Jon Vickers, 1926-2015
July 2015 in People
One of the greatest tenors of the 20th century, Jon Vickers died on July 10 in Ontario after a long battle with Alzheimer\’s disease. Famous for his colossal voice and raw dramatic intensity, Vickers produced performances of unparalleled power-a phenomenon explained in Rupert Christiansen\’s obituary and recalled by Heather Harper, who regularly sang Ellen Orford alongside the tenor in one of his most celebrated roles, Peter Grimes.
When I was in Buenos Aires rehearsing to perform my first Arabella in 1971, I was invited by Birgit Nilsson to attend the first night of Tristan und Isolde; Jon was singing his first Tristan with her. It was a night to treasure. But on stage and with me he was Peter Grimes personified. If Peter Pears depicted Grimes\’s intellectual side, Jon was more interested in revealing emotions. His Grimes was intensely physical but never brutal, and on stage he was always very considerate. During the confrontation of the second act, he never hurt me, although it seemed as if he was ready to knock me out-we had secretly rehearsed this scene over many years and it looked violent and real. Like his Grimes, Jon had a strong character-he liked things his own way and did not like to be contradicted or confronted. Perhaps because I am from Belfast and accustomed to being direct, I was never afraid of him, but he could be a terrifying figure to others. Once I threatened to throw a plastic fish at him if he did not stop being angry during a rehearsal. He laughed afterwards. We respected each other, and working together was always fun and exciting. Goodbye Jon and goodbye Peter!
I met Jon Vickers only once, some 15 years ago, when he gave me an interview while visiting London to give a talk at the Barbican. He was perfectly civil, but both cautious and beady; there was no mistaking the coiled spring beneath the veneer. As Birgit Nilsson said of him, ‘His nerves were outside the skin, not inside\’, and I was acutely aware that one false word or move on my part, and the beast would pounce. Words such as bear and bull have often been used to describe him, as have images of volcanic eruptions and bomb explosions. He frequently threw furniture, and on occasion hit people; his rages, even by operatic standards, were thunderous, and one never knew whether they would pass like a summer storm or harden into an implacable vendetta.
The violence was that of a wounded, tormented man. ‘I had a feeling he could snap me in two, the element of danger loomed so large on stage,\’ recalled Teresa Stratas, who played his abused wife in Otello and Pagliacci. ‘At the same time he was so vulnerable that I wanted to run to him and cradle him in my arms, despite his fierceness.\’ Others sensed the terrible insecurity of someone staring into an abyss: ‘Somewhere there was a void he did not fill,\’ thought Regina Resnik, often Carmen to his Don José. ‘He was almost always unhappy,\’ added Nilsson. ‘He was like he had the whole world on his shoulders.\’
This quality of agony seared his singing, charging it with an intensity that took it to the very edge of what music could express. Some might go further and say that he wasn\’t really musical at all, more the victim of an egocentric habit of pulling and pushing notes and words around, crooning and bellowing them without respect for the markings of the score. He certainly didn\’t seek to render light and shade, he didn\’t really play with subtleties, he had no lightness of touch. But like no other singer of the postwar period-Callas was perhaps his only peer-he could seize a phrase and make it burn intensely in the furnace of his soul. Otello\’s ‘A terra, e piangi\’, Peter Grimes\’s ‘To hell with all your mercy\’, Florestan\’s ‘Gott! Welch dunkel hier\’, Enée\’s ‘Italie!\’-once you have heard Vickers declaim such moments, everyone else\’s utterance seems lame and half-hearted.
He was a believer: in his own destiny and in the greatness of art, as well as in the Christian God. When asked by an audience member what his aim was on stage, he replied, ‘taking ahold of each one of you people emotionally and intellectually, and trying to raise your eyes and your feelings and your emotions to look at the divine\’. Yet oddly, he didn\’t sing much sacred music-only once did he perform The Dream of Gerontius, which could have been written bespoke for him-and it is for his incarnation of the extremes of anger, despair, jealousy, revenge and obsession that he will be remembered.
Of course, there was another side to him too. As Jeannie Williams\’s excellent biography insists, he was also a rooted family man, devoted to his five children and two wives, rigorously professional and practical when his material interests were at stake. He was a poor boy who went on to make a fortune, and in my interview with him he proved more concerned to trumpet his successful investments in property than he was to reflect on his operatic achievements. ‘The businessman in Vickers rivaled the artist in righteous fervor,\’ Williams remarks, and throughout his career he drove hard bargains and was not to be bested.
The sixth of eight siblings, Jonathan Stewart Vickers was born on 29 October 1926 in Prince Albert, a small town surrounded by forest and farms in the Midwest Canadian state of Saskatchewan. His father was a teacher and smallholder, who suffered badly in the Depression of the 1930s, and his early years were bleak. ‘For a long time, I never thought that life was anything else but working to survive and eat,\’ he said later. The Baptist church provided the glue: stern and forceful, Vickers\’s father was one of its itinerant lay preachers, instilling in his offspring as well as his congregations the idea that God was someone who deplored failure and couldn\’t be let down. This must have been formative of Vickers\’s invincible moral drive-he always fought his corner, in the certain hope that God was on his side.
Music came to him through the church choir; his voice was always shatteringly loud, and the boy felt impelled to let it rip. He never claimed to find singing easy or pleasurable. ‘I sang because I had to sing,\’ he said. ‘It was part of me … an absolute necessity.\’ Later came G&S-his stage debut was made in 1947, when he played Frederic in an amateur production of The Pirates of Penzance. But the idea of making singing his profession never occurred to him. Having finished high school as the war finished, he dreamt instead of studying medicine. Lack of the necessary funding held him back and he took lowly grocery jobs before spending three years with Woolworth\’s as a trouble-shooting store manager.
