Remembering Jon Vickers, Canadian Heldentenor

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.  

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10 Responses to Remembering Jon Vickers, Canadian Heldentenor

  1. Edward Brain says:

    He was a great singer. It is a shame that there are not more video recordings of his performances – he was a consistent professional – not just from the recordings that do exist, but also from the stories I have heard from other performers about him.

    • barczablog says:

      I agree, although i prefer to cling to the sense of gratitude for the few videos we actually do have. At least people will know we weren’t hallucinating. He really was that good.

  2. David says:

    Two comments: first, it isn’t true that Nilsson never appeared in Toronto before that concert. When the Met did their last tour to Toronto, it was 1961, the first season that the then O’Keefe center was open, Nilsson appeared as Turandot.
    The other is that the kragland story is ture: shortly afterwards Torel gave a press conference announcing the next COC season, among the operas planned was Fidelio. Kragland said “And we hear Vickers with be Florestan.” Torel looked right at him and said “We have you to thank that Mr. Vickers will never sing in Toronto again.”

    • barczablog says:

      Thank David. Did you get to hear that Turandot? as a child it was my favourite opera, until i really discovered Wagner.

      The irony of what Kraglund did –getting Vickers to go everywhere but Toronto until the mid-70s– was that it merely had us putting him on an even HIGHER pedestal, idealizing his performances.

  3. Ivan Elkan says:

    Thank you, Mr. Barcza, for this blog. It is hard to believe that I would not remember Vickers and Mehta, but remember Birgit Nilsson, if indeed, this was the concert that I attended. To confirm this in my mind, I wonder, if you could answer the question (whether by looking into your notes or just remembering): did Nilsson sing Grieg’s “Ich liebe dich” as an encore? I definitely heard her sing this, but I am not sure, if this was at this occasion or at some other time, the details of which I don’t remember. Obviously, her singing this beautiful song made a great impression on me – I only regret, not remembering the rest of the concert, if this was indeed during the 1974 event. I enjoy your posts, and look forward to many more.

    With kind regards,

    Ivan Elkan

    P.S. Incidentally, Bjoerling is also my all time favourite tenor.

    • barczablog says:

      Thanks for your very kind & complimentary words!
      There was another concert that was Nilsson alone, namely the COC Gala, which was some years later (perhaps in the 1980s… not sure when). But the encore could have been at that concert. I do not recall any encores at the “Concert of the Decade”, which was really a pair of performances of Act I of Walkure, one after another (but i only stayed for the first). I can’t comment on performance #2 (which i did not see) but i would doubt that Nilsson would do a solo encore if Vickers & William Wildermann were also there. Sigh it’s all so long ago, one can barely remember even if one is not also losing one’s memory.

  4. David says:

    I also got to see Vickers and Nielsen at Massey Hall, sitting in the cheap student rush seats. I walked home in the most blissful daze imaginable. After >40 years it still stands up as one of the greatest concerts that I have ever attended.

    And unless I’m mistaken, I know you. Are you Leslie Barcza who took the Wagner course at U of T in 74/75 with Godfrey Ridout and Carl Morey? I was the other male student in the class.

    David McNorton

    • barczablog says:

      Yes that was me. If you see me at the opera please say hello! I am not sure I’d recognize you (we all look different, don’t we? my beard is full of grey)

      • David says:

        We will be back at the COC for the performances of February 7th and 8th. No, I don’t have shoulder-length black hair any more, more like short, trimmed and grey going on white. We sit in row M, left aisle on the main floor.

        I found your blog while anticipating seeing Das Lied Von dear Erde this Friday in Detroit. I remembered seeing the TSO do it in the early 70’s. Am I garbled, or was it Jon Vickers and Jessye Norman?

        Russell Thomas will be the tenor in the Detroit performance.

  5. barczablog says:

    Interesting! i can’t be sure about whether that TSO performance happened, only that i wasn’t there (but might have wished to have been..?). Russell Thomas singing Mahler will likely be an interesting experience. He reminds me very much of James McCracken (speaking of the 1970s), the tenor who did the Zeffirelli Otello the season before Vickers did it. Thomas is more secure in his technique than McCracken, at least at this point (but then again i think i caught JM late in his career, so who can say?).

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