Remembering Jon Vickers

OperaMetro remembers Jon Vickers

Jon Vickers, one of the great tenors of our era, passed away on July 10, 2015 at the age of 88. He was easily one of the more memorable performers I’ve seen on stage over all these years.

So OperaMetro (OM) set out to chat, via email, with two other ‘seasoned’ opera fans who were also fortunate enough to have been touched by his superb artistry. With me they share their remembrances of Jon Vickers in performance, on recording, and in person.

One is Glenn Smith (GS), who began his operatic journey with student performances at the Metropolitan Opera while in grade school. After graduating from college, he worked in the world of retail records, as in ‘vinyl,’ with Franklin Music and Sam Goody before becoming the RCA Red Seal Product Manager in the late 70's.  He jumped to the video world, as in 'VHS,' to help found VAI in the mid 80's, bringing to the American market many opera performances from Glyndebourne under the baton of Bernard Haitink. Glenn returned as a video consultant to Red Seal in the late 80's, then logged 25 years as a radio producer and host for WWFM, The Classical Network, where, most recently, he produced the first American radio broadcasts of opera performances from Teatro alla Scala, hosted by Thor Eckert.

The other is Richard Schuller (RS), whose degrees in music education are BA from Trenton State College in Trenton, NJ, and an MA from NYU. He taught music in Livingston Public Schools in NJ for 33 years, conducting many of their high school musicals, and also performed as a member of Pro Arte Chorale of NJ for 5 years. Dick was Organist and Choir Director of his local church for 15 years. He has been a Metropolitan Opera subscriber since the 1960-1961 season, two years ahead of me. So I asked…

OM: What were your first encounters with Jon Vickers on stage or on recording?

GS: I knew about Jon Vickers through recordings first, but these were followed fairly quickly by stage performances at the Met or at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia or vice versa. His Siegmund was my first on stage, preceded by the Leinsdorf Die Walküre on RCA; my second on stage was his Samson, followed by the recording of Samson et Dalila on Angel with Rita Gorr, conducted by Georges Prêtre. His Otello with Leonie Rysanek and Tito Gobbi on RCA was one of the first recordings I owned, but it would be a few years before I saw him on stage (in Philly with Renata Tebaldi and Peter Glossop).

Cornell MacNeil as Iago and Jon Vickers as Otello, Metropolitan Opera telecast

Cornell MacNeil as Iago and Jon Vickers as Otello, Metropolitan Opera telecast

OM: I was at that performance in Philadelphia. Late 1969 was it? The Met was on strike that fall…It was my first Vickers Otello on stage, and yes, I knew what to expect from the RCA, a great recording overall. His performances of Otello at the Met in 1972 were his prime years, though. My sister was pretty crazy about him too. She and I went three times that December, and once again in June of ‘73, I from U. Delaware and she from Rutgers in central Jersey. I think too these were the first times we heard Mr. Levine conduct.

RS: My first experience of Jon Vickers was the Sir Thomas Beecham recording of Handel’s Messiah, but I also know that Otello.  As I recall my first live performance with Jon Vickers was in Die Walküre at the Met in the very early 1960s. I was totally blown away by him that time and every time since.

GS: That was one of his core roles. His commercial recording of Siegmund in Die Walküre, also with Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde and George London as Wotan, is still my favorite recording, for him, and for that matter, it’s my favorite recording of the opera itself. [Erich] Leinsdorf led the London Symphony Orchestra: his command of Wagner was unmatched at the time, and the cast responded magnificently. Remember, it was originally released on the RCA Red Seal label in the USA in the very early 60s, the first stereo version of the most popular Ring opera.

OM: In the big red box, the deluxe Soria Series as I recall. Still have it somewhere downstairs. But for younger readers, know that it’s now available on Decca CDs. It stands up well to the competition.

RS: Yes, it’s a marvelous recording, but I think you’ll find his Siegmund in Die Walküre with Herbert von Karajan on Deutsche Gramophon quite excellent as well. There is something very special about it.

OM: Agreed. I got to know that recording quite well in college. Except for Birgit Nilsson, it had most of the principals of von Karajan’s debut at the Met in 1967. That was some night! The opening of the Met's new production of the Ring, the first Schneider-Siemssen version, I mean. Vickers and von Karajan had a good collaboration going by then.

