The Jon Vickers Exhibit
Celebrating tenor Jon Vickers!
 The concept design for The Jon Vickers Exhibit was completed recently by the outstanding design firm of Bhandari & Plater, in Toronto, Canada.
On our home page you can see the first panel, with a striking photo of Mr. Vickers as Siegmund at the Bayreuth Festival. The Bayreuth section also includes several letters from the Bayreuth Archives concerning roles for Mr. Vickers, some of which never came to pass. Fascinating reading!
Other sections of "Celebrating Jon Vickers!" focus on the early years of his career; the peak years when he became a giant of opera; and his remarkable versatility, which often goes unrecognized. Other large photos show him as Aeneas in "The Trojans" at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, and as Florestan in a Salzburg "Fidelio." There are many more photos, caricatures and letters.
We are still seeking funding to construct the Exhibit. We invite music centers and others to inquire about presenting the Exhibit as it goes on tour.  Several programs will be arranged to accompany the Exhibit.



"We’ve had other mishaps, things falling. A batten broke and almost killed Jon Vickers

one night in Parsifal when it came down [in 1986]. Jon could be difficult but he just

brushed that one off. He’d get annoyed about minor stuff but the fact that he could have

gotten killed wasn’t a big deal."

  -- William Mason, Lyric Opera of Chicago's departing general director, offers this

recollection in a fascinating interview on Larry Johnson's Chicago Classical review



Cornell MacNeil Dies; Vickers Colleague
 Baritone Cornell MacNeil died July 15 2011 in Virginia, at age 88. He sang more than 600 performances at the Metropolitan Opera between 1959 and 1987, singing 26 roles.
His appearances included the Jan. 17, 1960 Pagliacci, led by Kurt Adler, in which Jon Vickers made his Met debut. MacNeil was Tonio, Charles Anthony was Beppe, with Maria Nache as Nedda. Regina Resnik was in the audience. A week and a half later, Vickers sang in a new Met production led by Karl Boehm, with James Levine, then a student of 16 in the audience. MacNeil also sang with Vickers at the Met in La Forza del Destino and Otello.

Vickers and Gre Brouwenstijn in "Die Walkure', 1960, Lyric Opera of Chicago

News and Events

"The finest Otello of his era..."

VERDI Otello
The Classical Review
October 28, 2011
By Donald Rosenberg
Jon Vickers (Otello), Cornell MacNeil (Iago), Raymond Gibbs (Cassio),
Andrea Velis (Roderigo), James Morris (Lodovico), Robert Goodloe (Montano),
Arthur Thompson (A Herald), Renata Scotto (Desdemona), Jean Kraft (Emilia), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/ James Levine, Franco Zeffirelli (original director), Fabrizio Melano (revival director), Kirk Browning (film director).
Sound: LPCM Stereo, DTS 5.1 surround
Sony Classical 88697910129

There are two principal reasons to
savor this 1978 Metropolitan Opera telecast of Verdi’s Otello: Jon Vickers’ searing portrayal of the title role, and the urgent and poetic conducting of James Levine. With Renata Scotto as Desdemona and Cornell MacNeil as Iago, the performance maintains a high level of achievement.

But let’s get to the heart of it. At his best, Vickers was the finest
Otello of his era, combining dramatic ferocity with Heldentenor ardor. The baritonal quality of his voice is a plus in Verdi’s clarion music, especially in conveying the Moor’s pride and despair. Although hints of stress are evident in the upper register,

Vickers makes a thrilling thing of ‘Esultate!’ and brings splendid fervor to the love music. Along with clarion timbre and textual clarity, the tenor creates an Otello of almost maniacal extremes. In the Act III dialogue with Desdemona, he grabs a sword, appearing to be on the verge of beheading his bewildered wife. Vickers contrasts the moments of jealous rage with subtle delineation of the man’s emotional conflicts. He’s deeply
affecting in Act IV as he reluctantly suffocates Desdemona, stabs himself and expires before he’s able to grace her with that final Verdian kiss.

Vickers is such a force of nature that it would be possible for the
other cast members to fade into the many crevices in this revival by Fabrizio Melano of Franco Zeffirelli’s epic production. But Scotto makes a poignant and impassioned Desdemona, both in the duets with Otello and the dark and reverent passages in Act IV when the character seems resigned to her fate. Scotto’s voice becomes edgy and wobbly at
times, but the way she shapes phrases for all of their expressive meaning.
More: see The Classical Review





A Year-End Look Back at Jon Vickers in 2000, Performing “Enoch Arden” (Plus a Master Class)


NEW YORK -- "This is a very beautiful work, I hope!" And with that Jon Vickers launched into Tennyson's narrative, Enoch Arden, with minimal atmospheric piano touches, at the Mannes College of Music on Oct. 24, 2000.

