VIENNA (AP) — 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.
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, Botha celebrated a comeback in June that led to hopes of a recovery, singing one of his signature characters — Siegmund in Wagner’s “Die Walkure” — 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.
South African President Jakob Zuma called Botha “a good ambassador for South Africa abroad” and paid tribute to “his soothing and powerful voice.”
Friends and colleagues expressed shock at his death.
Vienna State Opera director Dominique Meyer said Botha “left us much too early” and had a black flag of mourning hoisted at the opera house. Peter Gelb, his counterpart at the Metropolitan Opera, said his house “mourns the untimely death.”
Tenor Michael Schade called Botha “one of the greatest voices that I ever got to share the stage with.” Kasper Holten, director of the Royal Opera in London, said: “So sad to hear of Johan Botha’s death,” which baritone Thomas Hampson called a “huge loss for the opera world.”
Born Aug. 19, 1965, 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.
Botha is survived by his wife and two sons.