‘The day Jon Vickers rattled his chains at me’

The splendid English mezzo Sarah Walker has been talking to us about her experiences with Jon Vickers in the Elijah Moshinsky ROH production of Handel’s Samson in 1986.

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It was my third enagement at Covent Garden and there was all sorts of things we had to be terribly careful about. Everything was built around Jon. Julius Rudel, the conductor, would start Total Eclipse at a nice baroque pace and Jon would come in and it would just get slower and slower. Wonderful.

I arrived one afternoon to do Micah’s aria Return O Lord of Hosts and the people on the rehearsal desk all said to me, be very careful, don’t put any decorations in.

So I go on stage, facing the auditorium, and Jon is behind me on the trolley.

I start the aria and it’s going well and then, somehow, I slip in a little decoration.

Behind me, I hear this little rustle of chains. Believe me, I didn’t do it again.

Afterwards I asked around what it was about. Apparently that morning, Delilah – Carol Vaness – had been doing all sorts of decorations and there was a huge explosion from Jon. He stormed up to (the manager) John Tooley’s office and said it was against his religion to decorate the oratorio.

This, said Jon, was God speaking through Handel. You don’t mess around with that.

Anyway, it was around my birthday. We lived in SE London and you don’t normally get people coming all the way out to Catford for a party. Jon, his wife and Julius all came. Jon brought me a volume of Constable paintings.

He was really nice to me. Maybe because I was a mezzo. He might not have been so nice to a soprano.

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(c) Sarah Walker/Slipped Disc

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  • He 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 Trojans’ and Heather as Ellen Orford in ‘Grimes’. All on YouTube for anyone who’d like to hear them all.

    I personally had no dealings with him 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!!! ūüôā

  • I became a fan of Handel’s Messiah when I heard a CBC documentary on Vickers around 2001, and they played “Every Valley.” It was one of those all-too-rare “Who/What is THAT?” moments. He talked about how Beecham told him to sing it like opera, no holds barred. I still can’t bear to hear anyone else sing it.

    He was probably a great Tristan in his recording with Helga Dernesch, but Karajan’s conducting (at least in this case) just didn’t do it for me.

    I recall Solti said in his biography that he refused to work again with Vickers after a particularly bad experience. I’ll leave it to others to decide who that says more about.

    In any case, a great singer and interesting character.

    • Just an FYI: The falling out with Solti was at Vickers’ instigation. Solti references it in his autobiography and expressed the regret that they didn’t work together more.

      • Oh, well, he wasn’t the only one to fall out with Solti, and Jon worked with many more equally good conductors around the world.

          • You are being unfair to Solti. He wrote to Vickers after performances of “Walk√Ľre” regretting that the tenor had been unwilling to take suggestions from him or Hans Hotter, the producer. He nevertheless expressed the wish that Vickers would sing Otello and Tristan for him in the coming season. Vickers didn’t bother to reply. He could be terribly obstinate. Ironically his two performances with Solti available on record, Radames and Siegmund, are just about his best.

  • Jon Vickers sang Siegmund in performances of “Die Walkure” at the Met. during the un-cut “Ring” cycle conducted by Erich Leinsdorf. The cast also included Birgit Nilsson and George London, among other wonderful musicians. I still can remember Jon Vickers’ incredible tone quality and the emotional depth he brought to every role he sang. I played extra double bass in all those “Ring” cycle performances and will always treasure those experiences: musically, vocally, orchestrally — so outstanding and still remembered more than 40 years later….
    I attended his “Tristan” (also with Leinsdorf conducting and Nilsson as Isolde” at the Met. during the 1970’s — it was incredible. (Having grown up listening to Lauritz Melchoir as Tristan in the Met. Saturday broadcasts, I can only think that Jon Vickers must remind everyone of that great heldentenor too.)

  • Nice to see a good comment about Leinsdorf led productions. It baffles me as to why he is under appreciated today.

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