   Vickers, 74, has been presenting this piece since June 1998 (at the Montreal Chamber Music Festival), from California to Ravinia to Washington, D.C., and may do it at London's Wigmore Hall.

   Retired from singing since 1988, he was spellbinding as ever, using his preacher's voice in this tale of unselfish love that could vie with Fidelio's story, with some Peter Grimes echoes of the sea. He used no microphone, wore his spectacles and a business suit to tell of a woman loved by two men who marries one only to have him disappear on an ocean voyage, leaving her in poverty with her children.

Enoch is a sailor whose faith sustains him, as it had Vickers and his characters in so many operas. The Vickers voice offered crescendos and pianissimi, legato in lengthy sentences, and attention to detail of the text as much as he ever did on the opera stage.

This pastorale runs about an hour and a half, and could be daunting with its old-fashioned language. But soon enough the audience was swept into the story, waiting in suspense to discover if Enoch would return, or whether his wife would give him up for dead and turn to Philip, the wealthy man who also loves her and her brood. At the end, Vickers' voice boomed out in the small Mannes concert hall as Enoch called, like Samson and Florestan, on Almighty God.

Vickers' presentation perhaps could benefit from some lighting and minimal staging; this may be remedied if a video planned by Video Artists International's Ernest Gilbert becomes a reality. (VAI already has issued a CD of the Montreal performance). Richard Woitach, a former Metropolitan Opera conductor and longtime Vickers collaborator, was at the piano at Mannes.

Vickers gave a master class the same week at Mannes, with three tenors, two sopranos and a mezzo. "The last thing one wants to do is to discourage, hurt or injure," he said at the outset.

Again he focused chiefly on text: "Show me in those first 10 bars how deeply in love you are," he told tenor Cheol Min Jin, offering a song by Stephano Donaudy. Mezzo Irina Rindzuner did the Letter Scene from Werther, and Vickers said she should "express the deepest, purest desire -- you don't lust after his body, it's beyond sex, it's deeper and more beautiful."

He also told her she had voice that was "big and luscious, you want to take a bite out of it -- but don't use it all the time" to its fullest. He asked another singer who did a Verdi aria to consider whether she was venturing unwisely into the dramatic realm, and should stick instead to lighter parts.

     Composers, Vickers said, have the poor tools of markings on a page for their creations; singers "can lift it off the paper and make it a living reality."

He said, "I don't believe in taking liberties with the music," but also told the young singers, "Don't be a slave to the score," something of which no one ever accused Vickers the tenor.

A recording note: VAI hopes to release a video of the 1956 CBC video of H.M.S. Pinafore with young Vickers as Ralph Rackstraw, and the 1974 Guelph Spring Festival Rape of Lucretia (audio), with Vickers as the Male Chorus.


-- Jeannie Williams




Issue: 11 October 2011  
Dear opera-lover,

We are proud also to pay tribute to Jon Vickers on his 85th birthday by printing for the first time what may well have been his final interview before his illness. In conversation with Jon Tolansky, the great tenor offers penetrating insight into some of his greatest roles, in particular Otello and Florestan.
Jon Tolansky revisits his last conversation with Jon Vickers

As Jon Vickers approaches his 85th birthday this month, sadly there will be no conventional celebrations at home. For the last several years the legendary tenor has been in a nursing home, and those of us who in earlier times have been privileged to hear him discuss his deeply considered thoughts on many areas of his profession have known that there will be no further enlightenment from him in the future.

As long ago as 2001, when Jon Vickers came to the Wigmore Hall for his final appearance in London, reciting Tennyson's epic poem Enoch Arden in the version with piano accompaniment by Richard Strauss, he confided to me that he was unwell and had fears for the future. I felt impelled then to make use of every possible chance I could to record him in conversation, even if only in spontaneous and unorganized circumstances, as he has always been such a riveting and thought-provoking speaker. It may be that a 75th-birthday interview profile I was able to put together that year for the BBC World Service's Music Review was one of the last times, possibly the last time, that he spoke about some of his roles in the public domain. Certainly, three years later in 2004, when he graciously agreed that I could record an informal chat with him on the telephone just in case there may be some gems that I could preserve for posterity, it turned out to be the last time, certainly that I know of, that he was to be recorded discussing opera-singing and specific roles he had performed. Not very long afterwards his health deteriorated rapidly and drastically, and thus the recording of that phone conversation became, I am sure, the final 'interview' that he gave. To pay tribute to Vickers on his 85th birthday, a transcript of our conversation appears here now for the first time.

