New York Times: Johan Botha, Operatic Tenor, Dies at 51. I woke this morning to news of the great tenor’s untimely demise in my Facebook feed.
I sang on stage several times with Botha during the James Levine era at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he was on tap for the most heroic roles: Waldemar in Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, Florestan in Fidelio, Walter in Meistersinger. His was a magnificent voice: as I wrote in 2007 about his Florestan, his voice could convey both sheer power and powerful emotion. His rendition of the “prize song” from Meistersinger has always stayed close to my heart for its sheer magnificence.
I think, though, that I’ll always remember him for his approachable humanity. He always was glad to see the chorus, and could be relied on to liven rehearsals, especially as he grew more comfortable: clowning during Don Carlo, or bringing beer steins onto the Tanglewood stage for himself and James Morris. (They drank water from them.)
And, of course, in this miserable 2016, the cause of death was cancer. It was just six weeks ago that he headlined a cancer fundraiser in South Africa at which he was prominently billed as a “cancer survivor” and having been given a “clean bill of health.” That performance now stands as his final bow.
The video at the top is an audience film of the intermission bow from the 2006 Symphony Hall performance of Gurrelieder under James Levine, featuring Karita Mattila, Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson, and Botha. The latter two have been taken from us, both by cancer, and Levine himself will never again walk as nimbly as he does in this footage. It’s a sobering reminder that none of us are allotted much time.
I’ve been in rehearsals all week at Symphony Hall for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus’s first concert of the 2008-2009 Symphony Hall season, the Brahms Requiem with the Boston Symphony under James Levine. It’s an amazing work–I’ll try to describe it in more detail after our performances. But the two really amazing things for this weekend for me are the same things that Jeremy Eichler flagged in his review of Wednesday’s season opener, namely, Levine himself and the windows in the Hall.
Losing Levine to two months of cancer treatment after the opening of the Tanglewood season was a blow to audience and performer, although some of the resulting performances under guest conductors were still pretty spectacular. But it’s great to have him back and he is as energetic as ever.
The clerestory windows … well. Eichler gives the background in his article (part of the original design of the hall, they were covered over during World War II to comply with blackout requirements and never reopened). But what he doesn’t mention is the effect on the hall’s sound. The window openings had actually been plastered over, and the removal of all that plaster and introduction of glass (albeit a special glass that doesn’t resonate) means that there’s a new brilliance on the sound in the hall. Levine remarked on it, our director remarked on it, and it was even apparent on the stage in the reflected sound during our rehearsal. We’ll see tonight whether it makes as much difference when the hall is full of people.
It certainly has a striking visual effect, especially for a daytime rehearsal. I only had my iPhone on me so the picture I got was pretty poor, with lots of streaks from the light sources running through the pictures, but you can still see how alive the hall looks now.