Jon Vickers: ‘The genius of the performer dies with him, nothing can keep it alive’

Jon Vickers: ‘The genius of the performer dies with him, nothing can keep it alive’


norman lebrecht

August 16, 2015

We’ve been sent by its official transcriber what may be the most candid interview ever given by the heroic tenor.

In it, he discusses seriousness of purpose (which should not be mistaken for lack of humour), the importance of principle and the tolls of mortality.

Bruce Duffie, who conducted the interview in November 1981, clearly formed an intiutive bond with the tenor.

After having seen and admired his performances and recordings for many years, it was in November of 1981 that I made contact with Jon Vickers, and he agreed to meet with me at the Civic Opera House in Chicago.  More of those details are in the introduction below.  A day or so after the chat, he called me to correct and further amplify a detail he had related.  I later sent him a copy of the finished interview and some months afterward, I received another call from him – not from his agent nor a secretary, but from the man himself – just to tell me how very pleased he was with the way it came out and with how well I’d been able to present his thoughts and opinions.

Read the full, absorbing interview here.

stratas jon vickers


  • milka says:

    Must be a slow day — ” a simple boy from a small town ” “bringing art to the masses ”
    It was amusing when first read years ago …. now a rather sad commentary on an overly huge ego … saw him many times as he was more than interesting in his work …
    photo has him with Stratas who admired him, she was to me a far superior artist,different
    in all her roles as he was the same Vickers in all his …

    • Una says:

      Two of my major singing teachers sang with Jon Vickers many times – Heather Harper in Grimes as his Ellen Orford, and Josephine Veasey as his Dido. Both these singers are now 85 and very unwell themselves. All I ever got from them down the years and all the people that they both sung with as well as the friendships they made, was their admiration of a man who was an absolute joy to work with, committed to his art and to his voice, and brought everything to life. There was no mention of him ever having an overly huge ego but a man of humility and generous, and a committed Christian – and there’s nothing wrong with that. I never had the privilege of meeting the dear man, but my goodness what he taught me about singing and the whole profession just by watching him and hearing him. But then we weren’t into the ‘celebrity culture’ and the ‘experts’ on singing who never sang themselves. To be in this profession, resilience, particularly at Jon Vickers’ level as well as Heather Harper and Josephine Veasey, is the name of the game. I heard some of this interview with Bruce Duffie as it was broadcast on the BBC World Service the weekend Jon died. It was just amazing.

    • Marshall says:

      Many of us have known this interview for years. It is still remarkable to have a singer so articulate about what he does, and so serious about it-though we may not share some of his views. Well Vickers may have had an ego to match his talent-which is just fine with me. I don’t know how you can be possessed by that level of talent, and not have some distortions to your personality. I wish more singers today would have more belief in the significance of what they do. But the reports were always that he could be difficult for the right reasons, but was utterly committed to what he was doing, and actually was fine and supportive with other performers.

      As others have noted with his recent passing, and was one of the first thoughts that came into my mind-that along with Chaliapin, and Callas, Vickers was the most significant opera singer if the last century. Actually, in my opinion, greater than Callas because he made his mark in more important operas-some of the greatest in the form.

      Oh, that was an old Ben Heppner view of Vickers-but with a more benign spirit behind it-that all Vickers roles were the same. I didn’t find it to be the case, but there are certain types and situations that are common in opera, That’s a charge that can also be leveled, against many other great actors-despite prosthetic noses, and having an adeptness with dialects, they are still the same core character-but that doesn’t make them less effective.

      Stratas was a fine talent, but she was no Vickers, and I’ll take her view of his work, as said for a reason.

  • william osborne says:

    For that matter, it appears that nothing can even keep opera itself alive. Can’t remember if it was Vickers or McCracken who I saw at the Met in a Cav & Pag show in the late 70s. Whichever it was, he made such a big, histrionic, opera gesture he knocked over part of the set. It became emblematic for me, an illustration of why we should stop accepting operatic conventions, the horsey, warbling egoistic physicality that subsumes all the other elements of theater; the silly plots; the slap-dash stage work of star singers who do not allow companies ample time to work with them; the hammy, ridiculously amateur acting with librettos that deserve little else; the ostentatious, patrician rituals of the wealthy members of the public, etc. But what else should we expect? Opera being opera, it can’t die with quiet grace. It will pass away with campy extravagance in a forgotten corner, not knowing no one is even watching. Its rare and far smaller, more adaptive children will continue on… or at least try.

    • DLowe says:

      Claptrap, and irrelevant as well.

    • Marshall says:

      Maybe you can try a re-write of this, because it strikes me as fairly incoherent.

      It seems that opera is fading, but not for the confused reasons you-I think- offer.

    • James McCarty says:

      It just occurred to me that the solution to these problems is to get gay men interested in opera.

      • milka says:

        Granted this singer can be thought of as a drama queen . As to gays attending the opera
        takes me back to the days of a famous Spanish soprano whose opening nights at the old house attracted “gays” en masse some wearing tiaras no less .Her concerts and
        opera appearances were always of interest .

    • John Borstlap says:

      What else would we expect from William Osborne?

      And he is merely repeating a canto which was already old hat in the 18th century. Hence the continuous attempts of reform by gifted composers (opera is based upon the MUSIC, it is not the plots or the décor which carry the art form, but the music – something mr Osborne seems to never have noticed).

      Opera will survive as long as there still are audiences who appreciate music.

  • David Boxwell says:

    Well, I’m listening to his 1960 Otello as I type, and the genius is still very present and alive in my living room.

    • Una says:

      Well done, David. Just lovely to read a kind and generous comment.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Much to the point. I just listened on internet to the marvellous 1988 production of Opera North of Prokofiev’s Oranges… which is stunning, both the music as such and the brilliant production:

      And surely there are many current opera productions around which keep the art form alive, and which ostentatiously ignore Mr Osborne.