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Jon Vickers:
A Hero’s Life

by jeannie williams
northeastern university press, 432 pages, $29.95

In opera, it’s good to be the tenor. You get the high notes, you get the girl, and you get the big fees. And this has been a half century rich in remarkable tenors. Perhaps there has been no voice so purely beautiful as Luciano Pavarotti’s (or as profitable), and probably no singer so broadly musical as Placido Domingo. And the list is longer: Richard Tucker, Peter Schrier, José Carerras, Nicolai Gedda, Giuseppi DiStefano, Alfredo Kraus, James King, Mario Del Monaco, Carlo Bergonzi. Yet for all of these artists’ remarkable achievements, few approached the almost volcanic theatrical intensity, and none so eschewed publicity while simultaneously sparking controversy, as the bull-chested Canadian Jon Vickers.

Nothing compared with a Vickers performance. The voice was laser-like; clear, brilliant, ringing, beautiful, but never pretty or tame. His words—in four languages—were honed and wielded like weapons. For him, opera roles were not vehicles for vocal display or even aesthetic gratification. Instead, with Vickers they were avenues of profound illumination. To hear him sing the aria “Great Bear and the Pleiades” from Peter Grimes—the text suspended on a single pitch as Benjamin Britten’s harmonies spin around it like constellations—was to be taken to some height from which the whole miserable panorama of human suffering was for a moment laid bare to our view. With most singers, and even many great ones, we leave the opera house pleased with a pleasant diversion. But with Vickers, we left thinking that perhaps theater really could change someone’s life—perhaps even ours.

Vickers retired from the opera stage in 1987. Fortunately video recordings are available of his signature performances in Peter Grimes, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Verdi’s Othello, and Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila. Now Jeannie Williams has written a biography of the great singer useful not only for its portrait of Vickers and the life behind the opera curtain but also for the way it demonstrates—despite Williams’s clear affection for her subject—how Christians and Christian issues are becoming increas­ingly exotic to the chatty class.

Vickers was born in 1926 in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, the sixth in a family of eight children. His father was a grammar school principal, amateur musician, and lay preacher of apparently unusually ecumenical tastes. (Although a Baptist, he served as an interim preacher for the local Presbyterians and evangelized with the Salvation Army, the Plymouth Brethren, and the United Church.) The whole family was musical, and it wasn’t unusual for Vickers’s father to take the family along to provide music for his services.

Until he was eighteen, Vickers spent summers working on a neighbor’s farm, developing the burly physique for which he later would be famous. (He was fond of picking up sopranos”usually no small objects in the opera world”and holding them over his head.) Vickers hoped to go to college and study medicine, but with college vacancies filled by war veterans, he opted to go into retail. He worked for Safeway and Woolworth’s but continued to sing in church choirs and amateur theatricals. While working in Winnipeg he was awarded a scholarship to study opera at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, where he enrolled in the fall of 1950.

Vickers impressed the faculty by his concentration, one teacher later recalling that he was like a “piece of blotting paper,” soaking up everything in its path. But music wasn’t the only thing commanding his attention. While at the conservatory he met Henrietta Outerbridge. Born in China to missionary parents (her father was a University of Chicago Ph.D. botanist and theologian), Henrietta was in Toronto teaching high school when she met the tenor. They were married in the summer of 1953. Their marriage, which produced five children, ended thirty-eight years later when Henrietta died after an extended fight with cancer. The soprano Teresa Stratas, who was at the conservatory with Vickers and knew them both well, characterized their relationship as “one of the great love stories of our time.”

In 1957 Vickers joined London’s Covent Garden Opera. He debuted as King Gustavus in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera and when the company presented the first uncut staging of Berlioz’s masterpiece Les Troyens, Vickers received international accolades for his performances of Aeneas. The next year he went to Bayreuth to sing Siegmund in Wagner’s Die Walküre. In 1960 he joined the Metropolitan Opera (singing that season the roles of Canio, Florestan, Siegmund, and Don José). In 1967 he first sang the role of Peter Grimes under Colin Davis in New York and soon after that became a prominent feature of Herbert von Karajan’s opera performances in the Saltzburg festivals. By 1970 Vickers had established an unrivaled reputation as a singer of dazzling nuance, equally able to deliver ethereal pianissimos and steely fortes, sophisticated interpretation, and high musical sensitivity. His 1971 season testified to the demand in which he was held: he sang six major roles in the German, French, Italian, and English repertories for sixteen performances in New York, ten in London, nine in Saltzburg, and six each in Dallas and Buenos Aires.

