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South African tenor Johan Botha dies at 51; performed at Lyric

Johan Botha as Otello and Ana Maria Martinez as Desdemona in Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2013 production of "Otello"| PHOTO BY DAN REST

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 no stranger to the stage of Chicago’s Lyric Opera, having performed in various roles over the years beginning in the 1998-1999 season’s production of “La Gioconda” in which he starred as Enzo. Other Lyric roles included Canio in “Pagliacci” (2002-2003); Calaf in “Turandot” (2006-2007); the title role in “Lohengrin” (2010-2011); Walther von Stolzing in “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg” (2012-2013); the title role in “Otello” (2013-2014) and most recently in the title role in “Tannhauser” (2014-2015). In 2014, Botha performed “Nessun dorma,” the iconic aria from “Turandot” at the Lyric’s 60th anniversary gala.

“Johan Botha was one of the great tenors of our time, and a much-loved member of the Lyric family,” said Anthony Freud, general director of Lyric Opera, in a statement. “Johan left an indelible impression on his countless fans in Chicago and around the world, and on those of us who had the good fortune to know and work with him. He will be greatly missed.”

Botha was 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.

South African tenor Johan Botha sings the role of Calaf during a dress rehearsal of Giacomo Puccini's opera "Turandot" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2004. | AP Photo/Hiroko Masuike

South African tenor Johan Botha sings the role of Calaf during a dress rehearsal of Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Turandot” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2004. | AP Photo/Hiroko Masuike

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.

Johan Botha and Greer Grimsley in "Lohengrin" at Lyric Opera. | COPYRIGHT DAN REST

Johan Botha and Greer Grimsley in “Lohengrin” at Lyric Opera. | COPYRIGHT DAN REST

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.

GEORGE JAHN, Associated Press

Contributing: Chicago Sun-Times staff reporter Miriam Di Nunzio

Johan Botha in Lyric Opera of Chicago production of "Tannhauser" | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015

Johan Botha in Lyric Opera of Chicago production of “Tannhauser” | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015