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8 September 2016

South African Tenor Johan Botha, 51, Has Died

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S OUTH AFRICAN TENOR Johan Botha, who began his career as chorister at the Bayreuth Festival before taking on some of the repertoire's most taxing roles on the world's biggest stages, has died. Botha, who was 51, had reportedly been suffering from cancer. 

The tenor performed as recently as three weeks ago at a gala for Cancer Association of South Africa in Cape Town, and was scheduled this season to sing performances this season of Otello and Die Frau ohne Schatten's Kaiser in Dresden, Berlin and Leipzig. Botha made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Canio in a 1997 performance of Pagliacci and returned to the company most recently in 2015 to take on the title role in performances of Tannhäuser conducted by James Levine. 

Born in Rustenburg, South Africa, Botha initially began his vocal studies as a bass-baritone, but went on to made his professional debut as a tenor in 1989 as Max in a Roodepoort performance of Der Freischütz. The following year, he began working as a chorister at Bayreuth. 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. Botha received even greater attention when he took on the role of Pinkerton in Robert Wilson's stylized production of Madama Butterfly at the Bastille in Paris. "People from all the major opera houses came and heard me, and the offers started coming in," Botha recalled in a 2008 interview with Opera News. After being released from an onerous fest contract in Bonn — "In one week I sang seven shows..." — Botha soon found himself performing principal roles in Europe's most important opera houses in Berlin, Paris, Milan and London. 

Botha's powerful, expansive instrument clearly had heldentenor shadings from the beginning of his career, yet he did not assume the repertoire's heaviest roles from the onset. Botha began with Lohengrin before taking on Meistersinger's Walther and Parsifal. In 2007, he sang his first Siegmund in Vienna and repeated the role in Bayreuth in 2010 under the baton of Christian Thielemann; he sang his first Tannhäuser at the Vienna Staatsoper in 2010, and he went on to sing the role in London and New York. A scrupulous musician, Botha did not eschew Verdi roles, and made something of a speciality of the role of Otello, taking it on first in Vienna in 2009 and following with performances of Shakespeare's Moor in Vienna, New York, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Chicago and and Salzburg. In 2003, the Vienna State Opera made Botha a Kammersänger.

Intelligent—and candid about the challenges posed by his struggles with weight—Botha clearly found a measure of solace in both music and his deeply held religious convictions. "God has given me this talent to work with, and I trust in Him," he told Richard Dyer in 2007. "I believe He has a plan for me and my life." spacer 

More information can be found in the Opera News archives (here and here) and at johan-botha.com

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