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Advertisement for Verdi’s Aida with the Metropolitan Opera and the (uncredited) Chicago Orchestra on December 10, 1891 (image courtesy of the Newberry Library)

Less than a month after its inaugural concerts in October 1891, the Chicago Orchestra was in the pit at the Auditorium Theatre for performances with the Metropolitan Opera Company (under the auspices of Abbey, Schoeffel, and Grau).

The singers who appeared were among the most famous of the day, including sopranos Emma Albani, Lilli Lehmann, and Marie Van Zandt and mezzo-sopranos Sofia Scalchi and Giulia Ravogli. During the residency, other prominent singers made their U.S. debuts, including soprano Emma Eames; tenor Jean de Reszke; baritones Edoardo Camera, Antonio Magini-Coletti, and Jean Martapoura; and basses Édouard de Reszke and Jules Vinche. Conducting duties were shared by Auguste Vianesi and Louis Saar, the Orchestra’s first guest conductors.

Opening with Wagner’s Lohengrin on November 9, the residency continued through December 12 and included a staggering number of operas: Bellini’s Norma and La sonnambula; Flotow’s Martha; Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice; Gounod’s Faust and Romeo and Juliet; Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana; Meyerbeer’s Dinorah and Les Huguenots; Mozart’s Don Giovanni; Thomas’s Mignon; as well as Verdi’s Rigoletto and act 1 of La traviata.

The residency also included a single performance of Verdi’s Aida on December 10 with Lehmann in the title role, de Reszke as Radamès, Ravogli as Amneris, Magini-Coletti as Amonasro, Enrico Serbolini as Ramfis, Lodovico Viviani as the King, and M. Grossi as the Messenger. The Metropolitan Opera Chorus was prepared by its director, Carlo Corsi, and Louis Saar conducted.

Lilli Lehmann

“Jean de Reszke and Lilli Lehmann bade farewell to Chicago last evening by appearing together in Verdi’s Aida,” wrote the reviewer in the Chicago Tribune. “It was a performance which for superb solo work, excellence of ensemble, and splendor of scenic and spectacular effects has not been equaled in this city—a performance which marked the highest point on the standard of excellence yet reached by the Abbey-Grau company.”

German soprano Lilli Lehmann—under the guidance of Richard Wagner—created the roles of Woglinde (in Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung), Helmwige, and the Forest Bird in the first Ring cycle during the inaugural Bayreuth Festival in 1876. She made her American debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Carmen on November 25, 1885; five days later, she sang Brünnhilde in Die Walküre and the following year Isolde in the American premiere of Tristan and Isolde. Lehmann regularly performed at the Salzburg Festival—also serving as its artistic director—and her operatic repertoire ultimately included 170 roles in 114 operas. A notable teacher, her students included Geraldine Farrar and Olive Fremstad.

“Mme. Lehmann found in Aida a role which permitted a display of her splendid histrionic gifts, and the music to which was more nearly suited to her vocal powers than has been any she has sung this engagement,” continued the Chicago Tribune reviewer. “Her success was, therefore assured and splendidly she achieved it. Her acting of the slave princess was forceful, intense, at all times free from all exaggeration or extravagance. As for her vocal work, it commands unqualified and almost unlimited praise. The ‘Ritorna vincitor’ was given with marvelous appreciation of its sad, troubled character, and the ‘Numi, pietà’ was beautiful in the purity and simplicity of its interpretation. In the long duet with Amneris in act 2, Mme. Lehmann’s singing and acting possessed great power, and in the climax at the end of the act, her voice stood out with telling effect. It was in the third act that the finest vocal work was done. Anything more satisfactory than her singing of the ‘O patria mia’ and the heavy dramatic music which follows cannot be imagined. The ‘Vedi? . . . di morte l’angelo,’ in the last scene of the opera, was exquisite in its delicacy and poetry.”

Jean de Reszke

Born in Poland, Jean de Reszke began his career as a baritone in 1874, debuting in Venice as Alfonso in Donizetti’s La favorita. By 1879, he had made the switch to tenor when he sang the title role in Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable in Madrid. De Reszke was soon a regular at the Paris Opera and at London’s Covent Garden, performing the major French, Wagner, and Verdi roles; the title role in Massenet’s Le Cid—premiered in Paris in 1885—was written for him. His American debut was the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera’s residency with the Chicago Orchestra in the title role of Wagner’s Lohengrin on November 9, 1891. After his debut the following month with the company in New York—as Gounod’s Romeo on December 14—he was a regular with the Metropolitan until his retirement from the stage in 1904, settling in Poland to breed racehorses and Paris to teach singing. His students included Bidu Sayão and Maggie Teyte.

“Jean de Reszke’s triumph as Radamès was a triumph of voice and vocal art. Not that the dramatic side of the character was not developed. It was developed with the same consummate skill which has made his dramatic treatment of every role in which he has seen truly remarkable. But Radamès makes far greater demand upon a tenor’s vocal powers than upon his histrionic. Much of the music is purely lyrical in character, while other portions are strongly dramatic. A singer to do it justice must, therefore, combine the qualities of a tenore de grazia and a tenore robusto—a combination but rarely found. Jean de Reszke is such, however, and his singing of the music of Radamès is not alone satisfactory but an artistic treat of the highest kind. The famed ‘Celeste Aida’ was sung with a smoothness, clearness, and tonal beauty which were the perfection of pure vocal art, while the impassioned music of the third act was delivered with a vigor and intensity and a display of thrilling high notes which showed how dramatic singing may become and yet never cease to be singing nor degenerate into shouting.”

Portions of this article previously appeared here.

