A tenor unlike any other

The death of Jon Vickers, aged 88, takes us back to an age when giants walked the land.

Built like a stevedore, Vickers filled the stage with an unchallengeable presence.

I saw him late in his career, in a cheap Covent Garden staging of Handel’s late oratorio Samson, when his pathos as the blinded giant – ‘no sun, no moon’ – was so vivid I can see and her it now, four decades later.

Vicker was a law unto himself. Passionate in his Christian beliefs, he pulled out of a Tannhäuser after deciding that Wagner was anti-Christ. He played Peter Grimes as the evil that is within us all, infuriating its composer. Everything he did was touched with principle and certainty.

I tried to interview him twice about aspects of his life and work. Both times, I got a curt refusal. Vickers never talked. He was who he was, inimitable, unforgettable.

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  • Jon Vickers didn’t have a particularly beautiful voice, but this didn’t matter in the slightest. The intensity he brought to his roles, his acting ability and his supreme musicianship were used to stunning effect. As we say in French when we take leave of a great artist: “Salut l’artiste”. There will never be another Jon Vickers.

    • I see you admired Vickers, but the comment about not having a “particularly beautiful voice”, drives me crazy and is one of those repeated bits of nonsense that I wish people would think about before they say it. Possibly I could live with-not conventionally beautiful-if the only standard is a conventional lyric Italian tenor. I found it beautiful, and the voice alone compelling, beyond all the rest that made him such a compelling artist. In fact, sometimes his voice could be conventionally “beautiful” and its rugged qualities could be beautiful in other ways. As with many voices, hearing him live was even better (and more beautiful?) with its surround sound quality, and even the so-called croon, in a big opera house was a fully supported tone, that could be heard in every corner.

  • I, too, tried to get an interview with him but never even got close – congratulations on the “curt refusals”!

    But I heard stories from others, in 150+ interviews for the in-progress book. All can be categorized as “the performance I can’t forget” because of Vickers’ incandescent intensity, often dangerously on the edge. Stories from singers who worked with him or observed, from directors, and a funny if not terribly flattering story from Schuyler Chapin that’s just crazy enough to be true (unless he was embellishing for the tape recorder 😉

    The unforgettable factor is one I’m familiar with, though only a couple times, live – I saw the penultimate performance of his Peter Grimes career, and a fabulous, quirky, different, charming recital in Pasadena,1988. It’s on YouTube, in pieces – thanks to one of my twitter friends for pointing that out.

    The stories and memories have been flooding in on twitter and in blogs – what an impact he made on us all. Thank you for this lovely tribute, too.

    • I was working at Covent Garden during that remarkable Samson. Happy to provide a story about Vickers, to which I was the only witness and which may provide a new insight into the man and the artist – please contact me privately (Norman has my email address).

  • He was an unforgettable artist and a man of unshakeable principles. When he got a bad review in Toronto, he refused to perform there again for decades. He broke the ban to return as Siegmund in a Met touring production of Die Walküre late in his career that was spellbinding. I’m so glad to hear that another book on him is in the works. There are still a few of his old classmates around in Toronto that have memories of him from his student days, when this farmer from Saskatchewan took the local music scene by storm and then went on to world wide acclaim.

    • Just to be clear, Robin, my book is about tenors (what it takes, how success is defined and achieved (or not), impact on the audience, and so on) through weaving together stories and comments from multiple generations of singers (all voices), conductors, directors, composers, teachers, etc. Kind of a composite portrait, specific, but not anonymous if that makes any sense at all. A celebration of the art form, honest but not snarky or gossipy, that’s not me.

      Mini-chapters, like sidebars, are all about game-changing people and events – and The Performance I Can’t Forget, that’s where the Jon Vickers threads in all this will show up.

      No doubt someone will do another biography of Mr. Vickers, which I would also look forward to readings.

  • Many ,many great singers have come and gone, very few if any have come close
    to the great artistry of Vickers .We can talk of all the wonderful singers present and past
    then we come to the name “Vickers” and we enter the world of “giants ” To have seen
    him at his best was to have seen “opera” at its best.He was untouchable .

  • I saw him as Grimes in the 1970’s at the Garden, Nancy Davies was in the cast and a brilliant set ?Moshinsky?

  • There are two treasurable, long audio interviews with Vickers in existence – one with Jon Tolansky and the other as far as I remember with Max Loppert. Collectors items indeed…

  • Reading comments here and elsewhere, is making me feel old. While I heard and saw Vickers a goodly number of times-in his prime-I see that’s not such a common experience anymore,and while I always wished there had been more, I see I have to feel very lucky for what I witnessed.

    Funny, that for the last few weeks I have been expecting this – call me psychic- but when thoughts of him came to mind, which they do-he had that strong an impact-I knew the next had to be the announcement. I heard him in some of his best roles, and in recital,-but I should have pushed myself to have seen him more-it was always such an intense, remarkable experience.(my greatest regret was Tristan, but he only did it-what-2x in NY, the only venue I had access to-but Fidelio, Grimes, Troyens, Parsifal, etc is pretty great)
    I saw his Parsifal 4x, and when I contrast that searing intensity, depth, and vocal majesty to Kaufmann’s recent portryal, I realize how people don’t seem to grasp the difference anymore.

