South African Tenor Johan Botha Dies At Age 51

Tenor Johan Botha, whose light but muscular voice dazzled audiences at the world’s top operatic stages in a wide range of roles, died Thursday in Vienna. He was 51.

Whereas many of his contemporaries focused on a relatively narrow repertoire, the South African felt at home in operas ranging from Puccini to Wagner. Over a nearly 30-year career, he appeared on most of the world’s top stages including La Scala, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the State Opera in Vienna, where he made his home.

Photo: Hiroko Masuike/AP
Seen here during a dress rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Elisabetta Hartl of Medea Music and Entertainment Group, which worked with Botha, gave no details in announcing his death, but Botha had been suffering from cancer.

Uncommonly versatile, Botha shone in roles ranging from Florestan in Beethoven’s “Fidelio” to main figures in works by Verdi, Wagner, and Richard Strauss. His voice was light but powerful, displaying a fluidity that at its best knew few constraints.

He was also an accomplished concert singer, appearing with orchestras including the Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra under the batons of Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim and Christian Thielemann, among others.

Forced to pause for seven months for treatment, Botha celebrated a comeback in June that led to hopes of a recovery, singing one of his signature characters – Siegmund in Wagner’s “Die Walkuere” – at the Budapest opera.

He last sang three weeks ago at an opera gala in Cape Town in collaboration with the Cancer Association of South Africa, and had been slotted for top roles in Puccini’s “Turandot” and Verdi’s “Aida” for this year’s season in Vienna.

Born in the northern South African city of Rustenburg, Botha studied singing at an early age, notching some local successes before starting his world career – at first as a choir member at the Bayreuth Festival.

His breakthrough came in 1993 when he appeared at the Opera Bastille in Paris as Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” Roles at other major European houses soon followed.