Tell you a story: I met Jon Vickers backstage at the Old Met in 1965 as he climbed the stairs to his dressing room after Act II of Die Walküre. One knew that John Culshaw at Decca was stacking the deck in casting for the Solti Ring, of which the spectacular Götterdämmerung was about to be released. Walküre, the last in their queue, was yet to be recorded. So I rather innocently asked if he, Jon Vickers, would be the Siegmund. He whirled around, Grimes at his exercise, and said something to the effect “I’ll never work with that man again,” meaning Solti. This is pretty close to a quote. It probably stems from the Aïda recording they did a few years earlier, but I didn’t have time to ask for details.

After that though he worked quite frequently with von Karajan, especially with the opera films: OtelloPagiacci (this is one great performance!), and Carmen come to mind. Closing thought, as long as we’re on Wagner: SONY Classical has released a CD set of the Met broadcast of Die Walküre from February 24, 1968, with a dream cast: Nilsson, Vickers, Rysanek, Stewart, Ludwig, and Ridderbusch. It’s always instructive to hear the singers in live performance recordings.

Switching gears, what characteristics of his performances made them different from other tenors?

RS: For me it was both the sheer size of the voice in the house and the incredible musicianship of his singing. But more than that, what made him unique, was total commitment to the roles he portrayed.

GS: Agreed. Some artists—actors, dancers, instrumentalists, singers, conductors—can command a stage the minute they appear and never relinquish it until they exit the platform.  It’s a sort of innate charisma. But we all know it takes more than charisma. There are charismatic singers, but they perform with limited resources and therefore never achieve the pinnacle of their profession.  For me there was a special quality to Vickers’ voice that commanded immediate attention.

OM: One always recognized his voice immediately on record or on the radio.

GS: And add to that the fact that he knew how to use it to create memorable characters. He knew his instrument so well that he chose his roles carefully. I suspect that it’s one reason he felt pretty sure he’d be successful with those roles.

OM: And he knew how to use his body as well, a part of the ‘total commitment’ Dick referred to. He sustained the tension of the dramatic moment with the control of his movement. Maria Callas did this: watch her hands, watch her ‘flow’ in Act II of Tosca at Covent Garden on DVD, Tito Gobbi did this, Leonie Rysanek did this; Joyce DiDonato, Simon Keeleyside, Jonas Kaufmann do this. Others, of course. Vickers was not a small man by any means, but he did not move like a ‘big’ man. He moved more like a very strong man, emotionally taut, just holding it all back like a rumbling volcano.

RS: Yes. He marshaled his resources well. I met Jon Vickers after a performance of Pique Dame [in 1967 at the Met in Lincoln Center]. He was shorter than he appeared on stage. But he was very smartly dressed, exceptionally gracious, and he seemed very nice to his fans. I really didn’t get much of a chance to talk with him. One of those whirlwind backstage visits.

OM: Those who never saw him perform on stage: watch the DVD of the Met’s Otello from 1978: you’ll see that he moves from one position to another in great arcs, body, arms, head, often matching the vocal phrases, the text, and the orchestra. The Love Duet in Act I with Renata Scotto, or his Vengeance Duet with Cornell MacNeil in Act II, or the Death Scene…one actually senses the life passing out of him at the end. The cover art is posted on the top of this interview. In Parsifal, too, on stage at the Met in 1978 with Christa Ludwig, I remember the moment of Kundry’s kiss in Act II as being a non-verbal pas de deux, for want of a better word, between two beings slowly settling in for the game-changing monent.

Moving on, what were his greatest roles in your experience? We’ve named a few above. Include recordings if you did not see him do the role on stage.

RS: We’ve mentioned Siegmund, Otello, and Parsifal. I’d add Florestan, Tristan and Samson (both Handel and Saint-Saëns).

Jon Vickers as Peter Grimes in the Covent Garden production

Jon Vickers as Peter Grimes in the Covent Garden production

GS: All great roles. I’d certainly add Aeneas in Les Troyens. But to my thinking, his greatest achievement would have to be Peter Grimes. I was familiar with the Peter Pears’ Grimes from his commercial recording on Decca as well as from the film of the opera, both led by Britten himself. But neither of these prepared me for Jon Vickers. He took the character 180 degrees in the opposite direction.  It was as though Britten had (unwittingly) written another opera about the same person.  I saw him sing it in New York and San Francisco and the dimension of pathos he brought to a brute character will never leave my memory.

