Written by: Mansel Stimpson
Mansel Stimpson speaks to the South African tenor Johan Botha, Covent Garden’s latest Lohengrin…
It’s no surprise that when Johan Botha looks back on his childhood one memory in particular stands out. He was just five years old at the time but, when we talk at Covent Garden where he is rehearsing the title role in Wagner’s Lohengrin, it is a moment that he recalls vividly. “My father had bought a copy of that very famous recording of La traviata featuring Anna Moffo and Richard Tucker and I was always listening to it. More than that I would sing along with it, although being so young I couldn’t sing the actual text. Then one morning my father came down to find me doing just that, and he said ‘Oh shut up; I want to listen to the music’ – whereupon I turned to him and said ‘One day I’m going to sing like that and then you can’t stop me from singing’. So at that moment I declared what my aim in life would be, and I must say that my parents were very supportive. Indeed, my dad was never a guy who said ‘You have to do this and you have to do that’. On the contrary, his attitude was to declare that in life there are only three things that you positively have to do: you have to go to the toilet, you have to pay your taxes and one day you have to die – and as for the rest it’s a case of you may.”
It was five years later when things really developed, triggered in part by the tragic deaths in a car accident of Johan’s grandparents. “Until then I was living on our farm but when that happened and my uncle didn’t want to work on the farm my parents sold it and we moved to the nearest city. At ten I started professional singing lessons with a coach, and then I encountered the woman I think of as my first singing teacher, Jarmilla Tellenger. She was a really fantastic woman and she helped me through what was for me a terrible period. I had been taken on by her as a boy soprano and my voice was so high that she taught me the Queen of the Night aria. I was the boy who did everything, singing in the chorus and in school productions, and I was enjoying it immensely. But then my voice started to break and that was the most frustrating thing that ever happened in my life.
“Jarmilla Tellenger knew what was needed and for the next two years she would daily give me ten minutes of warming up my voice. But after those two years had passed I was ready to come home to dad and say ‘I’m going to kill myself because I want to sing’. And he said: ‘If singing is what you really want to do, you must follow the rules that your teacher is laying down for you because everybody at some time in life has to follow rules. So stick with it’. It made sense, and in the end my voice settled in the bass-baritone Fach.”
Indeed, it was as a bass-baritone that Johan studied in Pretoria during his first year and a half in opera school. He went there in 1985 after doing his two years of military training in the defence force (“At the time it was either two years of that or five years in jail so you made your choice”). Johan describes the training at the opera school as being very vigorous so he learnt a lot. “We had a little theatre where we did our own make-up and wigs and made our own costumes. We would build the whole stage and set, too, and produce an opera which the local people were then invited to attend. The first part I did was Verdi’s Falstaff followed by Philip in Don Carlo. But I noticed that my voice was getting higher and purely for fun and as a joke I would imitate countertenors: it wasn’t a case of thinking about it, but just doing it. However, after singing Figaro I was double-cast for a colleague who came to sing Gérard in Andrea Chénier. One day he didn’t feel well and asked me to do the role in rehearsal. Everybody there turned round and told me that I was a tenor and that took me by surprise.
“So next day I explained this to the man who had become my next singing teacher, Eric Muller, and he responded by saying, ‘Alright, let’s prove them wrong’. So we started vocalising and I went up to the high C and held it, and when he heard that he said to me: ‘You are a bloody tenor!’. In effect he was telling me that I had to choose: either stay in the bass-baritone Fach or go to that of the tenor. So I asked him what he suggested I should do, and he said: ‘Go to the tenor Fach – you’ll make more money in that!’. That was his honest opinion and he was a great guy and a very funny person.
“But it meant rethinking the whole set-up of singing and involved starting vocal training again to get the voice to accept the straining of the tenor. That’s because for me the baritone voice is a natural voice, my speaking voice you could say, and the tenor voice is a voice that I build up every evening. It was so funny when I met my agent for the first time because he would call me in the morning after a show and when he heard this bass-baritone voice over the telephone say ‘Good morning’ he would say ‘Sorry, wrong number’. He just didn’t realise that the voice will climb naturally during the day so that by evening I’ll speak in a tenor voice.”
Once Johan had opted to sing as a tenor, an international career beckoned, starting with a move from South Africa to Europe, which would become home to him since it is in Vienna that he now lives with his wife and two sons. Nevertheless he makes a point of returning each year to South Africa since his parents still live there. The man responsible for getting Johan out of South Africa was the chorus director of Bayreuth who, on hearing Johan sing, invited him to come and sing in the Festival Chorus and subsequently helped Johan over his first auditions for agents in Europe. “That was my lucky break, what I would regard as God’s finger pointing the way. My teacher, Mr Muller, had already declared that I was going to be a Wagnerian tenor and particularly helpful was the plan that we had drawn up together. It came from a book that he had found in the library which set out not just what a heldentenor should attempt but when he should attempt it, which roles he should take on at which age. What he said to me was that I was a young tenor with a fantastic high C who would be well advised to sing Puccini first, then to move into Verdi and subsequently tackle Wagner at the right time. So when I arrived at Bayreuth to join the chorus, I recognised that being under thirty I was not yet ready for Wagner’s solo roles. It’s important not to do them too early.”