    He had enough trouble with the way the world was tending in his time, maybe he was lucky in a way to have been no longer aware where it’s gone. Certainly the state of opera today, the dearth of great artists, the ludicrous tyranny of modern opera productions would have brought him to a state of rage. But then again if we had a large talent like his, maybe he could have forced changes.

    Expected, but still a shock, for an artist that has meant so much to me-the great Jon Vickers.

  • I remember a story that Vickers supposedly sang “Every Valley Shall be Exhalted” for Beecham in rehearsal with his fresh from the farm Canadian accent. Beecham was supposed to have gently commented ” Mr. Vickers, I don’t know what it is like in Canada, but over here, no one EVER exhalts their valet”.

  • He sat for a breakfast interview with me long ago (Los Angeles Times). He was thoughtful, courteous, candid, flattering–even, in his way, charming. Unique man and artist.

  • I heard him three times in performance. The first was in Pittsburgh in the mid-70′s for the second act of Tristan and Wintersturme. The Isolde was Eileen Farrell but Vickers stole the show that night. William Steinberg conducted. The second time was at the ROH in 1978 in Pagliacci and the third performance was in Samson et Dalilah at the MET. All three of those performances are imbedded in my memory. He was a great artist. May he rest in peace.

  • I heard him live only three times. As Tristan and Don Carlo he was unforgettable – what a pity he never recorded the latter role. I last heard him (when he would have been in his sixties) in the tenor part of Das Lied von der Erde with Sinopoli conducting. The first movement held no terrors for him ; his heldentenor power was designed for this difficult song. But he then deployed the same power in the two other tenor songs, which undoubtedly call for a more delicate approach, and lost the plot as far as Mahler’s intentions were concerned. He did the same on his Philips recording with Jessye Norman and Colin Davis. Why? He was perfectly capable of singing legato as well as anyone, as many recordings testify. I still recall his Act V duet in Don Carlo which was done in a fine sotto voce voice – audible throughout the house. There were some tenore robusto who just couldn’t sing legato with conviction – del Monaco and Martinelli come to mind – but Jon Vickers wasn’t one of them.

    Despite his disappointing me in just one work he must rank with the best of the 20th century.

  • at a dinner in chicago decades ago i told jon vickers i saw him in fidelio with klemperer [london, 1961]. he said he based his portrayal of the long imprisoned florestan on films of sir francis chichester’s arrival at port after his sailing alone around the world.

  • Jon Vickers was certainly very nice to Josephine Veasey and Heather Harper, both now 85 and not in the best of health, who both taught me and worked a lot with Jon Vickers – Jose in no less than the wonderful ‘The Trojans’ and Heather as Ellen Orford in ‘Grimes’ – and a lot more at Covent Garden and New York. Much on YouTube of coure for anyone who’d like to hear them all.

    As for doing interviews, I suggest you look at Bruce Duffie’s site from Chicago and for which I am one of Bruce’s regular transcribers. Bruce’s interview has been praised by many, including the tenor himself, who rang Bruce up to thank him and to say how pleased he was with it when it was first published in Wagner News.“

    I personally had no dealings with Jon Vickers as a singer but I just loved his engaging singing, and we won’t see the likes of him again, plus the professional has changed out of all recognition – and so has the performances of Handel, especially for sopranos!!! Whether you liked his voice or didn’t, it was in the end what he did with what he had – that makes him a fine singer.

  • I now know that this man was a Canadian. Amazing and new information. I’ll make sure to listen to more of his material on You Tube and where ever I can hear it.

  • TERESA STRATAS has asked that we post this quote from her as she is not on the internet:
    “Jon was the love of my artistic life. He was the greatest artist that I have ever worked with, but was also the greatest artist I ever saw or heard sitting in an audience. One always had the feeling that you had to reckon with the whole wretched world, but also with the exquisite beauty found in it simultaneously. Jon Vickers defies words and descriptions, and his magnificent voice carried the entire danger, volatility, and suffering of humanity within it and yet at the same time, the tender and positive redemptive power of love. It was as if his voice knew everything about this world. Maybe that’s why we could always recognize his sound for it was unique and like no one else’s. His voice could be filled with fury and simultaneously filled with tenderness. He was a mysterious man both on and off the stage. In my first Otello in Montreal with Jon in the mid 60’s, I had a feeling he could snap me in two, the element of danger loomed so large on stage. At the same time he was so vulnerable, that I wanted to run to him and cradle him in my arms, despite his fierceness. He always brought his high intelligence and those unique qualities to every one of his roles. For example in the Bartered bride you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He was also such a perfectionist. I remember he would give a monumental performance in Pagliacci, then pick me up at the end when I was still in awe of the moment and ask me if he had been okay? He was always striving to make his art better.”

  • Regarding Jon’s physical strength: I was introduced to him many years ago by a mutual friend after a performance of Tristan in Covent Garden, and when we shook hands it felt as though the bones in my hand were being crushed in a cement mixer! Seeing the agonised look on my face, he immediately apologised as though he had done some terrible wrong – I’m sure I’m not the only one to have been on the receiving end of is physical prowess. Must have been scary playing Desdemona with him!

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