By Mike Silverman | Associated Press

Deep into the third act of Wagner’s “Tannhaeuser,” the title character sings the Rome Narrative, recounting his disastrous pilgrimage to ask the pope’s absolution for having dallied with Venus, goddess of love.

Coming near the end of a four-hour-long performance of one of the most grueling roles in all of opera, it can tax the tenor to the point of exhaustion. Not Johan Botha.

“After a long night, that’s the easiest part for me,” he said in an interview at the Metropolitan Opera, where he will star in an HD broadcast of the work on Saturday.

That’s because, the 50-year-old South African tenor explained, the vocal line lies low, “basically for a bass-baritone, and that’s what I was when I first started singing. I still have those low notes.”

Instead, the tougher challenge for Botha, who sang the role with the Lyric Opera last winter, is a relatively brief solo late in Act 2 when the medieval minstrel knight pleads for God’s forgiveness.

“That little aria,” he said, “if you don’t sing it lyrically like a Schubert song you quickly get in trouble. Because it has those fifth and seventh jumps going up and up. If you put too much down pressure on the low notes then you carry all the weight over to the high notes, and the thing is, you know, you blow your voice out.”

Has that ever happened to him in a performance? “It did,” he confesses with a shrug. “But then you just have to recover.”


Wagner devoted more time to revising “Tannhaeuser” than to most of his other operas. After the premiere in Dresden, Germany, in 1845, he made a number of changes for Paris, where it premiered in 1861. The current Met production by Otto Schenk, dating from 1977, uses the “Paris Version” but includes further changes Wagner made for a Vienna revival in 1875. Botha said Wagner never was completely satisfied with the results. “He basically rewrote the whole piece,” he said. “He believed until his dying day that he owed the world a better ‘Tannhaeuser.’ ”


The major change Wagner made for Paris was to add a ballet, something that was considered essential for any opera performed there. He composed a bacchanal for the opening scene in the Venusberg — the only place in the opera where dancing made sense. But a group of wealthy male patrons expected ballets to come during Act 2 so they could arrive late after dinner and still see the dancers (many of whom were their mistresses). In protest, they created such an uproar that Wagner had to withdraw the work after the third performance.


Wagner conceived the opera’s two female roles as opposite poles of womanhood: Venus symbolizes carnal sexuality while Elisabeth stands for chaste devotion and piety. Because the two characters never appear on the stage at the same time, it’s possible for one singer to portray both in the same performance — but that has happened only once in Met history: in 1966, when Birgit Nilsson did it four times. In the current revival, Eva-Maria Westbroek sings Elisabeth and Michelle DeYoung is Venus. Baritone Peter Mattei sings the role of Tannhaeuser’s friend Wolfram and gets the opera’s best-known aria, the “Song to the Evening Star.” Met music director James Levine conducts the orchestra and chorus.


The Met’s HD broadcast will be shown live in movie theaters around the world starting at 11 a.m. Saturday. A list of theaters can be found at the Met’s website. In the U.S., it will be repeated Wednesday.