Born: October 29, 1926
Died: July 10, 2015
Canadian tenor Jonathan, Jon Vickers, was born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan on the 29th of October 1926.
A person who met him and was an admirer of his work, was the tenor and opera producer Nigel Douglas.
And the redoubtable Eddie Findlay, was on hand, as ever, when he gave a talk on the singer for the BBC.
Here is part of it.
The thing that I much appreciate in a singer, is individuality.
It’s nice to be able to say, after hearing just one phrase, aha that’s so and so!
And this week, I’ve chosen to talk about one of the great individualists of international opera, the Canadian dramatic tenor, Jon Vickers.
Jon Vickers with the opening with On with the Motley from Leoncavallo’s opera il Pagliacci.
I was lucky enough to hear Vickers make his Vienna debut in that role, back in the days when I was a student in the opera school there.
I remember a friend of mine in the state opera company, being vastly impressed when Vickers lost his patience at a rehearsal, smashed a chair on stage, and stormed out of the building.
In that part of the world, they appreciate a bit of what they call, temperament and certainly the main impression which Vickers performance made on me, was one of enormous strength.
Not just vocal strength, though there was plenty of that, but of something elemental, potentially explosive about the man on stage.
He just wasn’t cast in the same mold as any other singer. And every role I’ve heard him in since, has left me with the same feeling.
Vickers is not a typical Verdi singer, he’s not a typical Wagner singer, he’s not a typical Benjamin Britten singer, he’s Jon Vickers and he puts his own stamp on things.
Even in oratorio, where many singers adopt a slightly detached attitude, the theme is religious, the music is sacrosanct.
Vickers can’t help creating an atmosphere of intense personal involvement.
Jon Vickers with a characteristically sturdy rendering of one of the tenor’s solos from Handel’s Messiah.
Vickers was born in Saskatchewan in 1926 and his early ambition was to become a doctor.
It’s funny how many singers I know, who’ve started life with half an eye on a career in medicine, singing always seems to emerge victorious, and thus the world may have lost a lot of good doctors.
Though in Vickers case, he could hardly have made more of a mark on medicine, than he has on opera.
In fact, the way things turned out for the young Mr. Vickers, was that he worked in a grocery store in Winnipeg, while singing on the side as an amateur.
He then crossed his Rubicon by enrolling in the Royal Conservatory of music, in Toronto.
And in due course, after several stage appearances in Canada, he was unveiled in 1957, as a great new discovery, by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
After encouraging successes in Verdi’s Barlow and Bizet’s Carmen, he was entrusted with a major challenge.
The vital role of Aeneas in London’s very first production of Berlioz mammoth masterwork the Trojans.
This was the role which really put Vickers on the map, and here he is partnered by the British mezzo Josephine Visy, as Dido, queen of Carthage, revelling in a Nuit de Veers, a Night of Rapture.
Jon Vickers and Josephine Visy drift off together into the Carthaginian night, part of the love duet from Berlioz, the Trojans.
The rarest bird in the operatic aviary has always been the really robust dramatic tenor, able to tackle without batting an eyelid, the remorseless demands of Richard Wagner.
But within a year of his Covent Garden, in Niaz, Vickers was appearing in that Mecca of all things Wagnerian, the Bioroid Festival.
His introductory role there, was Sigmund in Devall Curah and it fitted him like a glove.
In the first act, Sigmund, on the run and weapon less, takes refuge in a stranger’s house.
He and the stranger’s wife, feel an overwhelming force drawing them together and we’ll join them as they gradually realise that they are twin brother and sister, torn from one another back in early childhood.
Sigmund is then called upon to perform a deed of mighty physical prowess, plunged deep in the trunk of an age-old ash tree, is a magic sword, left there by the twin’s father, to be plucked out by Sigmund in his hour of need.
Now I mentioned earlier, Vickers formidable strength, he’s a really powerfully built individual.
The first thing I learned about him when I met him during those early Pagliacci performances in Vienna, was that his handshake was something to be wary of, and whereas so many Sigmund’s leave you thinking, well if he could get that sword out, anybody could.
With Vickers there was always a feeling of total physical conviction. He was able to achieve an atmosphere on stage, worthy of Wagner’s white-hot trumpet calls in the orchestra pit.
Jon Vickers partner, this time by the Dutch soprano Ray Braunstein carries all before him in Wagners, Devall Curah.
Bring him to Bioroid earlier in the programme, I haven’t said anymore about the way his career developed, because from that moment onwards, it simply pursued a straight path to the top.
Vienna, Paris, La Scala Milan, the Metropolitan Opera New York, these and all the other best operatic addresses, were where Jon Vickers was soon to be found.
The life of the international superstar is not a settled one, but Vickers has always been a keen family man, just as well as he has five children, and he’s a great believer in the open-air life.
In his work, he’s always been a stubborn perfectionist, which hasn’t necessarily endeared him to all his colleagues, and it’s probably no coincidence that many of his most memorable performances and several of his most impressive recordings, have been in conjunction with that other formidable perfectionist Herbert von Carriam. The Vickers, Carriam, Tristan and Isolde, for instance, set a standard which I would scarcely expect to hear, improved upon.
But to end this programme, I would like to turn to one of their collaborations in the Italian repertoire.
Verdi’s Otello. Otello, like Peter Grimes, is a role which allows Vickers to live his way deep into the psyche of the character he’s representing. He’s another soul in torment.
This torment reaches a climax in the finale to Act 2, the electrifying duet in which Otello and the villainous Jago, swear as Shakespeare puts it, by yond marble heaven, to reek a hideous revenge for the entirely fictitious infidelity, of Otello’s wife, Desdemona.
The Jago on this recording is the British baritone Peter Glossop, and it’s greatly to his credit, that he can keep his end up in partnership with quite such a Titanic, Otello as Jon Vickers.