OM: I agree with you both. My first Grimes with Vickers was with you, Dick, at the Met in 1977. Heather Harper was Ellen Orford that night, as I recall. Fortunately his Peter Grimes is captured on DVD and CD, the first a BBC telecast from Covent Garden in 1981, the second a studio recording on Philips CDs from 1978, both conducted by Sir Colin Davis. To these, gentlemen, I’d have to add Canio in I Pagliacci, and therefore recommend the DVD with von Karajan and the wonderful Raina Kabaivanska as Nedda. I and Elise saw him sing Canio on stage at the Met in 1985. Good advice: don’t mess with Canio’s wife!

I know the Met has remastered a Parsifal broadcast from 1985 with Vickers and Leonie Rysanek, but it hasn’t surfaced commercially to my knowledge. It should though: I remember it being one of the best ever, Levine, every one, completely in synch. There is probably a pirate recording of the Met’s only performance with Nilsson and Vickers (and Leinsdorf) in Tristan und Isolde, but I’ve not heard it. The performance itself was one I’ll never forget. January 30, 1974.

I remember hearing a broadcast of Tristan und Isolde recorded live from Salzburg: von Karajan, Vickers, Helga Dernesch, Walter Berry, Christa Ludwig. It was quite good, what I heard, mainly a lot of Act III. I’m hoping that one re-surfaces someday! But oddly, the EMI stereo version, with mostly the same cast, spawned from the stage performances in early 70s, as was HVK’s wont, is patchy and sometimes sadly vacant. The dynamics and stereo staging shift constantly: you’ll adjust your volume many times through this. Vickers is great, but Dernesch, much as I admire her, is either not in good vocal health or really out of her league or just not awake at times.

But then there is his Tristan with Birgit Nilsson, Walter Berry, conducted by Karl Böhm in July of 1973, live from the Théâtre Antique d’Orange, France. The sound track is a complete recording of the performance, but the video portion, like that in the iconic Woodstock movie, is cobbled together from whatever scraps were available. For instance, the frenetic conclusion of Act I, instead of giving us close-ups of the doomed lovers, has a lot of aerial shots of Böhm conducting (why?)…whatever, I haven’t done the ‘this visual was from that moment’ analysis. So the patchwork video is disconcerting, and the sets aren’t much to look at anyway but, as I always say, when the images match the drama and the sound, and they do often, it’s better than my imagination. Of course better: I wasn’t there!

Okay, Birgit Nilsson was obviously a singer with whom he worked well! What other singers, in your opinion, seemed to elevate his performance? And why?

RS: Of course Nilsson. The Todesverkündigung scene in Die Walküre I always found very moving. Certainly Leonie Rysanek in Walküre, but also Rysanek in Fidelio and Parsifal; Renata Scotto in Otello. These artists were as committed to their performances as was he.

GS: No question those were very satisfying performances, but I don’t believe he ever needed to be elevated by the presence of other great singers.  It might be closer to the other way around: he often lifted them with the intensity of his performances. I never saw him on a bad night.

RS: Well, I was not particularly overwhelmed by his performance of Don Alvaro in La Forza del Destino. Mid 70s, as I recall. Perhaps he just hadn’t settled into the character, but it didn’t come across.

OM: I missed that one, unfortunately. But I can understand why he might have gravitated toward Don Alvaro. Forza for me is about the crushing weight of fate or destiny on Alvaro. Vickers seemed to like characters who fought the oppressive weight, whether it’s coming from the gods, an evil intriguer like Iago, the narrow minded village, a temptress…and so on. He was able to get into the skins of those characters. Siegmund, Otello, Grimes, Aeneas, Canio, Samson, even Dalibor. They all have doom over their heads. Their happiness is brief, but sadness is pervasive. Even Don José, though it’s Carmen who takes the knife.

Were there any roles you wish he had done?

RS: I wish he had done Tannhäuser and Siegfried in both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.  I’m sure he would have brought his superlative artistry to both of these roles.

