There have been two singers above all the others who mattered to me as I grew up. Both were tenors. I’ve talked about Jussi Björling, my touchstone of vocal perfection and the subject of a recent pilgrimage in Sweden. The other was Jon Vickers who has died after what his family announced as a “prolonged struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.” In contrasting my relationship with these two heroes of my childhood I’d like to illuminate these two very different stars, who in large measure can be understood as two polar opposites.
Björling was a singer of great vocal beauty, possessed of ringing high Cs and a lovely cantabile. Vickers was somewhat unorthodox, arguably one of the great singing actors of the 20th Century. As I grew up i drifted away from love of pure vocal beauty and fell in love with music-drama, good acting and everything Vickers stood for. While I love listening to both Björling and Vickers, it’s on video that you really get a sense of the Canadian’s unique style.
For the longest time it was a pattern of frustration! Vickers stopped singing in Toronto allegedly because of a bad review. In 1970 I was fortunate to be taken to hear him in NY, singing with Louis Quilico & James Levine in the Zeffirelli Otello that had been introduced the season before by James McCracken & Karl Bohm. A few years later I hitched a ride to Montreal to hear his Tristan. Eventually I heard a song recital at the Edward Johnson Building at the University of Toronto (his first words were a fervent “it’s good to be back!”) and the first act of Siegmund in the “Concert of the Decade” with Birgit Nilsson at Massey Hall. While it was only the first act, it was surely a release of all that pent-up frustration for his fans, especially for those who hadn’t traveled to see Vickers in other cities. Not only did it bring us Vickers but Nilsson had never sung in Toronto either, and it was led by Zubin Mehta. For me it lived up to the hype, especially in Vickers’s seemingly effortless high A to end the act. And a short while later he sang it again for another audience (that would have included me if I had been able to afford to see it both times. Oh well, no such luck).
I was fortunate to see him as much as i did in the roles for which he was famed. Everything he sang was unique and unlike what anyone else would do with that role. I can say that because I was a junkie for descriptions and stories about the other roles I never saw. He changed our understanding of Peter Grimes single-handedly, broadening the possibilities of the role far beyond what the composer and what Peter Pears, the first great exponent of the role, understood of the opera. While I don’t believe he is really known for Parsifal there’s a moment on youtube that’s shattering precisely because of the way it goes against what we would expect, a production directed by Rolf Liebermann (whom I mention because the brilliant touch might be from Vickers, might be from Liebermann; either way its execution is stunning). He brings back the sacred spear and then he breaks it in two(!?!), complete with a howl of confused rage from the grail knights in his presence .
I will add another link that gives a better view of his acting ability, as Florestan in Fidelio. Even so i believe this portrayal would be more powerful from afar, the movement vocabulary eloquent at any distance but especially convincing when you could only see a tiny figure, posture, dignity, and the huge voice enveloping you no matter whether you were close or sitting at the back of the opera house.
The ambiguities of this final clip are a perfect epitome of Vickers. As Otello he kills himself with a concealed weapon. As he heroically strains for a final kiss –the most heroic looking singer I have seen in the part to this day—I could never tell in recordings or this performance, if the “ah” in the last lines was an attempt at a kiss (as this note gives us the recurrance of the moment in the love duet where he and Desdemona kiss) or impending death. The ambiguity slays me every time, but I found it particularly shattering watching him die in this clip earlier tonight, realizing that he is finally gone.