Thursday, December 22, 2011


Kammersanger Johan Botha.

The World's Best Tenors.

Prince Charles and Johan Botha.

Johan Botha sang in  the Metropolitan Opera for the first time in 1997.His debut role, Canio in Leoncavallo's "Il Pagliacci"

Deon van der Walt and Brenda Rein told me about him and said that he was going to a big opera star as he had a unique dramatic tenor voice. I was looking forward to hearing him at his debut in the USA.He had been singing since 1993 in Europe but his would be the first time he sang at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It took him five years.....
Salome Bruwer wanted to interview Johan for the South African Radio .I wrote him a note and she invited Johan and his wife Sonja with their little baby boy Louis to lunch .We went to a  Italian  Restaurant in the Village and as it was freezing outside, we were the only people there .

Johan Botha and Michele Crider in "Tosca"
The little boy was very quite and never cried once. Sonja told us that she takes him backstage  to all Johan's performances and they will listen to his performance over the loudspeakers in his dressing room. She said the only time Louis gets nervous and cries  is when they torture Cavaradossi in Puccini's opera "Tosca" and he hears Johan's screams  .Once this scene is over he calms down and sleeps again.

Johan & Sonja Botha..

Johan's debut was a great success and he has sang at the Metropolitan Opera for the last 21 years.

Johan Botha as "Othello" at the Metropolitan Opera.

Johan Botha and Renee Fleming in "Othello"

Johan Botha in Verdi's "Don Carlos"

His roles so far at the Metropolitan opera has been :-  Leoncavallo's "Il Pagliacci" Verdi's "Aida" "Othello" and "Don Carlos". Puccini's "Turandot" and Richard Wagner's "Die Meistersinger"
  "Die Walkure"and  "Tannhauser"

Johan Botha as Calaf in Puccini's "Turandot".

Johan Botha  in Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg"

Johan Botha as Siegmund in Wagner's "Die Walkure".

Johan Botha in Bayreuth

Johan Botha as Radames in Verdi's "Aida"at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Johan Botha and Violetta Urmana in "Aida"
James Levine loves Johan's voice and has invited him to sing at the Tanglewood Summer Festival many times. Levine worked with the Boston Symphony and used Johan there as well. Johan regularly appears at the Lyric Opera of Chicago as well as in San Francisco .When he is offered a contract to appear in the USA he will try and stay for about three months at a time. It is not worth his while to come for short stays as he is so busy working in  European opera houses.

Johan Botha at Tanglewood with James Levine and the Boston Symphony.

Brenda will travel with him and work with him on the days he does not rehearse or perform. It means that he has to rent two apartments for their stay and the cost can be outrageous.His sons are at school in Vienna now so Sonja can not travel with him to the USA but will visit during school breaks, bringing the boys, Louis en Marius, along to visit their father. The boys speak Afrikaans but with a  German accent- as they go to school in Austria .The whole family pays a price when he goes away for so long. Modern technology like e mail and Skype is used to bring the boys in line when needed, but also to talk  and see to his family regularly. When he sings in Europe he is away from home for much less time.When Kammersanger  Johan Botha  sings at the Vienna State Opera he is home every night- enjoying his family and home outside of Vienna.

Johan is a very religious man and when he comes to New York he joins me for services at Marble Collegiate Church. It is quite something standing next to him singing a hymn.....!Like Ben Heppner and  Paul Plishka he has sung with the choir during Sunday Services .
Marble Church supports two congregations in Soweto ,South Africa and I asked Johan if he would give a concert to support this charity. He very kindly agreed and performed during the Christmas season in 2007 to a packed church singing with the Marble Gospel Choir and a South African children's choir that performed at the White House two night before. They got a standing ovation and he loved doing it to help others.

Erwin, Henry, Johan and Brenda.
Johan has invited me on several occasions to meet them at  the Metropolitan Opera when he is working with Brenda. This has always been an amazing experience. It gives one an idea of how much effort and work goes into working on a new  role.

Brenda Rein.

Brenda coaches Johan not only by teaching him the music but she also explains the role , helps with  pronunciation and emotion.She will sing the part of the other singer so that he knows when to come in. She will also suggest to  him what instrument he has to listen to for his note. By the time of a performance he must know all this by heart so that the music becomes second nature to him. When he is on stage he must know the music so well that he will be able to concentrate on the performance itself -the conductor, his colleagues ,the costume and to perform the role . It take months- and sometimes years -of studying the opera  before he will perform it on stage.

Once while working with him on Eugen d'Albert's "Tiefland" , Brenda felt that he is not showing enough passion when he is singing to his betrothed Marta-who becomes his wife later in the opera. She explained it to him in her own charming way -that was rather blue and very funny. When he sang the aria again one heard the difference!

Johan and Brenda at the Metropolitan Opera .

Johan trusts Brenda completely and her professional criticism is all he cares about .I have seen him come off stage and the first one he looks for is Brenda -to see her reaction. The conductor can rave but Brenda's opinion  is all that counts. He knows she will be honest with him.
She sits in the house or backstage at every performance  and makes notes on what he should change at the next performance. The next time they rehearse they will first concentrate on the opera he is singing  .After that is done they will move on the new opera that they are studying for future performances.  Sometimes the conductor likes the music faster or slower  and then she will work with him to adapt his pace to that what the Maestro requires.
Brenda does not teach Johan to sing -that is not what a coach does-she only teaches him the role. Now and then she would suggest a place to breath when he is having problems but how he sings is up to him- and his voice teacher Frau Hartman- that lives in Berlin. Johan still work with her whenever he can and specially when he is studying a new role.Johan is a very interesting guy. Nothing seems to bother him.  I have peeked from the stage into the auditorium of the Metropolitan Opera and its 4000 seats- and shuddered.How these opera singers get the nerves to walk out there and perform is something I will never understand.

He is also a sought after recording artist and has worked most of the famous conductors in the world.

Listen to Johan Botha here:-

This man will be known as one of the best Wagner tenors the world has ever seen .
We as fellow South Africans are very proud of him.

In  November 2015 after his very successful performances at the Metropolitan Opera in "Tannhauser"
Johan was diagnosed with liver cancer. He stopped singing to undergo chemo treatment for seven months .In June he sang for the first time again in "Die Walkure "in Budapest. That was followed by appearances at the Bavarian State Opera in "Turandot" with Nina Stemme . In August of 2016 he is doing thee Gala Concerts in South Africa  and in September he will be back in Berlin for "Tannhauser.

Johan went to South Africa in August to sing four concerts in his homeland. He sang in Cape Town and Stellenbosch but got very ill and cancelled the last two concerts.  On his return to Vienna his doctors told him that the cancer has spread to his kidneys as well .
 On September 8 2016 Johan passed away in his home in Vienna.

Johan Botha  Cape Town August 2016.

Johan was buried from the Vienna State Opera House on September 21 2016 and put to rest  in a honor grave donated by the city of Vienna in the Central graveyard.

This Ring of Honor was awarded  to Johan Botha posthumously by the Vienna Stae Opera House in Vienna. in September 2016.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011



I met MARITA NAPIER- the South African soprano -for the first time in New York when she joined the Metropolitan Opera in 1986. I heard her in Johannesburg in 1978 when she came out and sang Abigaille in Verdi's "Nabucco" while I was still living in South Africa.

Marita Napier as Sieglinde in La Scala's  production of  "Die Walkure"

 A 1979 I bought a book on the La Scala Opera House and  she was pictured in "Die Walkure" as Sieglinde.

She was a wonderful Chrysothemis in Richard Strauss's "Elektra" and sang with Birgit Nilsson in Berlin in 1978. Marita's high register was her strength so she did very well will high  opera roles like "Turandot" and "Elektra".She was mostly known for her roles in operas by Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss.

Birgit Nilsson and Marita Napier Berlin 1978.

Watch Marita Napier here as Chrysothemis with Janis Martin as Elektra
  Helga Dernesch as Klytemnestra;-

Napier as "Turandot " in Orange France.

Wagner's "Lohengrin" with  Marita Napier and Leonie Rysanek.

"Ariadne auf Naxos"

Marita Napier as Senta  in "Der Fliegende Hollander"  San Francisco.

"Lohengrin"  in Berlin  with Marita Napier.

Marita Napier "Ariadne auf Naxos" in Vienna.

"Der Ring des Nibelungen" Metropolitan Opera .

Beethoven with Lorin Maazel.

"Tanhäuser" San Francisco, Marita Napier, Jess Thomas and Leonie Rysanek.

I also love her recording of Arnold Schoenberg's "Gurrelieder" with Pierre Boulez.
Click here to listen to Marita as Tove.

At this time she was the only South Africa singer that completed the Grand Slam and sang at the five top opera houses in the world .Deon van der Walt and Johan Botha would follow her a few years later.

Cornelia Street Cafe.

I was introduced to her by friends who  knew her from Germany .She knew few people in New York so she was thrilled to meet another South African and we could speak Afrikaans. I asked her out to dinner and we went to the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village that she wanted to try out.

Marita Napier during her Metropolitan Opera  days.

The Ansonia.West 72nd street .

