11 July 2015
Jon Vickers, 88, Heroic Canadian Tenor, Has Died
Vickers as Peter Grimes at the Metropolitan Opera
J. Heffernan/Metropolian Opera
October 29, 1926, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada — July 10, 2015, Ontario, Canada
Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, one of the few twentieth-century singers able to sustain opera’s most heroic roles for an extended period, died on Friday, July 10, in Ontario, Canada. Vickers's death was confirmed by his family.
It is one measure of his achievement that he sang dozens of performances of Wagner’s Tristan, Verdi’s Otello and the punishing role of Aeneas in the Berlioz epic Les Troyens. It is a more specific measure that he sang all of these roles, including five Otellos, in a six-week period at the Met in 1974.
A Vickers performance in the opera house was a grand, sweeping, overriding affair. It was often a performance of extremes, something more readily comparable to what Marlon Brando or Zero Mostel might do than to what his operatic colleagues did. It was not so much that Vickers might combine staggering rage and a clarion trumpet of a voice with pianissimo singing; it was that, as in Act III of Otello, he might combine these in a single phrase. Critical reactions could be extreme as well when Vickers was onstage, but most operagoers were swept away by the sheer exaltation of his Parsifal or his Florestan in Fidelio.
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Jonathan Vickers was born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, on October 29, 1926. His father, a former teacher and bandmaster, was a school principal who also sold and delivered Fleischmann’s yeast. In a devoutly religious family, Jon was the sixth of eight children who sang and played instruments not only in church but in the jail and the penitentiary as something of a lay ministry. Asked to defer the start of college to accommodate servicemen returning from World War II, Vickers worked at a Safeway and a series of Woolworth stores. He was selling tools at the Hudson Bay Company in Winnipeg when a small scholarship afforded him the opportunity to enroll at the Toronto Conservatory. He entered school in 1950; by 1954, he had made his professional staged opera debut (as the Duke in Rigoletto), and he quickly took on more than a dozen roles for the CBC (which presented him in a live telecast of Pagliacci) and the Toronto Opera Festival. David Webster, head of Covent Garden, sent him a plane ticket to London after an audition. In the 1956–57 Covent Garden season, he starred in Un Ballo in Maschera and Carmen. Two productions of international interest followed, putting him in the front rank of tenors. Les Troyens, in its company premiere (in English, directed by John Gielgud), gave him a triumph. (He sang the role an astonishing thirty times in London alone.) Then came the company’s centennial production, a rare five-act Don Carlo conducted by Carlo Maria Guilini. A live aircheck reveals that Vickers, in the title role, was already a fully formed, exciting artist, able to hold his own in duet with Tito Gobbi.
Vickers immediately began singing leading tenor roles at the world’s top houses. His first-ever Siegmund was at Bayreuth. His 1959 Vienna Staatsoper debut (Siegmund under Karajan) was followed by four other operas in three weeks. In 1960 came the Met, La Scala (Fidelio under Karajan) and Chicago. His Met debut, as Canio, did not cause a sensation, but within two weeks his Florestan there certainly did, and within days he added Siegmund, receiving nine curtain calls after Act I alone. His Peter Grimes was unveiled at the Met in the 1966–67 season, the company’s first at the new Lincoln Center house. (He alternated it with Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades.) Tristan took longer. He was forty-four when he joined Birgit Nilsson’s Isolde in Buenos Aires. From the start, it was a confident, even defiant performance.
In the theater, Vickers often seemed to be testing everyone — his cast members, his conductor, even his audience. (Notorious in the Vickers legend is the 1975 night in Dallas, when, as the dying Tristan during the prelude to Act III, he admonished his listeners to “shut up your damn coughing.”) One often felt afraid for whoever was playing Desdemona, Nedda in Pagliacci or the boy in Peter Grimes. In their memoirs, both Christa Ludwig and Renata Scotto mentioned that he had injured them onstage, before praising his artistry to the skies. He could hold titanic grudges. Yet he prided himself on his pianissimo singing. In a late, unofficial interview with Opera magazine, he spoke about his unearthly quiet tone for Otello’s first word in Act IV: “There is death in that ‘sì’ if it is sung quietly and with stillness.” During his career, his soft singing was often dismissed as “crooning” or falsetto, but it often was instead an enveloping, fully supported sound, seeming to come from all around the theater.
Vickers was an unusual singer in his insistence on projecting the moral dimension in his roles. Florestan, whose first word is “Gott,” and Parsifal, whose empathy with the wounded Amfortas leads him to empathy with Christ, were natural fits. In a famous interview with Studs Terkel he excoriated Tristan and Isolde. “They were not nice people.... It may be a great love story between two quite horrible human beings.” But Peter Grimes was “a great opera because everyone who sees Grimes must go out of that opera with all kinds of misgivings about their attitudes to other human beings.” In 1977, he stunned the opera world with a decision to withdraw from what would have been his role debut in two productions of Tannhäuser at the Met and Covent Garden, again couching the matter in moral terms. Among many other things, he said that “Wagner challenged the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.”
Like his closest colleagues in music drama, Maria Callas, Leonie Rysanek and his compatriot Teresa Stratas, Vickers cannot be fully understood from studio recordings. (He sang with all three sopranos, notably as Jason to the Medea of Callas in four cities.) But two DVDs, a Met Otello from 1978 and a Peter Grimes from Covent Garden, in which the singer and the character who believed that no one could truly understand what he knew are merged, give some idea of his extraordinary presence.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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