The church and operetta singing continued out of hours until the urging of a lady friend-and Vickers was always one for the ladies-led him to audition for the Toronto Conservatory. He won a place instantly, paying his way through the course by driving trucks on the night-shift. His principal teacher there was George Lambert, but one gets the impression that, like Caruso, Vickers was intractably wedded to his own way of doing things. Although he was said to be ‘a quick study, like blotting paper\’, his technique remained idiosyncratic, particularly in relation to an erratic top register that he managed through a range of evasive tricks-the pianissimo high B flat that ends Radames\’s ‘Celeste Aida\’ was one of several vocal challenges that found him wanting.
In 1953, he married Hetti, a minister\’s daughter. Bright and outgoing, calm in the face of his tantrums, she was a homebody who became the loving mother of their five children and provided him for the next 40-odd years with an emotional stability without which he might well have toppled over the mental precipice on which he so perilously stood.
After a few years of grounding in the operatic backwoods, with roles in standard repertoire such as Die Fledermaus, La traviata, Rigoletto and Carmen, he came to the notice of the Royal Opera House\’s general administrator, David Webster. ‘You strike me as a man who knows the value of a dollar,\’ he told the young man, as he presciently put him on contract. Vickers and his family moved to London, and in 1957 he made his debut at the house he came to call home in Carmen and Un ballo in maschera, achieving wider attention and acclaim as Aeneas in the historic 1957 production of The Trojans-a preposterously difficult part in which to this day he remains unmatched. The following year, after he sang with equal success the title role in Visconti\’s and Giulini\’s production of Don Carlos, his international reputation was made and he embarked on a meteoric trajectory, blazing within two years through debuts at Bayreuth, the Vienna Staatsoper, La Scala, San Francisco and the Met, singing with Callas in Medea and under Karajan as Siegmund in Die Walküre.
Already he was showing his mettle: from these years, Jeannie Williams details not only what is known about his implacable loathing of Georg Solti (the source of the animosity, apparently unreciprocated, remains mysterious), but also a dispute over fees which continued with the BBC for a quarter of a century. Once Vickers\’s paranoiac suspicion had been aroused, it was difficult to quell, even though he could be fiercely loyal and warmly supportive of those he respected.
By the early 1960s, he was established as the great heroic tenor of his generation-a position he would maintain unassailably worldwide for the next two decades, without suffering any significant vocal crisis or indisposition. In 1963 he sang his first Otello and four years later, his first Peter Grimes-the latter one of his most controversial and wilfully individual interpretations, said to be much disliked by Britten and subject to a cavalier disregard for the niceties of both score and libretto. Vickers\’s old-school attitude to what he regarded as the abomination of homosexuality meant that he chose to ignore the erotic dimension to Grimes\’s relationship with the apprentices and play the part instead as ‘a study in the entire human psychology of human rejection\’-the scapegoat who must be sacrificed to the greater social good. It was a performance of mesmerizing if brutal power, surviving in one of his finest audio and video recordings.
In 1971 he took on Tristan for the first time-another of his greatest achievements, especially a third act charged with a sickening physical and spiritual anguish that flayed both him and the audience. But his attitude to Wagner was ambivalent: he never sang Lohengrin, Siegfried or Götterdämmerung and notoriously withdrew from a contracted Tannhäuser on the theologically contentious grounds that it ‘challenged the redemptive work of Jesus Christ\’. Parsifal, however, which he sang magnificently for 30 years, didn\’t seem to bother him, despite his stated view that it was ‘the most blasphemous work ever\’. It is an open question as to how much this selectivity was motivated by his personal beliefs and how much by fear of high-lying vocal lines that would expose the increasingly obtrusive flaws in his intonation.
Late in the 1970s, he continued to break new ground, taking on roles to which he was patently unsuited-the stuttering Vašek in The Bartered Bride and Nerone in L\’incoronazione di Poppea, for example, as well as a reading of Winterreise too wayward for even his most ardent fans to stomach. But as the stars of Pavarotti and Domingo shone ever brighter, he began to withdraw, sensitive to criticism and competition. A return to the title role of Handel\’s Samson in the mid 1980s was a downright mistake-he had sung it first in 1958, but time, taste and scholarship had moved on and his ponderous style with its scooping portamento and eschewal of ornamentation came to sound not so much austerely noble as absurdly retrograde. His farewell appearances as Saint-Saëns\’s Samson in 1986-7 were more dignified. In 1988 he retired altogether, reappearing only as the speaking narrator of Strauss\’s melodrama Enoch Arden in the late 1990s, in which guise he made a final bow at the Wigmore Hall in 2001.
He always had a life outside music. In the early 1960s he had bought a substantial farm in Ontario, where he planted trees, dug fences, castrated bulls, ploughed fields and perhaps found the inner peace that eluded him in the city. Yet he was unsentimental about Canada-a country he always felt undervalued him-and following one of the quarrels over tax that cropped up repeatedly throughout his life, he moved his base to Bermuda, eventually selling his estate there to Silvio Berlusconi for over $4m.
After Hetti died in 1991, he married the air stewardess Judy Stewart. His final years in Bermuda were sadly marred by dementia-an ironic fate for someone whose art had taken him so close to the heart of darkness and the brink of sanity.