A TRIBUTE TO THE ART OF JON VICKERS

The Canadian tenor, Jon Vickers passed away this July.  He leaves behind a legacy as one of the great singer-actors of the 20th Century.


He was born in the western province of Alberta in Canada and his beginnings were very humble.  He came from a working class family that lived by hard work and a deep sense of their religion.  He worked at low paying, hard labor jobs until he was granted a scholarship to go to the Toronto Conservatory to study with George Lambert – a teacher who insisted that his young student learn new repertoire for each lesson – a great deal of it being oratorio and songs.

He always claimed that his intense love of words came from his strong religious background and prayer.   He also developed an intense understanding of the human condition – most likely because of his less-than-prosperous beginnings and early family struggles to survive  .  Both of these experiences he brought to his singing.   

Mr. Vickers has often been called  the male equivalent to Maria Callas as they both “read between the lines” of the text and delved into their most profound meaning.    He was a great believer that the words came first and then the music – as it did for the composers.   

Because of his love of text and his intense emotional commitment, he never failed to bring a strong point of view to every role he performed – every song he  sang.  As with Callas, he found things in the characters he portrayed that lesser singers fail to do. 

Vickers approached each character with his own particular  individuality,  be it the jealously driven Otello, the self-destructive Don Jose, the lonely outcast, Peter Grimes.  His strong points of view  guided his singing.  It was all born in his imagination long before he put the role into his voice.    As with  many of our greatest singers, it was this intensity of purpose that guided his singing.  Technique was a means to share his deepest musical and interpretive goals with  his audience – never an end in itself.  This  intense preparation informed his singing.

Although  he was classified as a dramatic tenor, he brought the most elegant vocal colorings to his recital repertoire – especially Schubert’s “Die Winterreise”.  Again – he found these colors through his emotional commitment to  the text and the music.   Thus there was always a sense of deep personal commit:ment that came from deep inside the singer himself – nothing seemed to come from outside of him.

This approach, of course, meant taking many chances which many singers are reluctant to do.   He was driven by a need to share his deepest feelings through his voice thus his often heard quote: _ “I Sing Because I Have To”.

For me Vickers was always a profound inspiration – both as a young girl in Canada hearing him on television and also the great honor of singing my first professional role with him while I was still a student in conservatory (Micaela in Carmen – Canadian Opera Company).    I would watch him from the wings and see in front of me – not Mr. Vickers — but a human being who went from a young, naive  soldier in Act 1  to a killer in Act 4 –  a profound study of a self-destructive man.  

He was the personification of a great artist –  wonderfully prepared – very often demanding – always intense & above all a true catalyst between the composer and the librettist, laying bare for us all to see the deepest of emotions of the human spirit. 

The likelyhood of another artist of such intensity is rare – but we do have today the German tenor, Jonas Kaufmann.   He too “reads between the lines” of the text and always brings a strong individuality  to every character he portrays .  His singing is guided by his deep understanding of  each character. And he too  “takes a chance”   a   lesson all young singers should not be afraid to learn.

I heartily recommend that you check out the following Vicker performances on You Tube:

“Vesti La Giubba”  (Pagliacci) – Flower Song (Carmen) – and scenes from “Otello” and “Peter Grimes”.  

In a Vicker’s performance you will always hear deep understanding, intense communication and an overpowering vocal performance — goals we should all reach for.


One thought on “"I SANG BECAUSE I HAD TO" – Jon Vickers

  1. Wonderful article Joan about a great tenor and human being. So many memories as a girl myself listening to him sing as our mother guided us through understanding opera and the interpretation of a story through music. Thank you for writing this .. He was honoured in Canada and many tributes and articles were published praising him and his voice since his death.


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