Tribute by Margie
Read at Johan’s funeral service in Johannesburg and London
Let me tell you a little about my brother.
Everybody always asks us: “Where did it all start?”
We grew up in Durban in the province of Kwazulu-Natal, in a home that was filled with music. I took piano lessons from an early age, and Mom had a collection of records – a mixed assortment of jazz, classical music and the popular hits of the day. But we loved the classical records: Mozart, Beethoven, all the Romantics, and of course opera: the popular arias of Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Beniamino Gigli and others.
When Johan was about three years old, Mom took us to see a film of a ballet. I can’t remember what production it was, but Johan drew little ballerinas all the time after that! Durban wasn’t exactly a cultural hub, but Mom took us to concerts and art exhibitions. I remember Tretchikoff’s famous Stuttafords exhibitions, and Johan used to draw pictures all the time.
He was very laid-back as a child, always smiling, and doing things his way. He had many friends, liked reading his comics, Noddy books and of course Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven series.
I practised the piano all day long, and his favourites were Beethoven, Grieg and Ravel. I brought home a box set of Turandot one day, and he just loved the music. Little did we know that he would design the sets for the Salzburg Festival one day.
When he was in Standard 9 (sixteen years old), the family moved to Pretoria. I was already a student at Pretoria University, and introduced him to operas, ballets, symphony concerts and plays being performed at the theatres of the university. He just loved all of it. He designed the sets and costumes for his school’s operetta, and built a fold-up stage for his Nutcracker puppet show, which he set up at children’s parties and church fêtes.
He enrolled for the new stage design course at Pretoria University, where Sumien Brink, editor of Visi design magazine, and Birrie le Roux, film and stage designer, were his fellow students. They were best of friends all through his life, and they arranged the Cape Town Memorial for Johan shortly after he passed away.
Neels Hansen, one of his lecturers, gave him his big break when he asked him to design the sets and costumes for Barber of Seville. The Performing Arts Council accepted his designs, although he was still a student. The ball started rolling.
With the ballet Romeo and Juliet, the stage just burst into a colourful Verona with costumes and sets in the rich burnt hues that he loved so much.
After his first stint overseas, which was a kind of study tour, he designed the majestic sets and costumes for Tristan und Isolde for the newly built State Theatre. Wieland Wagner also attended and it was Johan’s dream to design the Wagner Ring. Little did we know that that dream would come true.
I also remember the grandiose sets for Andrea Chenier, Sound of Music, La Traviata, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Lucia di Lammermoor, and many more. He also designed the costumes for most of his productions, and his great body of work for countless Afrikaans and English plays was astounding.
When he left South Africa for the second time in the Eighties, he just blossomed. Step by step he carved out a career for himself and became known for his imaginative work.
My mom, who is 87 years old, and the inspiration for our whole family, had the privilege to see Johan’s riveting designs for theworld premiere of Friedrich Kurtz’s Sag mir wo die Blumen sind the moving tribute to Marlene Dietrich, in 1993. At the same time she was able to witness his work for Hayfever in London.
The family could experience the beautiful ballets Beethoven 5 and Spartacus in Vienna in 2000.
In 2002 I had the privilege to attend the Salzburg Festival, where I could witness the huge sets for Turandot with Johan Botha and Gabrielle Schnaut, Johan’s great friend David Pountney directing and the great Valerie Gergiev conducting. I will never forget the impact of that dramatic production. My generous brother arranged for me to attend some of the rehearsals, and also took me to many of the wonderful concerts and performances at the festival. This is the greatest gift he could possibly have given me.
In 2010 I witnessed the heart-breaking The Passenger by Miecsyslav Weinberg, based on the novel by Zofia Posmysz, a survivor of Auschwitz, who was present at the premiere. The South African mezzo-soprano, Michelle Breedt, also played a major role, but it was the revolving sets with the depiction of the passenger liner on the top level and Auschwitz on the lower level that was the star of the show. Johan described his visit to Auschwitz with David and Zofia as being one of the most emotional experiences in his life.
In the same year Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s The Boys in the Photograph was staged in the Joburg Theatre for the opening of the soccer world cup. Before that, our family also attended Fledermaus and Showboat at the Artscape in Cape Town in 2005, and we were so proud that South Africans could at last see his work after so many years.
My family also attended the very imaginative sets for Opera North’s Eight little Greats, where Johan had the brief to design a set that could change into eight different sets. At the same time, Johan’s vivid set for the original 5-act version of Verdi’s Don Carlos in Cardiff with David Pountney, made our stay in Wales very special.
I wish I could have seen Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler in Vienna in 2012, where Johan received an award for his magnificent reclining Jesus on the cross. Or the huge Zauberflöte on the Bregenz lake. Or the colourful Parsifal for Chicago’s Lyric Opera. Or Thaïs in Sweden.
But maybe I will experience the Ring, to be staged in Chicago in 2016/2017, with designs Johan had just completed before he passed away. He was also working on West Side Story for Artscape in 2015, as well as The Great Gatsby for Dresden Opera.
We want to pay tribute to Pamela, Lady Harlech, who was Johan’s soulmate, travel companion and admirer, who rarely missed any his productions. She provided a safe haven for him at Hinton Field, Bath, where he could establish his studio, and where everything was kept safe during his times away working in theatres all over the world.
We also want to thank David Pountney for appreciating Johan’s talent and for inspiring him to reach his zenith in his last years. They really were a magnificent team and created magic together. Johan had the most profound respect for David and often mentioned how much he learnt from him.
We, as a family, are so proud to say that Johan was our brother. He was a loving son to Baby, a wonderful uncle to Coenraad, Megan and Christian and a most endearing brother to Susan and me.