JT: Jon, the very first time I ever saw you was a shock. At the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, in February 1961, a few minutes into the second act of Fidelio you sang 'Gott! welch' Dunkel hier!' Of course it was 'Gott!' that came as such a shock, and I can't ever forget the impact. It wasn't just the volume and weight-it was the searing intensity that was so powerful.


JV: That one cry-'Gott!'-has to be filled with so many feelings at one go: humility, hopefulness and despair. Really it is the answer to despair-'GOD, how dark it is here'. He does not say 'God' in the way so many people misuse the word, as a common-or-garden everyday exclamation. He is speaking to God-'GOD! What this darkness here is!' Those first words-they express the sorrow, the pain, the hope and the joy at one go. Joy? Yes, because in his suffering he knows he has served the right cause-the cause for truth, for love, for God. I am that convinced that Beethoven, with his passion for this subject, had all those feelings in his mind when he wrote that one extraordinary cry-'Gott!'-and it is the duty of the singer to try to convey them all in just that one opening note.
JT: Even so, that requires the very special kind of technique you had where you could project such a broad range of colours and characterization over an extremely wide dynamic range.

  JV: Yes, but that is only possible if you can enter the full state of mind and feeling of the character you are singing at any given moment. It’s a fact of the human voice, be it speaking or singing, that it automatically reflects the emotions that are felt at that moment. If you are fearful, it shows in your voice. If you are grateful, it shows in your voice. I felt as my responsibility to the composer, librettist and, very importantly, the audience, that I must completely put myself in the situation of the character and try to analyze what that character is experiencing and feeling at every given moment that I am singing that part—and of course it constantly varied with the different characters and situations. That was always the starting point. You have to surrender your own emotions to the emotions of the character you are portraying.

JT: I remember you once said to me that, notwithstanding the different characters and situations, the manner in which those emotions are expressed is also inextricably entwined with the expressive characteristics that certain words have in their original language.
JV: Well, that is why I took such a lot of trouble to learn different languages. I learned to speak German and Italian in particular, and I was very fluent in those languages. I also worked very hard on the French language, but although I loved it, I considered my French only passable. Even then, even with my considerable knowledge of German and Italian, I always went to a professor of the language to study a new role. They gave me all the double meanings and innuendos that are so vitally contained in the music too. I did not go to operatic coaches for the words in a role. I went to them so they could play me the music, although there were two exceptions. In my early days at Covent Garden there were two wonderful coaches from whom I learned so much—you know who they were: Teddy Downes and Reggie Goodall. They are known to the public as Sir Edward and Sir Reginald, great conductors in their own right, but to me they were Teddy and Reggie, my coaches. Now they were truly inspirational, they knew so much and understood so much about the entire picture in an opera—words, music, characters: everything. If I may say so, Reginald Goodall, one of the greatest men, was never appreciated in the way he should have been—well, not until the last phase of his life, and then that was at the English National Opera. He really deeply understood the poetical expression and meaning in the words and how this should be transmitted in the music. When he coached me he would speak in a poetic way. I was thrilled to work with Reggie and Teddy, but they were the only opera coaches in my experience who enlightened me about the deeper overtones of the language in a role. And even when I had the great good fortune to study with them, I still always went to an expert, specialist language professor when I was learning a new role.
JT: Is it a particular challenge, maybe, when a libretto has been translated from an original source in another language? For instance, would you say that it is one of the very many elements that make Verdi’s Otello such an exceptionally demanding role?
JV: Well, only indirectly, because for me—and I know there are those who disagree with me on this—Boito, certainly with Verdi’s involvement, made a wonderfully convincing adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, even though it had to be so truncated. Much more to the point about being demanding is that Verdi’s Otello is certainly the most comprehensive, complex and difficult role that I ever attempted to touch. For quite some time I refused to sing it in the theatre, although I did record it back in 1960 with Tullio Serafin. But as for performing it on the stage, I was asked quite a few times in the early part of my career, and I said ‘no’ over and over again. I only felt ready to play Otello in the opera house a few years after that recording was made, and I already knew then what an enormous undertaking it is to sing.

