South African Otello wows Met

Johan Botha performing as Otello
Image copyright the Metropolitan Opera

Janine Erasmus

Many great singers have taken on particular roles and made them their own – for Luciano Pavarotti it was Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème. For Enrico Caruso it was the clown Canio in Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci. For Plácido Domingo it was Otello in Verdi’s opera of the same name – the great tenor first essayed the role in 1975 and has performed it more than 200 times since then.

That role has now been emphatically claimed by South African tenor Johan Botha, who made his debut as Otello at the New York Metropolitan Opera on 11 February. Botha sings opposite leading US soprano Renée Fleming, who plays Desdemona, with Italian baritone Carlo Guelfi as the villainous Iago, the architect of the tragedy.

Although Canadian tenor Ben Heppner laid claim to the role of the jealous Moor four years ago, today Botha is considered the leading interpreter of Verdi’s tragic character. The singer’s voice is as vast and powerful as one would expect from his massive physical build, but it is also capable of great sweetness and tenderness.

Reviews of the performance have been mixed, with some critics charging that Botha’s acting skills fall short. But they have universally hailed the singer’s powerful yet elegant vocal ability and his interaction with the luminous Fleming, saying that the chemistry between the two was apparent right from the start.

The audience gave Botha a standing ovation at the end of his first performance.

Homegrown talent

Botha was born in 1965 in Rustenburg, a town some 100km northwest of Johannesburg. He attributes his love for opera to his father, who often played his many recordings by great opera singers such as Caruso.

Botha is dyslexic, and although he struggled with words as a child, he could easily read music. He took his first lessons at the age of 10 with Czech teacher Jarmilla Tellenger and later enrolled in the opera school at Pretoria’s Technical High School, where he studied with Eric Muller. By then he was already performing, singing in productions such as the première of South African composer Hendrik Hofmeyr’s The Fall of the House of Usher.

Botha made his professional operatic debut in 1989, singing the role of Max the marksman in Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz (The Freeshooter). A year later he was asked by renowned baritone Norbert Balatsch, at the time the conductor of the Bayreuth Festival Chorus, to audition for a place in the chorus. Botha passed the audition and although he says it was hard to move to another country, learn German and seek out people who would support him in his burgeoning career, he did not look back.

It was a time when the future of opera in South Africa seemed bleak. The government was withdrawing support and funding from the four provincial performing arts councils – until 1994, the country had only four provinces instead of the current nine. Those South African singers who were determined to make their career in opera often found that pursuing opportunities abroad was the only way.

Mimi Coertse was perhaps the best-known South African opera performer of that period – for many years she was the darling of Vienna. More recently, South African singers such as Michelle Breedt, Bronwyn Forbay, Jacques Imbrailo, and the late Deon van der Walt have also made their mark overseas – but these singers returned as often as they could to their home country to perform in front of appreciative audiences. As has Botha – in spite of a diary that is booked up far in advance, he returned to South Africa in mid-2007 to perform in Johannesburg and Cape Town for the first time in 17 years.

Forging an international career

Currently based in Vienna, Botha’s international breakthrough was in 1993 at the Opera de la Bastille in Paris, where he played Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Since then he has performed at leading venues around the world and is one of only a few South African opera singers to have appeared at all of the world’s foremost opera houses – the Royal Opera House in London, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Vienna State Opera and La Scala in Milan.

Botha debuted at the Met in 1997 as Canio in I Pagliacci, and over the past decade has sung 49 performances in seven roles there.

He is also known for singing Wagner and has released a recording featuring well-known extracts from Wagner’s works. In June 2003 he was named Österreichischer Kammersänger (Austrian Chamber Singer), a title bestowed on distinguished singers.

Seven years in the making

Composer Giuseppe Verdi took seven years to complete Otello. Initially Verdi’s librettist, Arrigo Boito, suggested the title of Iago (to distinguish it from the opera of the same name by Gioacchino Rossini) but the composer insisted on calling it Otello. Verdi uses the orchestra to great effect in this opera, helping to dramatically illustrate the events – for example, the orchestral writing plays a part in revealing the depth of evil in Iago.

In writing the libretto, Boito was scrupulously faithful to Shakespeare’s original words, which is why the role calls for as much acting skill as vocal ability.

By 1885 the score was essentially completed but the orchestration took a year longer, and rehearsals began in 1886. The première of the work took place in 1887.

It remains to be seen whether audiences will hail Johan Botha as Otello to the same extent that they hailed Plácido Domingo. After a performance of Otello in Vienna on 30 June 1991, the audience gave Domingo 101 curtain calls and an 80-minute ovation – the longest standing ovation ever.

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