John Allison Botha sings his first Tannhäuser on stage at the Vienna Staatsoper this month
As a tenor who already has five Wagner roles—Erik, Walther, Parsifal, Lohengrin and Siegmund—in his repertoire, this month’s debut as Tannhäuser on stage is the next logical step for Johan Botha. An artist who has always planned his career progression carefully, Botha is approaching Wa gner’ s minstrel-knight with typical steadiness, having tried him out in concert performances at the Teatro Regio in Turin in March (see review, p. 711) under the baton of Semyon Bychkov. It’s a favoured collaboration for both parties, and Botha had the support that allowed him to sing with unforced, musical heft and open, ‘innocent’ delivery; his ringing Heldentenor sounded in its prime and ready for this new assignment. Now, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst and directed by Claus Guth, he takes Tannhäuser to the Staatsoper in Vienna, which must count as his home house. He has sung at least 20 of his 25-plus roles in the city, which the South African tenor now calls home despite a strong and lingering attachment to his native country . Since 1998 he has held dual Austrian-South African citizenship, and when in 2003 he was named an Österreichischer Kammersänger of the Staatsoper he became the youngest artist ever to receive this award.
‘The most interesting thing for me with Tannhäuser is the high tessitura,’ says Botha. ‘It’s high enough at the beginning of his Hymn to Venus, and the verses go up a semi-tone each time. Then when he sings it again in the Wartburg song contest, it’s another step higher. Each verse has its own tonality—that’s the challenge. There’s a huge ensemble to cut through, and the danger is to oversing, because there’s still the Act 3 Rome Narration. It’s not just narrative; it’s dramatic too, and you have to be able to pace yourself to sing right from the beginning to the end.’
Working with Bychkov both in the Turin Tannhaüser and on several Lohengrins (now preserved on the recent award-winning Profil CDs with Cologne’s WDR Symphony Orchestra), Botha has certainly been able to explore the ‘bel canto Wagner’ aspect of this music, a reminder of the composer’s own roots and experience. Despite the Wagner bias of his current season—after Vienna, he goes to Bayreuth for Siegmund, Covent Garden for another Tannhäuser (with Bychkov again, in Tim Albery’s new production this winter), and Chicago for Lohengrin—Botha is also in demand in the Italian repertoire. Recent roles have included Andrea Chénier, Otello, Turiddu, Canio, Radames, Calaf and Cavaradossi, so it is hardly surprising to find him caressing the line in Wagner,
Opera, June 2010 ■ Johan Botha singing Lohengrin at the Vienna Staatsoper in 2005, with Soile Isokoski as Elsa too. ‘I’m a Heldentenor, yes, but anyone who reads Wagner’s letters to Liszt will understand why I sing Wagner the way I do. Wagner doesn’t need to be trumpeted out, and nearly 80 per cent of Tannhäuser’s part is written pianissimo. In all composers, I try to go back to the score. Why should I scream if I can really sing it? It was my teacher, Irmgard Hartmann in Berlin, who reminded me not to scream Lohengrin. “That’s not the way he would speak to a woman,” she said, “so why not caress the line?” When Wagner was writing this music, there was no such thing as a Heldentenor, just bel canto tenors and dramatic tenors, and in his letters Wa gner stressed the need for a bel canto line.’
Botha’s future potential as a Wagnerian was spotted back in the 1980s in South Africa, and it was a visit to that country by Bayreuth’s famous chorus master, Norbert Balatsch, that helped to open the wider world to the tenor. ‘In 1989, several South African companies co-produced Lohengrin—it started in Pretoria, then went to Cape Town, Bloemfontein, everywhere—and they imported Balatsch to take over the chorus. I sang in the Pretoria performances as one of the Brabantians, and Balatsch heard me and said, “Your voice is very distinctive, it stands out, but do me a favour and sing softly so that I can hear the others and know their work”. In the end, he auditioned me and asked if I’d like to come and sing in the Bayreuth Festival chorus. I joined Bayreuth for the 1990 season and did Parsifal, Meistersinger, Lohengrin, Tannhäuser—but I really fell in love with Tannhäuser because the choruses are so fantastic.’
Botha was no stranger to chorus work, having spent his two-year national service in the so-called ‘Canaries’ (the choir of the South African Air Force). From there he auditioned in 1984 for the opera school of the Pretoria Technikon. ‘The opera department there was extremely good, and my teacher, Eric Muller, taught me everything I needed
Opera, June 2010