JT: Among so many extraordinary innovations is the concept of bringing the ‘hero’ on after a few minutes for just a tiny flash in ‘Esultate!’, and then we don’t see him again for some time.
JV: Oh, but I have to emphasize most strongly that it is much, much more than just a tiny flash! In duration yes, but not in import! In this very brief glimpse of an appearance, Verdi and Boito put into Otello much more than just a straightforward triumphant entry. For the performer to convey the full impression they wanted in ‘Esultate!’, immediately there and then he has to make Otello come across knowing who he is, knowing the kind of power he holds in his hand at this time, and yet at the same time showing a great humility—a humbleness before the task he has been called to do, and he shows gratitude and appreciation that he has been able to fulfil the task. All that must be conveyed in that tiny half minute, and you know I absolutely believe that it must be like this in that very first appearance, because it’s his thankfulness that drives Iago mad—and of course that’s one of Otello’s qualities that Iago exploits. So you have to express all those elements—confidence, power, humility and gratitude—in the character of your voice in ‘Esultate!’, and as it’s all so brief and it all happens so quickly in the middle of that tremendous storm scene, it’s hugely difficult to make it work as it should.

Opera magazine

   New Yorkers were delighted to see Ben Heppner back in town for Wednesday's (Sept. 7) concert to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But this was no opera gig. The program was "Canada Sings the American Songbook: A Canadian Tribute to New York," also honoring 26 Canadian families who lost loved ones in the tragedy. Co-sponsor was the Canadian Association of NY. Produced and emcee’d by Jeff Breithaupt, cultural affairs officer of the Canadian Consulate in NY, the show was mostly upbeat and featured popular artists including bandman Paul Schaffer and singer/songwriter Tom Cochrane. However, Ben contributed two songs in keeping with the memorial theme -- a meltingly beautiful "I'll Be Seeing You" and, with fiddler extraordinaire Natalie MacMaster, Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge over Troubled Water."  Ben also lent his voice to the finale -- "Aquarius" from "Hair"!  Never thought we'd witness that! Congrats to our Jon Vickers Exhibit advisory panel member, who confessed backstage that while pop has never really been his thing, he has a major soft spot for jazz. In early 2012, Canada will experience Ben in the acclaimed new opera "Moby Dick", by Jake Heggie, presented by Calgary Opera. He also has coming up Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" in Germany, and Elgar's "The Dream of Gerontius" in Austria -- both works also sung by Jon Vickers.


Jon Vickers: A Hero’s Life

University Press of New England

Paperback 2007


By John Steane

Opera Now (UK)  Sept.- Oct. 2007



They say that dealing with Jon Vickers was like walking on eggshells. The secret of success in that delicate operation has to be faith, and Jeannie Williams must have needed loads of that to complete her biography. It was accomplished without the singer’s direct co-operation (otherwise, one imagines, she would have needed loads more).

 But the faith is there: this is, after all, “A Hero’s Life.” At one level, the “hero” may be seen as reference to his art, that of the heroic tenor, supreme in his day. At another it may reflect the author’s profound respect for her subject. It also may be tinged with irony, for whereas “hero” suggests a storybook ideal, “life” generally means something rather different. In one view of Vickers’ life it is he himself who walks on the eggshells of his temper and idealism. His biographer sees this clearly and is determined not to spare herself or the reader the full knowledge of her hero’s fallibility.

Yet he remains her hero. He brought to the  world of opera not only his great gifts of voice and power of expression but also a conviction of its serious purpose, its fundamental worth. He is dedicated, and she is devoted to that dedication.

Let us not be too lofty about it: the skirmishes make good reading. Birgit Nilsson gives a vivid thumbnail sketch in her brief foreword: “He looked neither right nor left; his opinions were as strong as the rock of Die Walkure. He had to have his way, no matter what.” Colin Davis said he was like Peter Grimes: “It is whatever day I say it is.” Nervous laughter is never far off. Someone who knew him as young man recalls: “He looked like a lumberjack, he was built like a bull, and he didn’t smile too much.” Other singers were naturally wary of him (interviewing Sherrill Milnes, the author says his face “took on the somewhat amazed look singers often get when talking about Vickers.”). He would boast, “The part I can’t learn in a week doesn’t exist.” He would lecture chorus and orchestra (explaining the biblical story of Samson, for instance). He could be offensive to conductors such as the patient Julius Rudel but met his match in Solti.

