God’s Tenor

Jon Vickers

Jonathan Stewart Vickers, born in 1926, was in my estimation not only one of the greatest tenors of the 20th century but one of the six most important operatic artists of that century, along with Feodor Chaliapin, Mary Garden, Tito Gobbi, Maria Callas and Gabriel Bacquier. They brought a more realistic as well as a more poetic portrayal of operatic characters to the stage and forced audiences to think of them in a different way than just as a Presence with a Voice. Of course, there were other singers who did the same thing, among them Olive Fremstad, Michael Bohnen, Magda Olivero and Jerome Hines, but their influence was primarily local and, in the case of Fremstad, not captured properly on recordings and not at all on film.

Ironically, I didn’t like the sound of Vickers’ voice at all when I first heard him on a recording, specifically the 1961 Aida with Leontyne Price and Georg Solti. I thought the voice was basemetal and had no ring to it, and when he did try to project brightness it just sounded harsh. I was too young to know at the time that this was the result of John Culshaw’s fiddling around with dials in the control room while the recording was being made. All Culshaw really cared about was projecting the orchestra front and center; for him, voices were just “other instruments” to be subjugated behind the wall of brass, winds and strings. He pulled an even worse stunt on Vickers (and Birgit Nilsson and Gré Brouwenstijn) on their recording of Die Walküre.

My idea of Vickers changed forever in December of 1974. I had made an appointment with Francis Robinson to discuss Jussi Björling, a tenor whose voice I admired very much, for a possible biography. When an attendant arrived to take me through the labyrinth of the Met’s backstage to his office, I heard this huge, warm, absolutely luxurious voice singing music from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. Flabbergasted, I asked the attendant who the tenor was. I was even more flabbergasted when he told me it was Jon Vickers.

That was the beginning of my Vickers obsession. I went to see him as Don Alvaro in the February 8, 1975 performance with a stellar cast: Martina Arroyo as Leonora, Matteo Managuerra as Don Carlo, Bonaldo Giaiotti as Padre Guardiano, the afore-mentioned Bacquier as Fra Melitone and James Levine conducting. I was utterly mesmerized, not only by Vickers’ voice but by the way he breathed life into the character. One of the most impressive moments was the duet “Solenne in quest’ora,” normally belted out by Italian tenors worldwide. Vickers wanted to convey Alvaro’s feeling that he was near death, so he sang it softly, almost in a hoarse whisper, halting for breath like someone who actually had been mortally wounded. I was stunned. But after the act, standing in the lobby, I had to listen to some idiot lecturing his circle of friends that Vickers had the “wrong voice” for Alvaro, that he preferred hearing it sung by Barry Morell. Since I couldn’t stomach Morell’s voice and had heard he was a terrible stage actor, I had a hard time believing that this guy couldn’t see and hear what I was seeing and hearing—a masterful performance.

As I was to learn, Vickers was used to this sort of thing. He knew that although his voice was massive in size, almost too massive, in fact, for most of his studio recordings, that it was not conventionally beautiful. It had warmth and was incredibly large—when he sang on stage, the voice completely filled the theater (some called it a “Cinerama” voice)—but that it didn’t have either an Italianate ring nor inherent beauty. He also used to say that 90% of all his audiences didn’t get what he was doing, but that he was singing for the 10% who did. “If I am nothing else, I consider myself an artist,” he would say, “and as an artist I try things that are different and out of the ordinary.” Yet he eventually came to realize, watching his performances on video, that in some ways it wasn’t enough. When Chicago-based critic Bruce Duffie interviewed him and asked what he thought future generations would think of his work, he said, “I think they will laugh. I think they will consider it inadequate.”

I don’t really know anyone who laughs at Jon Vickers’ performances, but I had a friend once who nitpicked him to death. “He squints too much in his Carmen film,” she said, and when she backed him up as a member of the Cincinnati May Festival Chorus, she laughed at the fact that when he opened his mouth to sing, “it makes a rectangular slot, like a mailbox.” That’s about as close to laughing at him I’ve ever heard.