Vickers’ reputation was not only musical; he was becoming known in some circles as “difficult.” Since Vickers usually arrived at rehearsals with not only his own part memorized but the rest of the cast’s as well, he had little patience for underprepared colleagues and was known to walk out of a rehearsal if he felt the rest of the cast had not prepared to his standards. He demanded, and received, handsome fees for his engagements. He fought with tax men on three continents, and finally settled in his wife’s ancestral home of Bermuda because of its tax policies.

But Vickers was no prima donna. There were reasons for his actions beyond a tenor’s conceit. He was a businessman, after all. He had a wife and five children to clothe and feed, and he realized that his voice was his one marketable asset. If he squeezed managers for fees higher than they might have been willing initially to give, it was because he knew no one came to the opera to hear them.

But while singing was the way he provided for his family, it wasn’t the reason Vickers performed. Back in Saskatchewan, Vickers’s father had taught him to do everything for the glory of God—and therefore to do it well. That lesson stayed with him in the opera house. Although he hated publicity and avoided it whenever possible, Vickers nonetheless publicly described himself as a “committed Christian.” For him, singing was a way of glorifying God by serving others. Upon his retirement he said:

My whole life has been one reflecting the necessity of serving. That is the greatest source of happiness, the greatest sense of fulfillment. And it is of course the essence of the Christian faith. . . . But there are too many people who say, when one talks of being an instrument, that one thinks one has a private pipeline to God. Nature has equipped me with a certain talent, and it is my responsibility to use it for something that is uplifting, that will enhance and embellish the lives of people who also have been given something in that they can even receive it.

The idea that his singing was something entrusted to him by God for “uplifting” others was the foundation of his musical life. It was business, yes, but business of the eternal variety.

In 1977 just what that business meant to Vickers was seriously questioned. One month before its first performance, Vickers withdrew from a production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser that London’s Covent Garden Opera had mounted in his honor. The tenor said that he had found the role of Wagner’s knight “blasphemous,” and thus wouldn’t sing it. Not since the Presbyterian sprinter Eric Liddell refused to compete on a Sunday in the 1924 Paris Olympics had the collision of religious conviction with professional obligation sparked such fireworks.

Vickers had never performed the roll of Tannhäuser. In September of 1974 Covent Garden started talking to him about the possibility of presenting his first performances in the role, and a contract between them for the part was signed that December for a production in 1977. In early 1976 New York’s Metropolitan Opera negotiated a contract with Vickers in which he agreed to sing eight performances of the opera in the Met’s 1977–78 season. Vickers began learning the role, but became increasingly uncomfortable with its character. In November of 1976 he called his manager to tell him that he found the role offensive on religious grounds and that he would have to cancel. London pressed Vickers to reconsider, but the tenor stuck to his decision, and one month before the production was to open, Covent Garden publicly announced Vickers’s cancellation and the Met quickly followed suit. Vickers would not sing Tannhäuser because he found the role contradicted his Christian beliefs.

Reaction was immediate and noisy. For many, the notion that religious views (of any sort) might influence a singer’s choice of roles was incomprehensible. Since the role of Tann­häuser is widely considered to be perhaps the most difficult in the repertory, it was generally assumed that Vickers found he couldn’t sing it, was too proud to admit it, and used the religious argument as an excuse for canceling. Besides, if the role was so objectionable, why did it take the tenor so long to notice, and why weren’t some of the other roles he sang equally problematic? Even some of Vickers’s supporters were skeptical, one suggesting that the most charitable interpretation was that, upon studying the role, the tenor must have been unable to connect with it in the way necessary for his best performances. Some thought the tenor was a bit unbalanced. Yet throughout it all Vickers remained adamant. The role was “blasphemous” and he wouldn’t sing it. It had nothing to do with the notes, but with the words and the story.

Wagner’s opera is a calculated study in opposites. The drama itself is a mix of elements the composer drew from the traditions of German romantic opera and its opposing tradition of Franco-Italian opera. The goddess Venus, with whom Wagner associates the key of E Major, is the mirror of the maiden Elisabeth, with whom Wag­ ner associates E flat Major. Most importantly, the title role of Tannhäuser, a medieval knight, shows a man torn by opposing desires whose tragedy lies in his inability to integrate the sensual and spiritual sides of his character. Desiring both Venus and Elisabeth, he is unable to have either and finds redemption only in death.

