RIP: Canadian Operatic Tenor Jon Vickers


Jonathan Stewart Vickers, the Canadian operatic tenor known professionally as Jon Vickers, died on Saturday, July 11th at the age of 88. The news was announced by London's Royal Opera House, via his family.

Born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan in October of 1926, Vickers studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and sang professionally in Canada from the early to mid-'50s. He then made the leap, in 1957, to the stage of Covent Garden in London where he continued to appear into the 1980s, putting his personal stamp on the roles of Énée in Berlioz's Les Troyens, Radamès in Aida, the title role in Don Carlos, Handel's Samson, Florestan in Fidelio, Tristan in Tristan und Isolde, Canio in Pagliacci, and the title role in Britten's Peter Grimes. In 1960, Vickers joined New York's Metropolitan Opera.

Much decorated, he held seven honorary degrees, earned two Grammy awards, in 1962 with the Rome Opera House Orchestra for Verdi: Aida, and in 1980, with the Royal Opera House Orchestra for Britten: Peter Grimes and, in 1969, was invested as a Companion of the Order of Canada. He was named to the Academy of Vocal Arts Hall of Fame for Great American Singers in 1985.

He retired in 1988.

In 1998, he made his first recording as a reciter, in Richard Strauss' melodrama, Enoch Arden, accompanied on piano by Marc-André Hamelin.




In his own words:

"We have the cult of the personality. The personality now is using the art form, in my opinion, for personal glorification. Certain works that were in the archives have now been dug out because they are vehicles for the vocal gymnastics of particular types of vocal demonstrations. But when that happens, at any point of the onward movement of the operatic art form, the art form degenerates because the human voice is given to mankind as a vehicle of communication. That is its fundamental expression, and the magnificence of the human voice is that every human emotion is automatically reflected in the human voice. I can define what I say by the way I say it. I can say "pig" and you will know that I am not referring to a four-footed animal that eats out of a trough. The voice totally cuts through the definition and illuminates the definition. But when we use the great operatic art form (or music) to serve as a vehicle for our voices, a great inversion has taken place and we have become servants of our voices and our voices are no longer servants of our emotions, of our intellect, of our hearts. You understand what I'm saying? You are turning it inside out so the music itself becomes a vocal exercise, a technical vocal exercise, and there is no composer who wrote music only as technical exercises... none of the great composers that I have ever known, and I include the ones that I put little question marks over. There was a depth and meaning behind every trill; a meaning behind every run; a meaning behind every sforzando. It is the responsibility of the vocal artist to digest and spew out as a revelation of the meaning of the music. If we degenerate and allow (this) to continue to degenerate, the approach to the vocal art only becomes vocal gymnastics, then because there is no longer the element which is essential (which Beethoven articulated when he said, "I write from the heart to the heart") if that element is totally missing; if we write from the ear to the ear; if we appeal to the audience through nothing but mere vocal gymnastics, if those gymnastics and that technical ability does not serve the higher meaning, the more profound understanding, the revelation of human emotion with which the great composers are concerned, then we are going to lose our audience just as certainly as the castrati was done away with. Why? Because they were no longer capable of projecting a true human emotion. They became only the emperor's mechanical canary."

Jon Vickers, in conversation with John Duffie, Nov. 1986

Supplementary reading - Opera News, Canadian Encyclopedia

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