He was prepared to take on the whole musical establishment over the one right way of performing Handel. He thought that if Britten had met him instead of Peter Pears he would have written very differently for the voice. He considered Tristan “a thoroughly despicable human being,” and as for Tannhauser….!

 This was the man whose performances as Tristan ranked among the greatest. “You can’t perform with the kind of intensity that Jon brings and expect to be quite normal in private life” was Joan Ingpen’s comment. And the abnormality is also a condition of the heroism.  The devotion to family, to many friends and many colleagues was whole-hearted, and they loved him in return. The religion which was at the center of his life gave it depth, and this too was the grounding of his art. The book is a biography but life and art are inextricable one from the other in such a man, and at each stage of his career the evaluations of music critics and others who listened responsively are quoted with scrupulous care for a balance of opinions.

 Vickers was by common consent an unforgettable Tristan, Otello, Florestan, Siegmund, Parsifal, Aeneas (Les Troyens) and Grimes. Unforgettable is easily said, but here it is absolutely true, and the least one can say. The sound of that voice as it strove, often agonised, to express all that he felt the music held will always be with us who heard him in these roles. They represent the great, serious core of the tenor repertory. There are more, Don Carlos, Riccardo, Radames, Canio, Samson and (how unexpectedly) Vasek in The Bartered Bride, all genuine creations. The very listing of them makes one long to hear him again. And then comes the recognition that you almost can, inside your head, to an extent quite beyond what is true of all but a very few heard in a lifetime.

That is some achievement, and it is an achievement of this book that while giving so clear a picture of the man, great but fallible, it also enables us to review the art, fallible also but still more surely great.




John B. Steane, who died in March 2011, was a major British authority on singing and vocal technique, and author of  the classic book "The Grand Tradition", as well as "Singers of the Century" (3 vols).     

NOTE: Vickers fans will know that he was renowned for his Gott, welch dunkel hier, which began with searing volume on Gott. See end of this review for another take on it by Kaufmann.



 Abbado Leads Stirring 'Fidelio'


Various artists, "Fidelio" (Decca)

With more than a dozen commercial recordings of Beethoven's only opera already available, why buy this new one? The reasons begin with Jonas Kaufmann.

The German tenor brings to the role of the unjustly imprisoned Florestan the same qualities that have made him an international superstar — a keen understanding of the text joined to a powerful, exceptionally beautiful voice that is capable of the subtlest dynamic shadings. His is a carefully thought-out interpretation that still sounds fresh and spontaneous. It's a thrilling performance, worthy of comparison with such great Florestans of the recent past as Jon Vickers and James King.

As his wife, Leonora, who has disguised herself as a young man named Fidelio in order to rescue him, Nina Stemme is also extremely impressive. The Swedish dramatic soprano creates a thoroughly sympathetic portrayal of a courageous wife and makes easy work of the role's vocal hurdles, including a gleaming high C. In her extended aria, "Abscheulicher!" she smoothly switches gears from righteous anger to tenderness, and finally, to heroic determination.

In this CD cover image released by Decca, "Beethoven, Fidelio," featuring Nina Stemme, Jonas Kaufmann, is shown. (AP Photo/Decca)

Among a strong supporting cast, baritone Peter Mattei almost steals the show as the benevolent minister Don Fernando. Though he appears only in the final scene, Mattei imbues his few phrases with a melting beauty and nobility. Bass Christof Fischesser is sympathetic as the jailer Rocco, baritone Falk Struckmann snarls with appropriate menace as the evil Don Pizzaro, and Rachel Harnisch is charming as Marzelline, her lyric soprano contrasting nicely with Stemme's fuller sound.

This recording was made from live performances at the Lucerne Festival in the summer of 2010. Claudio Abbado conducts the forces of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in an energetic reading of the score that's often brisk but never merely businesslike. The streamlined recording omits much of the spoken dialogue often heard between the musical numbers. In the great choral scenes for the prisoners and populace (well sung by the Arnold Schoenberg Choir), Abbado slows down the tempo just enough to allow us to savor the grandeur of Beethoven's vision.

CHECK OUT THIS TRACK: The beginning of Act 2 introduces Florestan with an aria that begins, "Gott! Welch dunkel hier!" ("God, what darkness here!") Many tenors attack the opening word, sung on the note G natural, full-out like a stab of pain. But Kaufmann begins it in a whisper so low your first impulse may be to check your volume control. Then, in one sustained breath lasting 11 seconds, he gradually increases the volume until the word becomes a fortissimo cry of anguish. It's a daring and stunning effect.