Although the sophistication with which Wagner plots out this conflict exists on many levels, it can perhaps be seen best in his treatment of the famous “hymn to Venus” that Tannhäuser introduces in the first act. In a series of dialogues with Venus, the composer has the tenor sing the aria first in D flat, then in D, and finally in E flat. With each modulation Wagner purposely strains the tenor’s voice more, the growing physical strain of the music conveying the emotional conflict within the character: although praising the goddess with his lips, his heart, or at least part of his heart, lies elsewhere. This “elsewhere” Wagner finally emphasizes in the hymn’s third presentation. Although addressed to Venus, it is not in her key, E major, but is instead ironically in the key of Elisabeth, E flat. And to drive home his point, in Act II when Tannhäuser passionately breaks into the hymn again as part of the singing contest to win Elisabeth’s hand, Wagner sets it in E Major—Tannhäuser sings to Elisabeth in the key of Venus.

As the story proceeds, and as Tannhäuser is increasingly confronted with the warring sides of his character, Wagner writes the role so that the voice itself increasingly shows the deepening psychological strain that the knight suffers. In the third act Wagner intentionally positions Tann­häuser’s line so that the singer is forced constantly to negotiate the voice’s literal “break” (that spot where the tenor voice naturally shifts from high to low register). The knight’s torture at being torn between the erotic and religious realms is here shown by the physical strain upon the singer. Here, as in everything in Wagner’s work, the music illuminates character.

The notion that Vickers backed out of his engagement because he couldn’t sing the role is based upon the unfortunate, if widespread, misunderstanding of the part as basically a work of heightened bel canto. It isn’t. Though Wagner was not interested in ugly singing, Tannhäuser isn’t a work about pretty singing either. It is an opera about the fundamental duplicity of the human character; to depict this, Wagner puts the tenor’s voice under the utmost stress to portray Tannhäuser’s disjointed psychology. It very well might have been the case that Vickers’s instrument would have cracked by the third act, but that was Wagner’s point, a point that Vickers certainly understood (while many musicians do not)—and one he would have managed with great dramatic skill.

Since it probably wasn’t the technical difficulties of the role that bothered Vickers, is it possible to take him on his word that he found the role objectionable for theological reasons? Although the medieval story has the contours of a Christian morality play, its theology would be thoroughly repugnant to many Protestants. The Marian theology (especially Wagner’s suggested conflation of the goddess Venus with Mary), the knight asking for absolution from the pope, the theme of “works righteousness,” the notion that Tannhäuser is saved by Elisabeth who both sacrifices herself for him on this earth and then in the afterlife intercedes before God on his behalf, and the fact that Tannhäuser himself is redeemed only to die—all these are, to the conservative Protestant at least, distortions of Christianity.

So one can see why Vickers would have nothing to do with the part. As he said in 1986, “I’m a committed Christian. Tannhäuser is, I think, an attempt to strike at the very root of the Christian faith.” As to the other “questionable” Wagnerian roles that the tenor sang, the objections ring a bit hollow. Yes, Siegmund and Sieglinde are lovers, siblings, and adulterers, but Sieglinde’s marriage is one based on rape and the lovers’ incest hardly involves the betrayal of trust since they were separated at birth. Tristan is ultimately not so much an opera about a love triangle as it is about redemption through the miracle of forgiveness. And even Parsifal, problematic though it is, is not as obviously objectionable as Tannhäuser.

None of this analysis is presented in Williams’s treatment of the Tannhäuser scandal. She appears tone deaf to Vickers’s Christianity. The Tannhäuser incident is the most glaring example of this, but not the only one. Elsewhere in the book, Williams attributes Vickers’s antipathy toward homosexuality—something that needs no explanation for an orthodox Christian—to potentially unaddressed issues in his own psychology. Even the fact that Henrietta’s bridal bouquet included a small Bible Williams mentions as if it were some bizarre tribal practice from a lost continent.

And this is what I mean by this book exemplifying the increasing exoticism of Christianity to the chatty class. There was a time when the Manhattan intellectual and the run of the mill Staten Island evangelical shared a broad common culture, at least in the sense that neither had to be told what was important to the other. It is becoming increasingly clear that this is no longer the case. Williams is a staff columnist for USA Today and has written widely on the world of opera. But while she gives a lively account of the gossipy swamp of the opera house, she fails to give her reader a sense of Vickers’s Christian world.

The Tannhäuser affair did not damage Vickers’s career, although it did set him apart from his colleagues as an eccentric. In 1986, the Met paid him the greatest compliment the company could bestow on a singer by mounting a production of Handel’s Samson in his honor. As Henrietta’s cancer worsened, he curtailed his performing to remain with her in Bermuda. She died in 1991. He remarried several years later and lives a quiet retirement in Bermuda.

It is a remarkable life, and indeed perhaps even a heroic one. Vickers deserves a much more thoughtful analysis than the expanded People magazine kind of biography Williams presents here. It’s too bad. She clearly admires Vickers and has done a lot of work plotting out his career. But in the end, she simply does not understand her subject.

Michael Linton is head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University. 

Image by  licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.