OM: I’m remembering it was announced that he was preparing Tannhäuser, possibly for the Met’s soon to be unveiled new Schneider-Siemssen production. And I think he was also on the fence with Siegfried. Glenn?

GS: We all might have liked to see him as Siegfried, but he knew better than to attack a thankless role that shredded more voices than can be counted.  As previously mentioned, he always chose parts that suited his personality and his vocal means and I believe that we got the best of what he had to offer as singer. For which we should all be grateful.

OM: True. But he could have recorded them. Never stopped Placido. I also remember that he had a fondness for Czech opera. Vickers was right in there for Jenufa in ’74 and I recall from the telecast interview between acts of The Bartered Bride he said he very much wanted to bring Smetana’s Dalibor to the Met.

GS: Yes, of course: Vickers in The Bartered Bride! In the comic role, no less!

OM: Ah, my friends, thanks for the memories…but now, for the sake of the young opera fan reading this stuff, please recommend recordings (CD/DVD) that should be heard/seen to understand the greatness of Jon Vickers.

RS: Certainly the DVD of Otello from the Met, 1978, and I’ll repeat Die Walküre on CD with Herbert von Karajan, Gundula Janowitz, Thomas Stewart, et al. from 1966 I believe. Also on CD, I’ve always liked the Samson et Dalila with Georges Prêtre and Rita Gorr, 1962 and Aïda with Georg Solti, Leontyne Price, Robert Merrill, all in their prime, also 1962. Then The Messiah under Sir Thomas Beecham is still a personal favorite, although these days the purists for Baroque performance will have a fit!

GS: Certainly Leinsdorf recording of Walküre then on RCA, now Decca CDs, stands out in my mind.  Great conducting, George London in his prime as Wotan and Birgit Nilsson, whose voice had the weight and power to match. I find it much superior to the Walküre of the Solti Ring. And of course the CD recording of Peter Grimes on Philips is a must for no other reason than the fact that it is his only recording of his most famous role. But with a little digging there are house tapes of other Grimes performances floating around.  He partnered well with Sir Colin, and Les Troyens should be heard. It was a landmark.  I’m very partial to his recording of Otello led by Tullio Serafin with Leonie Rysanek as Desdemona.

 OM: You have a personal touch to add.

GS: Two, actually. The last time I heard him sing Siegmund, Act I of Walküre, was in a concert performance at Tanglewood in 1978 with Jessye Norman, conducted by Seiji Ozawa. Vocally it was a match made in Heaven. I’ve always referred to this as “the singing lesson.” The audience went wild, and for good reason!

Then second, as you know I’ve worked in the music business much of my life and met many great singers and musicians over the years.  A long list indeed, on which, alas, Jon Vickers was not one.  But I have a personal connection with Mr. Vickers that transcends his many great roles and performances.

After our twin boys were born, my wife and I occasionally attended a small church in central New Jersey. Out of the blue one Sunday morning, a regular member asked me if I worked in the classical music business. I said I did, and so he took me to meet a fellow parishioner with whom, he hinted, I might have something in common. I met Wendy Roughton; I was cradling one of my 18-month-old twins in my arms with his head on my shoulder. Mrs. Roughton thought that, if I knew a thing or two about opera and music, might I have heard of her father, who was a singer?

OM: Indeed a very low probability question from a member of a small quiet church in farmland New Jersey.

GS: You bet! Not expecting much, I said, sure, give it a try.

“His name is Jon Vickers.”

My knees literally buckled and I almost dropped my son on the floor! But I recovered and replied, “I’ve travelled all over the United States to hear your father sing!”

Then a year or so later, I was out of town visiting my parents when my wife took the boys to that church on a Sunday. As she described it, “During the hymns, there was a loud and distinguished sounding voice that could be heard throughout the church.” After the service, Wendy Roughton introduced my wife to her father.  She was holding the twin I didn’t almost drop when I first met Wendy Roughton and she introduced my son to Jon Vickers. “His name is Tristan,” she said, which it is, and when Mr. Vickers heard that, he held my son by the foot, as if to shake it, and said, “You have some very large shoes to fill, my boy.”  Indeed he does.

Thank you, my friends, for your words. JRS.

Jon Vickers, rest in peace. We are privileged to have experienced your artistry.

Check out his performances; transcend the limitations of the recording conditions and the medium.