Riccardo Muti leads soloists Krassimira Stoyanova, Anita Rachvelishvili, Francesco Meli, Kiril Manolov, Ildar Abdrazakov, Eric Owens, Issachah Savage, Kimberly Gunderson, and Tasha Koontz, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (prepared by Duain Wolfe) in Verdi’s Aida on June 21, 23, and 25, 2019.

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Johan Botha, Tenor

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family joins the music world in mourning the death of tenor Johan Botha, who died earlier today in Vienna at the age of 51 following a long illness.

A remarkably versatile singer, Botha was known for a vast number of roles in works by Beethoven, Puccini, Strauss, Verdi, and Wagner, among others. During his nearly thirty-year career, he appeared regularly on many of the world’s opera stages, including La Scala; the Royal Opera House Covent Garden; the Metropolitan Opera; the Vienna Staatsoper, where he made his home; and Lyric Opera of Chicago, where he most recently appeared in Wagner’s Tannhäuser in 2015.

Born on August 19, 1965, in the northern South African city of Rustenburg, Botha studied at the Technical College Pretoria. He made his debut as Max in Weber’s Der Freischütz at the Staatstheater Roodepoort in 1989, and the following year traveled to Germany, where he sang with the Bayreuth Festival Chorus before making his debut as Gustavus in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera in Kaiserslautern. Botha made his United States debut in 1994, as Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina; and he first appeared with Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1998, as Enzo in Ponchielli’s La gioconda.

He is survived by his wife and two sons.

Botha appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on two occasions, as follows:

September 13, 1996 (Royal Albert Hall, London)
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Deborah Voigt, soprano
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano
Johan Botha, tenor
René Pape, bass
BBC Singers
London Voices
Terry Edwards, director

April 24, 26, and 28, 2001 (Orchestra Hall)
VERDI Requiem
Daniel Barenboim, conductor
Margaret Jane Wray, soprano (April 24)
Deborah Voigt, soprano (April 26 and 28)
Violeta Urmana, mezzo-soprano
Johan Botha, tenor
René Pape, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Duain Wolfe, director

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Sir Georg Solti introduced soprano Kiri Te Kanawa to Chicago audiences in May 1978, in Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem. Her program biography from those debut performances is here.

The reviews only briefly mentioned the vocal soloists. In the Chicago Tribune: “Miss Te Kanawa and [Bernd] Weikl, both making subscription-series debuts, were a beautifully matched pair of young, fresh-voiced soloists. She seemed a mite cautious at the outset of her solo, but her message of consolation had a billowing purity of sound that was irresistible.” And in the Chicago Sun-Times: “Two soloists are required and both were known to us by reputation, but it was splendid to have singers of the standard of soprano Kiri Te Kanawa and baritone Bernd Weikl on stage to sustain the consistency of achievement in this performance at the highest level.” The complete reviews are here and here.

In addition to the performances at Orchestra Hall, Brahms’s Requiem was also performed at Carnegie Hall on May 12, 1978.

Te Kanawa also appeared with Solti at Orchestra Hall in Duparc’s Mélodies françaises and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony on March 23, 24, 25, and 26, 1983; in Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion on March 19 and 21, 1987; in excerpts from Verdi’s Otello (with Plácido Domingo) on a special concert celebrating Solti’s seventy-fifth birthday on October 9, 1987; and in complete performances of Otello in 1991 at Orchestra Hall (April 8 and 12) and Carnegie Hall (April 16 and 19).

Solti and Te Kanawa made a number of recordings together. With the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, they collaborated on Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem in 1978, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in 1983, Handel’s Messiah in 1984, Bach’s Saint Mathew Passion in 1987, and Verdi’s Otello in 1991.

Te Kanawa also recorded under Solti’s baton in Bizet’s Carmen in 1975 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the National Philharmonic Orchestra, Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro in 1981 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Puccini’s Tosca in 1984 with the National Philharmonic Orchestra, and in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra in 1988 with The Royal Opera (for video). (All recordings were released by London Records.)

In 1990, Solti and Te Kanawa collaborated on a special video project, entitled The Maestro and the Diva, directed by Humphrey Burton. The program candidly showed the two of them in rehearsal (in Solti’s home studio in London) and performance of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs with the Vienna Philharmonic. An audio recording was also released and also included several more Strauss songs with Solti at the piano.

Several additional excerpts from the program are also available here.

The attached YouTube video is not the property of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association. We just thought it was interesting.

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In recognition for his ten years as music director of the Royal Opera,  Georg Solti was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II on March 25, 1972. The news was carried in this article from the Chicago Tribune (courtesy of ProQuest via the Chicago Public Library).

“The last two new productions I conducted during my directorship of the Royal Opera were Eugene Onegin, in February 1971, and Tristan und Isolde, in June, both directed by Peter Hall. At my last performance as music director, Birgit Nilsson took the part of Isolde. After ten years at Covent Garden, I know that it would be an emotional occasion for me and I was worried that I might become overwhelmed. But the night itself was incredibly hot and I needed all my concentration just to get to the end of the opera.

“After the performance, there was a reception in the Crush Bar, attended both by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and by the prime minister, Edward Heath, who made me an honorary Knight of the British Empire. (It had to be honorary, because at that time I was still a German citizen.) . . .

“Despite my marriage to an Englishwoman and my decade-long directorship of the Royal Opera House, every time I landed at London’s Heathrow Airport after a trip abroad I had to go through the foreigners’ immigration queue, while my family joined the queue for British subjects, which was usually shorter. After I had been made an honorary KBE, I applied for British citizenship. . . . Within a short time, in 1972, British nationality was granted to me, and I was able officially to add the title Sir to my name. . . . I have a British wife and two British daughters, and British I shall remain.”

Text excerpted from Memoirs by Sir Georg Solti.

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