After the Forza performance, I waited for him backstage to get his autograph, something I rarely did with opera singers, even well-known ones (as much as I liked Arroyo, I didn’t wait to get her autograph). He was one of the last to emerge from backstage. He arrived trailing James Levine and asked him, “Was I really horrible tonight? Really? I couldn’t get the voice free all night long!” To which Levine replied, “You were fine. We could all hear you very well, and most of it was excellent.” Then the tenor started talking in the third person. “When other tenors get a cold they cancel, but Vickers is an idiot. Vickers goes on anyway.” But I, and a young woman who apparently followed him around from city to city to see his performances, were enraptured by his performance and we told him so. He beamed from ear to ear. We were part of that 10% who “got it.”

The next time I heard him in person was a Carnegie Hall recital the following year. When he walked out on stage, the house erupted with applause. He beamed from ear to ear; he knew he had “a Vickers audience.” “Just for that,” he said, wagging a finger, “I’m going to start with something extra-special.” He then proceeded to sing one of his favorite arias, “Where’er you walk” from Handel’s Semele, before launching into the scheduled program, which began with Beethoven’s song cycle An die Ferne Geliebte. From that day to this, there are few if any other performances of the Beethoven cycle I can listen to other than Vickers’. He was utterly spellbinding.

In the fall of 1977 I moved from New Jersey to Cincinnati, and thus left the New York opera scene behind, but I still followed Vickers as faithfully as I could. I heard him on a Met broadcast as Otello. I saw his astonishing performance as the clumsy, stuttering Vašek opposite Nicolai Gedda’s Jenik in The Bartered Bride. He sang and acted Gedda off the stage, probably one reason why the latter tenor never even mentioned this performance in his autobiography. I also bought his Peter Grimes recording when it came out and, a few years later, the Peter Grimes videotape. I managed to find a copy of his first (1954) recording of Handel’s Messiah with Sir Ernest Macmillan on the RCA Bluebird label. I recorded his 1984 broadcast of Fidelio with soprano Eva Marton and conductor Klaus Tennstedt. I saw him concertize on TV now and then, most notably in a stunning performance of the Act I, Scene 3 duet from Die Walküre with soprano Jessye Norman. And then, by the late 1980s, he was gone from the scene.

For a tenor who had such a long and relatively stellar career, Vickers was an odd duck, and not just because of his vocal timbre. Unlike other big-name tenors, he kept major artistic promoters at arms’ length, preferring more low-key management. He knew that the same people who loved Franco Corelli’s voice, for instance, weren’t going to like his voice no matter what he did, particularly in any sort of conventional Italian or French opera role, thus he relied as much on his reputation, which by the mid-1960s was enormous, to promote himself within the opera community. He probably did the wise thing, but this is one reason why Vickers wasn’t nearly as well known as Placido Domingo or Luciano Pavarotti. When outsiders saw him sitting in the Met cafeteria having his lunch, dressed like a Canadian lumberjack, they had no clue who he was, and he actually liked being able to have a private life without being mobbed by autograph-seekers.

And, for a tenor of such worldwide repute and fame, he really didn’t make many studio recordings. Two versions each of the Messiah, Otello, Fidelio, Die Walküre and the Beethoven Ninth Symphony and one each of Aida, Samson et Dalila, Les Troyens, Tristan und Isolde, Carmen, Peter Grimes, the Verdi Requiem and Das Lied von der Erde. In addition, there were three professionally produced film performances, two of them by Unitel under the guidance of Herbert von Karajan (Pagliacci and an alternate Carmen) and the filmed Peter Grimes. All of his other performances, including operas close to his heart such as Handel’s Samson and those less close such as Verdi’s Don Carlo, Un Ballo in Maschera and La Forza del Destino, Strauss’ Salome, Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini, Smetana’s Barbered Bride, Cherubini’s Medea, Bellini’s Norma, Janáček’s Jenufa, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, Giordano’s Andrea Chenier, Wagner’s Parsifal, Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame and Walton’s Troilus and Cressida, exist only in live performances, as do alternate performances of Fidelio, Otello, Grimes et al. In his entire career he made only ONE vocal recital disc, for RCA Victor in 1962 (around the time of his first Otello). There also exists a strange performance of the “Gloria” from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis conducted by Leonard Bernstein to celebrate the opening of Lincoln Center in which TWO of each voice category were used. In this performance, Vickers sang for the first and last time with American tenor Richard Tucker, and it was issued on a limited edition LP set. I haven’t been able to track it down since.

