Vickers, Jonathan Stewart

Jonathan Stewart Vickers, "Jon," tenor (b at Prince Albert, Sask 29 Oct 1926). Raised in a household of conservative Christian principles (his father was a Presbyterian lay preacher), the young Vickers sang in Saint Paul's Church choir in Prince Albert and in amateur productions of Gilbert and Sullivan and Victor Herbert operettas. As a boy treble, he once sang for local prison inmates on death row. With ideas of a career, not in opera but in medicine, Vickers worked as a hardware salesman, later becoming assistant manager in a Winnipeg Woolworth's store. Subsequent employment with the Hudson's Bay Company ended in 1950 upon his receiving a scholarship to the Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto, though as yet he was without serious singing ambition.

While studying with George Lambert and (through the agency of school board music educator Roy Fenwick) participating in the Department of Education concert series, Vickers also accepted concert, oratorio and operatic engagements in eastern Canada, including a 1951 performance and a 1952 recording of Messiah conducted by Ernest MacMillan. He appeared in Rigoletto as the Duke, in Carmen as Don José and in The Rape of Lucretia as the Male Chorus. He was also regularly heard on CBC Radio broadcasts of Wagner concerts. After some 6 years at the Royal Conservatory, he knew 22 operatic roles, 34 oratorios and cantatas, and close to 400 art songs. Toronto reviews having been mixed and, at age 28, with a wife and child to support, Vickers still considered forgoing singing for the world of business.

Invitations followed, however, to sing in New York concert performances of Fidelio and Medea and, in 1956, to audition for David Webster of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. There, in Un Ballo in Maschera, Carmen, Don Carlo, Aïda and especially as Aeneas in Les Troyens, he was highly praised by the world's major critics. Indeed, in his London appearance as Aeneas - a role hitherto widely acknowledged, Vickers later said, as one "written for a tenor who didn't exist" - he met its lyric-dramatic-spiegal demands with such remarkable skill that reviewer Jacques Bourgeois described him as the most heroic tenor to come forward since Del Monaco. With Vickers's 1958 Bayreuth debut, in which his interpretive portrayal of Siegmund in Die Walküre was acclaimed as the world's finest - it was to become, in fact, one of his signature roles - he had launched an international career destined to extend well over 3 decades. Enormous successes then followed at Dallas, Vienna, Milan and Buenos Aires, placing Vickers's outstandingly dramatic heldentenor talent in great demand. By 1960, after singing in Peter Grimes and Fidelio at New York's Metropolitan Opera (where he subsequently continued to sing for 25 years), he became a freelance artist.

Reviewers, revelling in metaphors not always fully complimentary, have variously described Vickers's unique voice as towering, craggy, harsh, achingly beautiful, of clarion power, tireless, ringing with truth, strained and "holding a hundred colours and inflections" (critic John Ardoin in 1971). After one 1964 Bayreuth performance of Parsifal, Peter Diggins wrote that the audience gasped at the sheer beauty of the Canadian's voice. Some critical ears have heard him seem to sacrifice a beautiful note for the sake of the character, yet Vickers himself has observed about his approach to acting that it is "hung on the music, absolutely - everything I do as an actor I find a motivation for in the music." Thus Vickers's robust, powerful voice was admirably equipped to transport the listener to the shadowy realm of Wagner, and he remains the fixed star by which other tenors are judged. The world's conductors, including Herbert von Karajan, with whom he made many of his recordings, repeatedly returned to his vocal (and physical) suitability for such parts as Tristan, Siegmund and Otello, not least because of Vickers's rare abilities to read a composer's deepest personal intentions and to reveal these in dramatic dimensions greater than the purely vocal.

Of strong convictions, Vickers has had to wrestle with certain roles - notably that of Parsifal - and has been known to refuse some parts on moral grounds. Roles sung while he was with the Metropolitan Opera have however, included, Florestan (Fidelio), Nerone (L'incoronzione di Poppea), Hermann and Gherman (The Queen of Spades), Vasek (The Bartered Bride), Pollione (Norma), Erik (Der fliegende Holländer), Radames (Aïda) and Don Alvaro (La forza del destino). Title roles were his in Andrea Chenier, Don Carlo, Samson - both by Saint Saëns and by Handel - Tristan und Isolde, Troilus and Cressida, Otello and, of course, Peter Grimes. Vickers's unique portrayal of this Benjamin Britten opera's main character - he changed some of the text with, he said, the composer's approval, and suggested that Grimes's actions could spring from causes other than homosexuality - has not only revealed that the Canadian tenor's principles transcend the simply uncompromising. It has also offered to opera an unprecedented sensitivity towards, and a historic interpretation of, the slide into insanity of a human soul wronged, and may well be the role for which Vickers is best remembered. "The meeting of character and singer," the critic Leighton Kerner has said of Vickers's Grimes, "has proved to be one of the mightiest collisions in 20th century opera."

In great demand internationally for 3 decades, Vickers performed only infrequently in his native Canada, although he did appear at Expo 67, at the opening of the National Arts Centre in 1969, at the Guelph Spring Festival on several occasions, in performances with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and with the Opéra du Québec, and in a number of other concerts. His considerable fees and his limited time precluded his accepting many Canadian engagements and, by 1966, he had limited himself in any case to 65 performances annually. But, for many years, he maintained a farm in Ontario and his "homecoming" Saskatchewan recital tour of 1977 was crowned with a triumphant concert in the church where he had once been a boy singer. In 1979 Vickers sang in Ottawa's Christ Church Cathedral at the funeral of his friend John Diefenbaker and, in 1984, he performed Peter Grimes in Toronto. Announcing his retirement in 1988, he gave his final performance as a singer in a concert version of Act II of Parsifal at Kitchener's Centre in the Square, although in 1998 he did return to Canada from Bermuda (his home since 1973) to perform in Strauss's Enoch Arden for spoken voice and piano at the Montréal Chamber Music Festival.

A recipient of many honours and awards, Vickers holds honorary degrees from the universities of Saskatchewan, Guelph, Laval, Queen's, McMaster, Toronto and Windsor and, in 1969, was invested as a Companion of the Order of Canada. Receiving the Molson Prize in 1976 and the Evening Standard Award in 1978, he was named to the Academy of Vocal Arts Hall of Fame for Great American Singers in 1985.

"Art is a wrestling with the meaning of life," Vickers once said. Since society no longer resists "the pull of success," it can no longer "define or draw a line between what's art and what's entertainment." Although claiming to be able to maintain detachment from roles portrayed, he nevertheless could imbue a character with such driving purpose that to others, both audience and performers, he appeared immersed and transformed: the Italian soprano Renata Scotto, recalling Vickers's committed absorption in character, wrote that she had feared her Desdemona might in actuality be strangled by his Otello. His integrity and versatility of character interpretation were such that, despite his very personal opinions about a composer - his dislike for what Wagner stood for - Canada's heldentenor, acclaimed as one of the greatest of his generation, could by sheer artistry scale the lofty walls of a Wagnerian Valhalla, wrench torment from a jealous Otello, or probe the wanton cruelty visited upon a rejected Peter Grimes.