South African tenor Johan Botha is known the world over for his special interpretations of the German romantic repertoire, so Covent Garden audiences are extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to witness his first performances of the title role in Tannhäuser next month, in a new production by Tim Albery.
Botha recently won great acclaim at the Royal Opera House for playing the title role in Wagner's Lohengrin under conductor Semyon Bychkov. This Tannhäuser reunites the pair, who also recorded Lohengrin together, and also features several other exciting cast members: Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram, Michaela Schuster as Venus and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth. With Covent Garden favourites Timothy Robinson, Clive Bayley and Jeremy White completing the cast, and a fine creative team, this first ROH Tannhäuser in over twenty years promises to be a great event.
I caught up with Botha briefly in advance of opening night and asked him a few questions about the piece. Firstly, we turn to the question of why it's so rarely performed. 'I think it's because you have to have very good singers to do it,' he replies. 'It's the first time I'm singing the title role, and before now there weren't really any other tenors doing the part, which is a real problem with the opera.'
The question of the opera's revisions is another sticking point. 'The French version is quite different to the Dresden version. The Venusburg scene is the main difference, of course, but there are also rhythmic changes to the part, so that makes it harder for people.'
I ask Botha why he's waited until now before adding the role to his repertoire. 'First of all, I work according to a plan, and according to my plan this was the time I wanted to start doing this opera. So we're doing it. It's a piece that's very difficult to sing for everybody, and I'd rather take my time doing it rather than jumping into it and ruining the voice.'
We move on to the underlying concept of Albery's production. 'It's a very nice production,' says Botha, 'but you'd have to ask Tim for his thoughts behind it. I like working with him a lot. He's a lovely producer but also a lovely person. He comes up with real characters, and really works with us to bring out the characterisations in what we're singing. Only a few producers are able to do that today, so it's very nice to work with someone like that, especially when you're doing a work for the first time.'
Semyon Bychkov is, of course, Botha's regular conducting collaborator. 'It's just fun working with him; we understand each other very well,' the tenor observes simply. 'We know exactly what we get from each other when we're on stage. That's the main feature of our relationship.' He also has enthusiastic words to say about Covent Garden: 'I love to come back to the theatre; they've always been nice to me in the past and I've done some lovely productions here, so I enjoy working at Covent Garden.'
I ask Botha about his repertoire, which encompasses both German and Italian roles. 'I do it because I can do both, first of all. Secondly, I use the Italian repertoire to keep my voice as high as possible and as flexible as possible. German operas tend to be very low, and if you're not careful the voice will just move down to the lower register and never go back up again. So to keep the voice flexible and healthy, I do some Italian repertoire. And I love it too, of course!'
We also briefly touch on the subject of contemporary music. 'I have a passion for opera; whatever I can sing, I will sing,' the tenor says. 'With contemporary music, it all depends on the time I have to spend on studying it. At this point, if I can get a tune out of it, I will try it; if I have to spend every day I'm doing it relearning it, there's no point in doing it.'
Botha is one of the world's most prolific recording artists in the operatic repertoire. 'At this moment, we're negotiating recording a few pieces. We're discussing Tannhauser and Otello, and I really hope it happens. We're just finished Walküre in Bayreuth, which will be released on DVD, and Meistersinger has already seen a DVD release this year. So there's plenty happening, and I hope that plenty more comes through.'
The tenor tells me that his passion for opera is a lifelong affair. 'I told my Dad when I was five that I was going to be an opera singer, and I had singing lessons from the age of ten. So it was clear to me even then that that was the direction in which I wanted to go. I was attracted to the mystery of the music. You can make people happy with it; you can make them cry. You can change their state of mind. My passion was always the ability to have that power over people with the music. Even today, it's that mystery that explains why I still enjoy doing it.
'My lessons began when I was ten. Our reverend's wife came to visit us at home and heard me singing, and she told my mother to enrol me with a singing teacher. So that's where it all started. I sang in all the choirs and every situation I possibly could. From 1983-4 I was in the South African army, and after that I went to the opera school. The education I received there was excellent, and it's a shame that they're now struggling to get the funding to continue. I now have a singing teacher in Berlin, who I visit regularly and work on new roles.'
I briefly ask him about his big breaks in his career. 'The first one was in January 1990, when I was invited to sing in the chorus at Bayreuth. From there, I got the opportunity to audition for various agents and companies. The second break was in 1993 when I was asked to sing Butterfly at the Bastille in Paris. I tried to take everything in my stride and just go for it. I treat everything the same; the big milestones for me were getting to the Met and Covent Garden earlier than I expected. The biggest milestone for me is to make people happy and smile!'
And finally, I ask him about the future. 'At this point, I'm going to wait and see what happens. I'm working on the repertoire I already have and trying to make it better. I want to find some new stuff to do with it. After that, we'll see. People are speaking about Tristan in the future, but we have to wait and see. There are some Italian pieces I'd love to do, like Fanciulla, but it's a case of finding the right opportunity.'
Tannhäuser opens at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 11 December 2010.
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