She was staying in the Ansonia ,a famous residential hotel  near the Metropolitan Opera on the Upper West Side.The Ansonia housed the  infamous Continental Baths, in its basement during the 1960s and 1970s.  Bette Midler started her singing career at the Continental Baths, with Barry Manilow as her accompanist.Opera stars like Enrico Caruso, Teresa Stratas, Eleanor Steber, Geraldine Farrar ,Feodor Chaliapin.Enzio Pinza, Lily Pons and Laurence Melchior lived there as well as  musicians like Arturo Toscanini, Igor Stravinsky and Yehudi Menuhin.
By this time it was rather run down and soon after it was sold as condos. Marita decided to move to Queens where she shared an apartment with one of the costumiers at the Metropolitan Opera.She did not like to be on her own and told me Sundays killed her when everybody had somewhere to go except her. She was also doing a course in interior design that she enjoyed very much.She enjoyed travelling to exotic places and travelled to Japan and China with the Metropolitan Opera.

Marita Napier in Thailand.

She was rather complicated person and I found it difficult to talk to her.She could be very quiet and that made me nervous .She and Jerry got along like a house on fire- so I knew it was me and not her .Later I realized I must communicate with her  as Marita ,and ignore the opera star. When we stopped talking about opera ,we became friends. She loved to go to different restaurants and there is a on Mexican Restaurant on University Place that she loved. I still think of her every time I go in there.We also loved eating in the Indian Restaurants on East 6th Street.

"Turandot" Metropolitan Opera New York.

In 1988 Marita  sang "Turandot" in the Met's wonderful Zeffirelli's production of this Puccini opera.It was the first time that I went backstage and into the dressing rooms of the Metropolitan Opera. Salome, Jerry and Alayne- we all went that night and was photographed in her dressing room afterwards.  It was a great triumph for her.

Jerry, Alayne, Marita, Salome and me -backstage at the Metropolitan Opera after "Turandot"

She gave me a ticket for "Gotterdämerung " when she sang one of the Norns . I was hooked on Wagner after that.One's heart started to beat slower and you just relaxed and flowed with the music.

One night around 9:00 pm I called her and she started to laugh when she heard it was me .She just covered her face in a mud pack and as she was the cover for Ghena Dimitrova singing "Turandot" at the Met that evening -she thought it was the Met calling for her to come and take over.

In New York.

By this time she was at the Met for almost 5 years and wanted to go home.I don't think she was very happy in New York and she was tired of all the travelling .She told me her life consisted of lonely hotel rooms and waiting at airports.I then started to realize that the glamorous world of the opera singer was not what I thought it was. Later on when I  met more singers I realized more and more what a lonely life it really was. Full of stress and tension.That is what takes it toll on most singers and  not that they can not sing anymore.

Thys Odendaal, Marita, Jerry and me.

Marita and Jerry at her home in Cape Town.

Jerry and I went to visit South Africa in 1992. It was his first trip to South Africa  and Marita was then staying in Cape Town where she bought a house in Oranjezicht.She invited us to her house for a birthday party. There were a lot of people and she seemed to be  more centered and much happier. She came to the USA now and then and we would see each other then.I also visited her in her apartment in Cape Town  in Sea Point near the swimming pool.

Marita Napier in her apartment in Sea Point, Cape Town.
Photo by Philip de Vos.

She told me  that she saved 40% of every salary check .She decided that once she  retired, she would be comfortable off .By this time she had saved so much but the rate on the Rand and the Euro was so good ,that she was  living  off her German pension only . She did not touch her capital.

Johan Liebenberg, Marita and  me.

In 2001 I was in South Africa and friend told me that Marita was ill  and that she was in Johannesburg and I should call her.She was staying with her niece- her sister's daughter and her family - that she loved. The kids where like her own -and they adored her.When she came out of the house to meet me, her hair was short and grey She lost most of it during her treatment but  she was very serene and looked beautiful .Almost calmer than I ever knew her to be.We went far down in the garden and sat in a gazebo and just talked.I can't recall another time that we were so close and so relaxed in each other's company.She was the strong one and she told me that she has been fighting cancer for almost 25 years and that she was tired of the battle and was ready to move on.

When we said goodbye I realized it was most probably the  last time I would see her -and I was very sad.She achieved so much in her career but I felt she missed out on life and love. Her marriage had ended  by then and one almost got the feeling she was asking......"Is that all there is?"
She did a TV interview not long after that and people that saw it told me how sad and depressing it was.
In January of 2004 I was in Johannesburg and  heard that she was nearing the end of of her life.
  I called her apartment in Cape Town and got her sister on the line. I told her who I was and just asked her to give Marita my love.When Marita heard it was me she took the phone and we spoke a little .She was very weak but not depressed and we said our final goodbye.I thanked her for all the pleasure she brought to so many people's lives with her voice.

Here is Marita Napier as Brunhilde  in Wagner's "Gotterdammerung."

She died almost three month later on April 10 2004.
May she rest in peace.