So much has been written about the titanic tenor Jon Vickers since he died a few weeks ago. What can I possibly add to everything that has been said about him?
I’m not sure that I can add any new insights about this monumental artist, except to offer some personal reflections about times that I saw him perform.
A Concert Performance of Fidelio in Montreal
When I was a student in Montreal in the early 1970s, I went to a concert performance of Fideliowith the Montreal Symphony. The cast was made up of very capable local singers from Quebec. They accorded themselves very capably in the first act. But then after intermission the performance resumed with Vickers on the stage to sing Florestan’s aria and the performance was suddenly catapulted into the stratosphere.
From his first sung word “Gott!” I felt as though someone had fired up a jet engine and directed its flow right into my face. The sheer volume of sound Vickers produced made me feel as though I was pinned to my seat, unable to move. And another thing. Vickers was so lost in what he was doing, with his eyes all but closed, that he kept inching slowly toward the front of the stage. I, for one, was afraid that he was going to keep moving forward until he fell off the stage. That didn’t happen.
That was my first introduction to his intensity and complete immersion in what he was singing. An indelible memory.
Here’s a video of him as Florestan from a 1977 performance.
A Master Class at Manhattan School of Music
Vickers gave a master class at the Manhattan School of Music that I helped to run while I was working on the administration there. It must have been in about 1979 or 1980. At one point while he was discussing his interpretation of roles, he demonstrated by singing a few passages from Peter Grimes. He closed his eyes and started to sing. I think that everybody in the hall was actually scared, maybe even worrying about our personal safety in his presence.
When he was done singing he opened his eyes and said, “You see that I wasn’t Jon Vickers, I was Peter Grimes.” I have never seen anything quite like it. Again, an indelible memory.
Peter Grimes and The Bartered Bride at the Met
I was very fortunate to see Vickers’ legendary performance in Peter Grimes at the Met. It surely stands out in my memory alongside the greatest performances that I have witnessed, including Marilyn Horne in L’Italiana in Algeri, Nicolai Gedda in Faust, Sherrill Milnes in Il Trovatore, Régine Crespin in The Flying Dutchman and Richard Tucker in La Forza del Destino.
And then I saw Vickers in two performances of The Bartered Bride, where he took on the comic role of Vašek. That seemed a little like using a Howitzer to kill a flea, but even so, his immersion in the role and artistic integrity were remarkable to see, as was his willingness to be part of an ensemble effort alongside Teresa Stratas, Nicolai Gedda and the formidable Martii Talvela.
I hope that these recollections will add to all that has been written and said about Vickers over the last few weeks. We have lost a giant.