Some years later in the course of an interview Johan made an observation on which I invite him to expand. It was this: “If you love and respect music, music will love you back”. In commenting on this he mentions once again his first teacher, Jarmilla Tellenger. “When I knew I was going to Europe, I was pretty bloody scared because I didn’t know what to expect. And her response was to say to me, ‘Johan, there’s one golden rule in music and in opera: if you’re singing Lohengrin, you have to love singing that part’. So for me there’s never really been one part that I love more than another. You have to love the music and respect it, and you have to do what the composer wanted. When you do that, you will get the pay-back because the music will take you where you want to go. That’s the most important thing for any singer, and no less so if you sing pop music: it has to come from the heart and if you love what you are doing you will move people.
“Furthermore, I am always speaking to my colleagues about singing technique. I do tend to be a pain in the butt about that, but I’ve always believed that I can learn from my colleagues and it’s one of the most fascinating things in the world that with the right rigorous training you can sing in a theatre for three- or four-thousand people without using a microphone. That’s mind-boggling. And so is the whole mystique of music which can make people happy or move them deeply but which cannot be truly explained. It’s just an inspiration that you have in your life.”
At this point we move on to Lohengrin and I admit that I am not really a Wagner enthusiast, even if I do enjoy this particular opera. “Well when it gets you, it gets you and you just become fanatical about it. But I’ll be honest with you, when it comes to The Ring I would rather sing it than have to sit through it myself! If the appeal of that work is even greater than that of Wagner’s other operas, I think it’s got something to do with the material. Of course, his use of the leitmotif is one of the most interesting things of all and when it comes to every character having their own motif that is handled amazingly in Die Walküre which I’ve just done at the Met. But it’s there in Lohengrin too: you immediately hear the theme for the swan and it continues to come in all the way through the opera (“Nun sei bedankt, mein lieber Schwan!”). Wagner is so clever: it’s like a carpet with so much woven together that you have to listen really closely. There’s another thing too: Verdi was undoubtedly a genius but Wagner took his genius further by not only composing the music but by writing his own libretti.”
For anyone unfamiliar with Wagner’s operas, Lohengrin might be a good place to start for despite its length it has a momentum absent from some of his other works and a plot with strongly drawn characters. Set in ancient Saxony it features a scheming woman, Ortrud, who encourages her husband Telramund to seek power. The method is to put down his rival to the succession, Elsa, by claiming that she has been guilty of fratricide, her brother the heir to the dukedom having mysteriously disappeared. Lohengrin is the stranger who turns up as if in answer to Elsa’s prayers to defend her, an event that eventually leads to their marriage. However the possibility of a happy ending is denied when, encouraged by Ortrud, Elsa seeks to do what she has sworn not to do, to ask Lohengrin what he has refused to disclose, that is to say his name and his origins. Eventually we learn that he was sent as a knight of the Holy Grail and that his father is Parsifal, thus creating the closest of links with Wagner’s final opera.
But, if the work’s sources lie in German literature, the richness of Lohengrin is surely confirmed by the fact that Ortrud has about her something of Lady Macbeth, while the way in which she works on Elsa recalls Iago’s manoeuvres in Othello? “I think that Wagner who was very well read was definitely familiar with Shakespearean drama and, of course, Verdi drew on Shakespeare for Macbeth and Otello. Those two composers knew each other well because, if you look at Otello, it’s taking the same direction in which Wagner is going. You no longer have sections that you can just take out as an aria, as you can with say ‘Che gelida manina’ in La bohème, and in Lohengrin there are so many tunes interwoven that you don’t know which one to follow to the end. That makes it harder for those who like to whistle a tune, but that doesn’t stop you from finding the parts of the opera that you love.”
If Lohengrin mainly keeps on the move, it also has great passages where time stands still, most notably in the penultimate section of Act One (a section invoking God’s aid which Johan describes as being a fantastic joint prayer) and in Act Two where for five minutes or so you have the equivalent of a cinematic freeze-frame (“That’s not a second prayer but a moment when everybody on stage is able to express their own thoughts on what is happening, and all the motifs are heard again as each singer enters in: you hear the swan motif too and know that it’s not going to end well, that Elsa will ask that question that she has promised not to”). If this makes Elsa in some ways akin to Judith in Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Johan sees curiosity as being inherent in women, but he feels also that Lohengrin’s demands in this connection are such that you can sympathise with Elsa’s need to ask the question.
For the singer appearing as Lohengrin, the most demanding section is Act Three which he dominates. In this production, the Grail narration sequence, which is usually cut down, has been opened out. It honours Johan Botha in that he is one of the very few singers capable of doing it, but he is not certain if it adds anything of value. “It’s an extra ten minutes for the tenor and it’s full powered singing that’s really difficult. I think it was Lauritz Melchior who did this full version for a recording and he may well have got it right when he said ‘Alright, I’ve done it – so that’s the end of it’. Furthermore, after you’ve done all this ball-breaking stuff you have to do lyrical pianissimo passages. Help!”
So, given all these demands by Wagner, what are Johan’s feelings about this composer? “Sometimes I’ve thought that he’s crazy.” Even so, those who love to hear Johan in Wagner don’t need to be apprehensive since he mentions that he is currently learning a new role: Tannhäuser.
- Seven performances – from Monday 27 April until Saturday 16 May at 6 p.m. [3 p.m. on Sunday 3 May]
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera