The Heldentenor and most recorded South African opera singer in history passes at 51.

The South African Heldentenor Johan Botha has died in Vienna at the early age of 51. A huge physical presence on the operatic stage, Botha was blessed with a hefty, yet lyrical voice, able to encompass both Wagner and the heavier Verdi repertoire. Leaving behind a considerable discography, he can claim to be the most recorded South African opera singer of all time.

The son of a postmaster, Botha was born in Rustenburg, an administrative centre in the agricultural heart of North West South Africa. Starting out a bass-baritone, he soon discovered the burnished top notes than enabled him to change to tenor and sing Wagner, eventually coming to embrace the higher-lying Puccini roles such as Pinkerton and Rodolfo. He made his stage debut in 1989 at the municipal theatre in Roodepoort as Max in Der Freischütz but soon found himself at Bayreuth, though originally singing in the chorus! His international career really took off in 1993 when he appeared at the Opéra Bastille as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly.

Leading companies like the Royal Opera House, La Scala and the Salzburg Festival soon picked him up. His Covent Garden debut was in 1995 as Rodolfo, his Metropolitan Opera debut came in 1997 as Canio in Pagliacci. Both of those notable debuts were conducted by Simone Young, and it was Young who brought Botha to Opera Australia in 2001 where his made his Sydney debut in Andrea Chénier to considerable applause. Other key roles included Verdi’s Otello and Radamès, Siegmund, Tannhaüser, Parsifal and Walther in Die Meistersinger.

His longest association was with the Vienna State Opera, which made him a Kammersänger in 2003, after which he chose Austria as his base. Praised more often for his voice than for his acting abilities, the tall and solid Botha could occasionally court controversy. When Vienna State Opera Intendant Dominique Meyer described him as “too fat”, and complained that it affected his stage movement, Botha told the Neue Kronenzeitung that “I hardly know any thin Wagner tenors. A singer must eat and drink after long, stressful singing… I will not apologise but I will try not to put on more weight. Botha cannot move, that is an empty phrase!”

“We are all deeply affected by this loss – Johan Botha left us way too early,” said Dominique Meyer on hearing the news. “We had been very much looking forward to his return on stage as Calaf, after a serious illness did not allow him to sing ‘his’ Turandot premiere in spring. Johan Botha was one of the best tenors worldwide in his fach and has always been one of the most important singers of our House. He is leaving a considerable void behind.”

Meanwhile, leading opera profesionals have taken to social media to express their sadness at the loss of a likeable colleague. Kasper Holten, Director of the Royal Opera, tweeted: “So sad to hear of Johan Botha’s death – will never forget his last performance in Die Frau ohne Schatten”, while soprano Angela Gheorghiu tweeted out a picture of her and Botha in La Bohème saying: “Deeply saddened by the sudden loss of tenor Johan Botha. What a beautiful voice! May God rest his soul in peace!”

Botha died on September 8. A spokeswoman for the singer confirmed his death following a “severe illness”, but Associated Press report that he had been undergoing treatment for cancer. The Wiener Staatsoper has meanwhile hoisted a black flag and is dedicating their next Turandot performance to his memory. He leaves a wife and two sons.