Tragic news: A great tenor is cut short at 51

Tragic news: A great tenor is cut short at 51


norman lebrecht

September 08, 2016

The great Wagnerian tenor Johan Botha died this morning of cancer. He was 51.


A South African, he made his local stage debut at 24 in 1989 and moved to Vienna the following year. By the mid-1990s, he was a fixture at the Met and the Vienna Opera in the major Wagner roles, as well as Verdi’s Don Carlo, Vespri Siciliani, Aida and Otello. Impressive performances were sometimes marred by adverse criticism centred on his body size.

He made his Bayreuth debut as Siegmund in 2010, conducted by Christian Thielemann, returning in a new Ring cycle in the same role under the baton of Kirill Petrenko from 2013 to 2015.

In the past year, he cancelled most appearances due to cancer. He spent the last month in South Africa, saying his farewells and raising funds in a last recital for a liver cancer charity.

He died in Vienna, surrounded by family.

Our condolences to Sonja and the children.

Rest his soul.

UPDATE: Vienna Opera flies black flag for Johan Botha.


  • ketzel says:

    Horrible news. One of the most gorgeous voices, ever.

  • elvira hassler says:

    condolences and deepest sympathy to Sonja and sons …

  • Olassus says:

    Johan Botha …

    Beethoven, Fidelio,
    2004, live in Vienna, Premiere Opera

    d’Albert, Tiefland,
    de Billy/Gasteen/Botha/Struckmann/Youn-K,
    2002, Oehms

    Giordano, Andrea Chénier,
    2003, live in Vienna, Premiere Opera

    Mascagni, Cavalleria rusticana,
    1996, live in Berlin

    Puccini, Turandot,
    2001, live in Copenhagen, Premiere Opera

    Puccini, Turandot,
    2002, DVD, Salzburg, Berio completion, TDK

    Puccini, Turandot,
    2007, live in Chicago, Lyric Distribution

    Strauss-R, Daphne,
    2004, live in Cologne, Philharmonie, WDR

    Strauss-R, Daphne,
    2004, DVD, Reitzenstein movie, Encore

    Strauss-R, Daphne,
    2005, live in Cologne, Philharmonie, Decca

    Strauss-R, Elektra,
    1995, Teldec

    Strauss-R, Frau ohne Schatten, Die,
    2013, live in Munich, BR

    Verdi, Aida,
    2009, DVD, New York, Decca

    Verdi, Don Carlos,
    2006, live in New York, Sirius

    Verdi, Otello,
    2008, live in New York, Premiere Opera

    Verdi, Otello,
    2012, DVD, New York, Decca

    Wagner, Lohengrin,
    2008, Hänssler

    Wagner, Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Die,
    2008, DVD, Vienna, EuroArts

    Wagner, Parsifal,
    2013, DVD, Salzburg, DG

    Wagner, Walküre, Die,
    2010, DVD, Bayreuth, Opus Arte

    Wagner, Tannhäuser,
    2015, live in New York, Sirius

  • Marshall says:

    Nice Tribute

    This is a great loss, obviously on the human level-he had 2 teenage sons-but also for opera. It is a rare enough voice type to begin with, and lately he was sounding even better, and the way he had managed his career, it was not hard to think that his best years were in front of him.

    His Tannhäuser last season at the Met (in that glorious traditional production-never to be seen again) he was terrific- all in all the best Tannhäuser I’ve seen, and part of that was his amazing endurance in that trying role. (It was an HD, so a DVD will follow) His Inbrunst im Herzen was terrific, and deeply expressive. Usually because of the rest of the demands of the role, tenors have to save up for this-but he sang freely through out the opera and had plenty left for it. Listening to it, and thinking of his reserves of power I was thinking what a great Tristan he might make-not to be.

    (Yes, his size could be a factor,and he took a lot of flak for it. But in a traditional productions it was much less of a factor, and given his singing you’d forget about it- but in the goof ball ones, it was often hard for him to fit in. Like Pavarotti despite his size he could move well enough on stage, and like Pav had an expressive face. Alas like Pav with his pancreatic cancer, and Johan’s with liver-they are death sentences)

    • Petros Linardos says:

      I generally agree with your take on his physique. It was his health problem and nobody else’s businness, as long as he had the stamina to perform his roles – which he did.

  • Rob says:

    The times he performed Mahler 8 made me wince. He just simply could not sing in tune. Absolutely awful. He was simply overrated, sorry to say.

    • Emil Archambault says:

      Sorry that you had one bad concert. I, like countless others, enjoyed his performances tremendously. He had a tone of pure honey, sweet, even, lush, yet menacing when necessary (I saw him in Otello). I would gladly have heard him many times more. A loss for opera, no doubt.

    • Marshall says:

      You’re a good example of what’s wrong with the world today-It’s sad, tragic-how about waiting until the body is cold before you give your self-important judgement on one performance?

      It’s one experience-maybe it was a bad night, a bad patch-all singers have them-and you judge the entire career based on what? Did you hear the Tannhäuser I mentioned? And why bother with the “sorry to say”? Are you sorry to say? Oh, why bother………

      • Linda H Strummer says:

        The public often forgets that singers are just people. Humans – like everybody else. The only difference is that the instrument we play is in our all to human bodies. You can be fine one day and be sick the next. Since he had liver cancer, I can imagine that his energy and stamina were a roller coaster ride all the time. Think of another thing: the average person can call in sick but will get paid anyway. Not so the singer! We don’t sing, we don’t get paid. Unfortunately, the bills come anyway. We often have to sing whether we want to or not. Especially if it is a concert. It can be impossible to get a sub in time for the performance. Should the audience be deprived of the other performers (and their wages!)
        because one singer is not totally up on his game?

    • Alexander says:

      An unkind and unnecessary comment.

  • Mon coeur s'ouvre a sa voix says:

    My name reflects my sentiments today. A sweet, lovely, modest, gentle man with a sweet, lovely voice. His size? More to love. May he rest in peace. Our thoughts go out to his family.

  • Elwyn Hurst says:

    I saw him in Andrea Chenier at the Sydney Opera House. He was magnificent. I believe he sounded much better “in the flesh” than on recordings (much like Jon Vickers whom I saw in London/Manchester in the early 1960s)

  • Jon Elsby says:

    I heard Johan Botha “live” only once – at Covent Garden in Lohengrin. He seemed to me ideal in the part, vocally and dramatically. I don’t recall giving a thought to his size. He was one of those rare tenors who can sing the Wagner roles but also tackle the Italian repertoire. On Youtube, he was a superb Calaf, and I believe he was equally fine in Chenier and Otello.

    A sad loss to his family and to music. May perpetual light shine upon him.