I am in Vienna, and attended this evening’s performance of Madama Butterfly. As publicized, the Vienna State Opera hoisted a long black flag in honor of Johan Botha, the South African-born tenor (he became an Austrian citizen) who passed away early this morning from cancer.

© Ako Imamura
© Ako Imamura

While the Staatsoper announced that they would dedicate this coming Saturday’s Turandot (in which Botha was originally scheduled to sing Calaf) to his memory, there was a brief tribute on his behalf before the performance this evening.

As the house lights dimmed, the Staatsoper's General Manager, Dominique Meyer, appeared in front of the curtain. Visibly shaken, his voice breaking at times, he made a brief speech informing of Botha’s untimely death, describing his numerous performances in Vienna, his plans for this season (Calaf and Radamès) and a planned appearance in future (Bacchus). He reiterated that this Saturday’s Turandot would be dedicated to his memory and expressed his condolences to Botha’s widow and two sons. Then he asked the audience to rise and join him in a moment of silence.  He then whispered “Danke” and left the stage.

Needless to say, it was difficult to concentrate on the performance following such an emotional tribute, but the orchestra and singers did their best, Kristine Opolais's Cio-Cio San giving us another excuse to shed tears. Fittingly, Bongiwe Nakani, a South African mezzo-soprano making her Staatsoper debut as Suzuki, had sung with Botha in his last concert appearance in South Africa in August. The curtain call was unusually subdued for Vienna, and we all rather quickly left the theater.

I shall be at Turandot on Saturday. While it is an extremely sad and somber moment for those of us who love opera – and Wagner in particular – to lose a tenor of such glorious and powerful voice in his prime, it is also a reminder that life is short and precious, and every moment counts.