Vickers’ odd combination of confidence and modesty was drilled into him by his father, who was an itinerant preacher. A lifelong Christian who wore his morality on his sleeve, he was thus dubbed “God’s tenor.” During the 1970s he agreed to learn and sing the role of Tannhäuser at the Metropolitan Opera, but backed out because he claimed that the character was blasphemous, yet he sang such equally questionable roles as Siegmund in Die Walküre, who had sexual relations with his own sister; the title role of Parsifal, a fool who becomes a sort of pseudo-Christ figure; and the bigamist emperor Nero in L’Incoronatione di Poppea. The real reason is probably that he found the tessitura of the music too high for his voice at that time.

In fact, if you examine the roles Vickers sang in the light of their psychological makeup, he was drawn to characters who had serious character flaws and heroes who were brought down by relationships they shouldn’t have had, such as Radames, Samson, Tristan, Giasone in Medea, Enée in Les Troyens, Riccardo, Herod and Cellini. In this respect he had a certain kinship with the great American actor Lon Chaney, whose goal was to humanize characters who lived on the fringes of society. For Chaney, the ultimate role was Erik in The Phantom of the Opera. For Vickers, the ultimate role was the mentally unstable, apprentice-beating fisherman Peter Grimes.

Like many singers from the early 20th century who put the dramatic or poetic presentation of the character above what was in the written score, Vickers sometimes (but not often) distorted the score in order to give one the poetic meaning of the words. To a certain extent he did this in Peter Grimes, but moreso in his broadly-phrased performance of Andrea Chenier. Perhaps the most extreme example of his was his live performance, issued on CD by VAI Audio, of Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise. Almost none of the songs are sung in anything like strict fidelity to the score, which is one reason no one wanted to issue it, but it certainly underlines the poetic soul of the character as well or better than anyone else’s version. At other times, such as in the Karajan film of Pagliacci, his presentation of the character seems diametrically opposed to the usual “angry clown” who explodes in angst and tears during “Vesti la giubba” and then tears passion to tatters in “No, Pagliacco non son.” Vickers internalizes the character’s angst so well that, in some respects, it seems tame to the average Italian opera fan, yet as a psychological portrayal of Canio it is extremely well-thought-out and makes sense.

When Vickers met Callas at their first rehearsal together for Medea, he was convinced that she was a shallow narcissist who didn’t care much for art because she arrived late and with an entourage, but by the end of the rehearsal period he was convinced that she was a genius. “Callas was almost masochistic in the way she approached the role,” he later said. “I found her once, late at night, kneeling onstage, psyching herself into the character, almost browbeating herself into feeling what Medea felt.” Vickers never went quite that far, but like Lon Chaney and Chaliapin, once he crossed the line onto the stage he was the character he was performing. Many were the sopranos who actually feared for their lives when he went to strangle them in the last act of Otello or who worried for his sanity in the last act of Grimes. After one Grimes rehearsal in which he sang the mad scene, “Steady! There you are! Nearly home,” he froze in position. Then, suddenly, he started laughing, softly at first and then exploding in loud guffaws. That was how quickly he could switch from the character he was playing back to Jon Vickers.

In later years he gave many lecture-concerts, explaining his aesthetic and singing examples for his audiences, and nearly all of them began with the same statement: “Art asks questions, but does not provide answers. Art challenges us to answer those questions, each in his or her own way.” That may be as good an epitaph as any for Vickers. Sadly, his last eight years were clouded by senile dementia, from which he died in July 2015.

Jon Vickers’ performances, both live and in the studio, not only deserve to be perpetuated but to be listened to carefully and studied. Like Chaliapin’s records, they present a great interpreter who made us reassess the operatic repertoire we all think we know so well.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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