opera debut, in Roodepoort, in the tenor role of Max, in Der Freischütz, in 1989, when he was twenty-four. The next year, he was tapped for the chorus at Bayreuth. (He returned to Bayreuth in 2010 for his solo debut, as Siegmund, under Christian Thielemann and later sang the role there again under Kirill Petrenko.)

An engagement to sing Un Ballo in Maschera in Kaiserslautern kicked off Botha’s career in regional German opera houses, and he began to take on increasingly important roles in performances in Dortmund, Hagen, Hildesheim and Bonn. His breakthrough came in 1993, when he sang Pinkerton at Opéra Bastille in Paris, in Robert Wilson’s stylized production. He subsequently sang in many of the major cities in Europe—Berlin, Milan, London—and made his Met debut in 1997, as Canio. He sang at the house eighty more times, as Lohengrin, Florestan, Calàf and others—including Walther in the 2014 Live in HD broadcast of Meistersinger. It was his most frequent role at the Met; he sang it with the company seventeen times. His prize song, at its best, was extraordinary in phrasing and tone.

His final performance at the house was as Tannhäuser, on Halloween last year; during the run, his tenor carried robustly above Wagner’s dense orchestrations, while clearly displaying the character’s emotional motivations.

“Johan’s sound is both powerful and sweet, gigantic and gorgeous. You don’t find that combination in one singer very often,” soprano Patricia Racette, the Elisabetta to his Don Carlo at the Met in 2006, once said. “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 had more than thirty roles in his repertory; in recent years, he typically stuck to Verdi, Wagner and a little Strauss, and he made a specialty in particular of Otello, singing the jealous Moor in Vienna, Berlin, Salzburg, San Francisco, Chicago and at the Met (including the 2012 Live in HD broadcast). He was scheduled to reprise the role this February, in Dresden. 

“He sang with his usual scrupulous attention to detail,” Richard Dyer wrote of Botha’s first Otello, at Vienna’s Staatsoper, in October 2006. (He sang Otello more than any other role at that house.) “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.”

Botha was forthcoming about his weight. In 2008, he told OPERA NEWS, “I … think we have 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.” Botha may not have looked like a lover, he told the AP in 1997, but “I sing like one.”  —Henry Stewart 

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Dessì in concert, 2012
Agf S.R.L/Rex Shutterstock via ZUMA Press

DANIELA DESSÌ
GENOA, ITALY, MAY 14, 1957—BRESCIA, ITALY, AUGUST  20, 2016 
 

THE SOPRANO'S GLAMOROUS, charismatic presence and idiomatic command of the Italian style made her a valuable singer at the most important opera houses of Europe and North America, including La Scala, Bologna, Genoa, Parma, Rome, Pesaro, Teatro San Carlo, Arena di Verona, Covent Garden, Zurich Opera, Dresden Semperoper, Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Salzburg Festival, the Metropolitan Opera, Washington National Opera, San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago. Dessì’s performances were dramatically committed, musically passionate and charged with rare personal and professional generosity. The most versatile Italian soprano of her generation, Dessì collaborated in the theater, in concert and on recording with Riccardo Muti, Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Chailly, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Zubin Mehta, Bruno Bartoletti and James Levine, among others.

After vocal studies in Parma and Siena, Dessì first attracted attention with her victory in the 1980 RAI International Competition. The soprano began her professional career with concert engagements before making her opera debut with Opera Giacosa, in Savona, in Pergolesi’s Serva Padrona. Dessì’s career repertory grew to include more than fifty roles, extending from the operas of Monteverdi and Mozart to the Verdi, Puccini and verismo heroines that established her international reputation. In bel canto repertoire, Dessì took on rarities such as Matilde in Rossini’s Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra and Paolina in Donizetti’s Poliuto, as well as Norma, Maria Stuarda, Lucrezia Borgia and Mathilde in Guillaume Tell.

Dessì came to the Metropolitan Opera in 1995, as Nedda in Pagliacci, and sang an additional twenty performances with the company in New York and on tour. Dessì was Mimì in Act III of La Bohème in the Met’s 1998 gala celebrating Luciano Pavarotti’s thirtieth anniversary with the company; in 2000, she sang Maddalena to Plácido Domingo’s Andrea Chénier in the first act of the Met’s “Three Tenors” Millennium Gala. Dessì’s last Met performance was as Tosca in 2010.

In 2000, while she was singing in a production of Andrea Chénier, Dessì began an important professional and personal partnership with tenor Fabio Armiliato that continued until her death. Dessì and Armiliato appeared together frequently in the theater and on recordings. Dessì died after a brief illness; she had received a diagnosis of cancer in May.  —F. Paul Driscoll 

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Munsel in costume for Despina at the Met
Sedge Leblang/OPERA NEWS Archives

