Emotion of the Moment
Jon Tolansky revisits his last conversation with Jon Vickers
As Jon Vickers approaches his 85th birthday this month, sadly there will be no conventional celebrations at home. For the last several years the legendary tenor has been in a nursing home, and those of us who in earlier times have been privileged to hear him discuss his deeply considered thoughts on many areas of his profession have known that there will be no further enlightenment from him in the future.
As long ago as 2001, when Jon Vickers came to the Wigmore Hall for his final appearance in London, reciting Tennyson’s epic poem Enoch Arden in the version with piano accompaniment by Richard Strauss, he confided to me that he was unwell and had fears for the future. I felt impelled then to make use of every possible chance I could to record him in conversation, even if only in spontaneous and unorganized circumstances, as he has always been such a riveting and thought-provoking speaker. It may be that a 75th-birthday interview profile I was able to put together that year for the BBC World Service’s Music Review was one of the last times, possibly the last time, that he spoke about some of his roles in the public domain. Certainly, three years later in 2004, when he graciously agreed that I could record an informal chat with him on the telephone just in case there may be some gems that I could preserve for posterity, it turned out to be the last time, certainly that I know of, that he was to be recorded discussing opera-singing and specific roles he had performed. Not very long afterwards his health deteriorated rapidly and drastically, and thus the recording of that phone conversation became, I am sure, the final ‘interview’ that he gave. To pay tribute to Vickers on his 85th birthday, a transcript of our conversation appears here now for the first time.
JT: Jon, the very first time I ever saw you was a shock. At the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, in February 1961, a few minutes into the second act of Fidelio you sang ‘Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier!’ Of course it was ‘Gott!’ that came as such a shock, and I can’t ever forget the impact. It wasn’t just the volume and weight—it was the searing intensity that was so powerful.
JV: That one cry—‘Gott!’—has to be filled with so many feelings at one go: humility, hopefulness and despair. Really it is the answer to despair—‘GOD, how dark it is here’. He does not say ‘God’ in the way so many people misuse the word, as a common-or-garden everyday exclamation. He is speaking to God—‘GOD! What this darkness here is!’ Those first words—they express the sorrow, the pain, the hope and the joy at one go. Joy? Yes, because in his suffering he knows he has served the right cause—the cause for truth, for love, for God. I am that convinced that Beethoven, with his passion for this subject, had all those feelings in his mind when he wrote that one extraordinary cry—‘Gott!’—and it is the duty of the singer to try to convey them all in just that one opening note.
JT: Even so, that requires the very special kind of technique you had where you could project such a broad range of colours and characterization over an extremely wide dynamic range.
JV: Yes, but that is only possible if you can enter the full state of mind and feeling of the character you are singing at any given moment. It’s a fact of the human voice, be it speaking or singing, that it automatically reflects the emotions that are felt at that moment. If you are fearful, it shows in your voice. If you are grateful, it shows in your voice. I felt as my responsibility to the composer, librettist and, very importantly, the audience, that I must completely put myself in the situation of the character and try to analyze what that character is experiencing and feeling at every given moment that I am singing that part—and of course it constantly varied with the different characters and situations. That was always the starting point. You have to surrender your own emotions to the emotions of the character you are portraying.
JT: I remember you once said to me that, notwithstanding the different characters and situations, the manner in which those emotions are expressed is also inextricably entwined with the expressive characteristics that certain words have in their original language.
JV: Well, that is why I took such a lot of trouble to learn different languages. I learned to speak German and Italian in particular, and I was very fluent in those languages. I also worked very hard on the French language, but although I loved it, I considered my French only passable. Even then, even with my considerable knowledge of German and Italian, I always went to a professor of the language to study a new role. They gave me all the double meanings and innuendos that are so vitally contained in the music too. I did not go to operatic coaches for the words in a role. I went to them so they could play me the music, although there were two exceptions. In my early days at Covent Garden there were two wonderful coaches from whom I learned so much—you know who they were: Teddy Downes and Reggie Goodall. They are known to the public as Sir Edward and Sir Reginald, great conductors in their own right, but to me they were Teddy and Reggie, my coaches. Now they were truly inspirational, they knew so much and understood so much about the entire picture in an opera—words, music, characters: everything. If I may say so, Reginald Goodall, one of the greatest men, was never appreciated in the way he should have been—well, not until the last phase of his life, and then that was at the English National Opera. He really deeply understood the poetical expression and meaning in the words and how this should be transmitted in the music. When he coached me he would speak in a poetic way. I was thrilled to work with Reggie and Teddy, but they were the only opera coaches in my experience who enlightened me about the deeper overtones of the language in a role. And even when I had the great good fortune to study with them, I still always went to an expert, specialist language professor when I was learning a new role.
JT: Is it a particular challenge, maybe, when a libretto has been translated from an
original source in another language? For instance, would you say that it is one of the very many elements that make Verdi’s Otello such an exceptionally demanding role?
JV: Well, only indirectly, because for me—and I know there are those who disagree with me on this—Boito, certainly with Verdi’s involvement, made a wonderfully convincing adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, even though it had to be so truncated. Much more to the point about being demanding is that Verdi’s Otello is certainly the most comprehensive, complex and difficult role that I ever attempted to touch. For quite some time I refused to sing it in the theatre, although I did record it back in 1960 with Tullio Serafin. But as for performing it on the stage, I was asked quite a few times in the early part of my career, and I said ‘no’ over and over again. I only felt ready to play Otello in the opera house a few years after that recording was made, and I already knew then what an enormous undertaking it is to sing.
JT: Among so many extraordinary innovations is the concept of bringing the ‘hero’ on after a few minutes for just a tiny flash in ‘Esultate!’, and then we don’t see him again for some time.
JV: Oh, but I have to emphasize most strongly that it is much, much more than just a tiny flash! In duration yes, but not in import! In this very brief glimpse of an appearance, Verdi and Boito put into Otello much more than just a straightforward triumphant entry. For the performer to convey the full impression they wanted in ‘Esultate!’, immediately there and then he has to make Otello come across knowing who he is, knowing the kind of power he holds in his hand at this time, and yet at the same time showing a great humility—a humbleness before the task he has been called to do, and he shows gratitude and appreciation that he has been able to fulfil the task. All that must be conveyed in that tiny half minute, and you know I absolutely believe that it must be like this in that very first appearance, because it’s his thankfulness that drives Iago mad—and of course that’s one of Otello’s qualities that Iago exploits. So you have to express all those elements—confidence, power, humility and gratitude—in the character of your voice in ‘Esultate!’, and as it’s all so brief and it all happens so quickly in the middle of that tremendous storm scene, it’s hugely difficult to make it work as it should.