PATRICE MUNSEL
SPOKANE, WA, MAY, 14, 1925—SCHROON LAKE, NY, AUGUST 4, 2016  

PATRICE MUNSEL was perennially stuck with the tag of being the youngest soprano to make her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, but it would be a more fitting tribute to remember her as a born entertainer who enjoyed an unusual degree of success in both opera and popular music. Munsel was a hard-working artist, seemingly free of pretensions. During her fifteen seasons at the Met, she became famous as a clear-voiced, high-flying coloratura soprano, with excellent diction. After she left the opera stage, she enjoyed an even longer and perhaps richer career in musical comedy. She also appeared extensively on television and even starred in a Hollywood movie. She helped to overturn the fiction that opera singers were stuffy and humorless, out of touch with the mass audience. She struck audiences as being great fun, someone they would like to know; few opera singers seemed as effortlessly likable as Munsel.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, she made her first mark as a champion whistler—a talent she would trot out occasionally even in old age. When she was fifteen, she and her mother moved to New York to launch her opera career, which she did when she won the Met Auditions of the Air, and on December 4, 1943, at age eighteen, she made her Met debut as Philine in Mignon. There was much criticism of the company’s general manager, Edward Johnson, for hiring such a young singer—people with long memories inevitably brought up the name of Marion Talley, an unsuccessful nineteen-year-old Met debutante of the 1920s—but Munsel quickly became a house favorite, singing the meat of the coloratura repertoire, including Gilda, Lucia, Olympia and Rosina. “We really had an ensemble in those days,” she told OPERA NEWS in 2006. “It wasn’t like now, with artists coming and going all the time. We stayed in one place. We were a team.”

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American beauty: Munsel in 1945
OPERA NEWS Archives

With Rudolf Bing’s arrival as Met general manager in 1950, Munsel came to the roles in which audiences cherished her most—a lively Adele in Garson Kanin’s 1950 staging of Die Fledermaus and a witty, cagey Despina in Alfred Lunt’s 1951 production of Così Fan Tutte. In Design for Living, Margot Peters’s 2003 biography of Lunt and his wife, Lynn Fontanne, Peters quoted the director’s observation to actor William LeMassena: “Never has Despina been sung as well and certainly never acted as well. Nor will it be again.” Both productions were part of Bing’s plan to upgrade theatrical values at the Met, and Munsel’s natural high spirits lent themselves beautifully to both roles. She was such a big name that Horizon Pictures risked starring her in a biopic of Nellie Melba in 1953. Despite being directed by Academy Award-winner Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front), the result, Melba, was dull and trite, and Munsel later said that she considered its script a complete cop-out. 

Her other Met roles included Périchole, Musetta and Zerlina. Although the role was too heavy for her voice, she longed to sing Mimì in La Bohème, which she finally did for one performance in 1958. Soon thereafter, dissatisfied that the Met saw her only as a soubrette, she announced she would no longer sing there, after 225 performances in New York and on tour. 

Munsel was a frequent guest on television’s Bell Telephone Hour and the mystery guest in a 1958 episode of What’s My Line? She starred in her own ABC series, The Patrice Munsel Show, which ran for the 1957–58 season, and she made guest appearances on other series, including The Wild, Wild West. She had a club act in Las Vegas and appeared on Broadway in the 1975 revue A Musical Jubilee, with John Raitt, Cyril Ritchard, Larry Kert, Lillian Gish and Tammy Grimes. She also embarked on a decades-long career as the star of road-show musicals, including Mame, Kiss Me, Kate, Kismet and Applause—something she enjoyed as much as she had her opera career. As Mame, she was a natural: on tour, she was fond of nude sunbathing, driving around in her yellow Corvette convertible and walking her pet ocelot. She was much beloved by her colleagues: Russell Beasley recalled appearing with her in a production of Mame in the late 1970s. Cast as Older Patrick, Beasley was handed a ratty, ill-fitting costume; when Munsel saw him, she declared, “No nephew of mine would ever wear that shit!” and promptly took him shopping for a new wardrobe at Filene’s. “From that point on,” remembered Beasley, “I was hers to command.” 

Munsel married advertising and public-relations executive Robert C. Schuler in 1952, and the couple had two sons and two daughters. She was also commercial spokeswoman for the Camp Fire Girls (baby boomers fondly remember her singing “Wo-he-lo”) and a frequent host at New York musical events, where her daffy spirit often took the audience by surprise. One of her last public appearances was at a Metropolitan Opera Guild screening of Melba in 2011. Wearing a yellow-and-white sequin pantsuit and an enormous yellow topaz ring, she still seemed Mame-like. As always, she was warmly greeted by her fans.  —Brian Kellow 

ELENA DORIA
PROVIDENCE, RI, JULY, 3, 1926, NEW YORK, NY, JULY  27, 2016  

THE LONGTIME DIRECTOR of the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus, Doria went to Italy on a Fulbright scholarship in her mid-twenties and studied voice at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. She began her opera career as a soprano in Italian theaters during the 1950s. After she returned to the U.S., Doria sang in the chorus at Radio City Music Hall and with Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians before joining the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera in 1966, during the company’s first season at Lincoln Center. Doria’s most frequent Met solo credit was as one of the Alms Collectors in Fabrizio Melano’s staging of Suor Angelica, which she sang thirty-three times, including a 1981 Live from the Met telecast of Il Trittico.

In 1986, Doria was named director of the Met’s children’s chorus, a position she retained until 2009. Doria was celebrated for her exacting standards and fierce discipline, qualities essential to creating a professional children’s chorus. By the time of her retirement, Doria had in her charge some 150 children between the ages of five and fourteen, many of them with scant musical training. Doria taught them music, languages, deportment and commitment to their craft. In a 2003 interview with OPERA NEWS, Doria said that the worst thing a young performer could do was to be “blah” onstage. “A lack of energy and a blank look equal a blank, lifeless voice. Voice isn’t enough, because this is acting, it is opera. It is better to make a mistake with conviction than to be a blob.” spacer 



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