With the death of Jon Vickers, opera has lost one of its most intense voices. The Canadian tenor, often hailed as one of the greatest opera singers of the 20th century, died Friday in Ontario. In a note to London’s Royal Opera House, Vickers’ family said he lost a prolonged battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 88.
Vickers’ voice was a force of nature — large, strong and well suited to heroic characters such as the lead roles in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Verdi’s Otello and Beethoven’s Fidelio. John Steane, in his book Singers of the Century, talks of Vickers’ incomparable intensity, stating that “if there had not been, working from within, a genuine spiritual refinement, the sheer size of his voice, breadth as well as power, would surely have bludgeoned the listener into insensibility.” The singer could also reduce his hurricane force to a silvery thread of tone, something approaching a croon but fully supported and dramatically absorbing.
Along with his imposing voice, Vickers inhabited his roles with penetrating earnestness, bordering on ferocity. Reviewing the tenor’s 1972 recording of Tristan und Isolde, Robin Holloway wrote: “There is no doubt whatsoever about the stature of his tour de force, but it remains extreme — something unique as if the story were, just this once, literally true. I can pay no higher tribute, but I never want to hear it again.” Vickers was drawn to characters who struggled from within — to Canio in Pagliacci, Don José in Carmen and Jason in Medea, which he sang opposite Maria Callas. Steane says Vickers was one of the very few singers who could match Callas “in the magnetism of performance.”
His portrayal of the title character in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes may have been the tenor’s crowning achievement. As the misunderstood fisherman within a narrow-minded community, Vickers brought an explosive, if controversial intensity to the role onstage and in a 1978 recording. As Grimes, he could be savage and unpredictable, with a sneer in his voice, then shift suddenly to show a dreamy, vulnerable and tender side of the character. The composer himself had mixed feelings about Vickers’ interpretation. On one hand, Britten disapproved of it and Vickers’ insistence on changing some of the text. On the other hand, the opera had found a new popularity, with companies mounting productions specifically for the tenor, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1967.
Vickers was born Oct. 29, 1926 in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and grew up in a devoutly religious household where everyone sang and played instruments — “a poor man’s Trapp family,” Vickers said, according to Jeannie Williams’ biography Jon Vickers: A Hero’s Life. He held jobs as a butcher, a Woolworth’s store manager and a tool salesman before enrolling in Toronto’s Royal Conservatory in 1950.
He made his stage debut as the Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto four years later. In 1957 he began singing at London’s Royal Opera at Covent Garden, where he later triumphed in the demanding role of Énée in Berlioz’s Les Troyens. In 1974 he sang that role at the Metropolitan Opera, along with multiple performances of Tristan and Otello, all in a stretch of six weeks.
Vickers could be a challenging colleague and his religious convictions sometimes conflicted with particular roles. He refused to sing in two major productions of Tannhäuser (at Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera) claiming that “Wagner challenged the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.” He was also known to scold fellow singers and conductors, and once even the audience. In a 1975 Dallas Opera production of Tristan, he reprimanded patrons during the prelude to Act 3 to “shut up your damn coughing.”
“The thing that wasn’t printed was that they stopped coughing,” Vickers told the Dallas Morning News in 2002. “It wasn’t necessary to cough.”
As his career and his magnificent voice wound down, Vickers settled into his farmhouse north of Toronto, then retired in 1988, occasionally giving a master class. In 1998 he recorded Richard Strauss’ Enoch Arden as narrator with pianist Marc-André Hamelin. He is survived by two daughters, three sons, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
So, you’ve decided to take the plunge into the beauty, power, and virtuosity of opera. But where do you start? With so many stunning operas from all of the powerhouse composers, finding an entry point may seem overwhelming. But have no fear – Bruce Scott, the producer of World of Opera, is here to be your guide. He has a few suggestions to help you begin your operatic journey.
The tragic ending of La Boheme may be a bit intense. Yet along the way, Puccini gives us some of opera’s most graceful and appealing music — and the tender yet passionate romance that drives the story might just make this the greatest “date opera” ever composed.
Watch: “They call me Mimi”
In Act One, Mimi responds to Rodolfo’s curiosity by introducing herself, in the aria “Mi chiamano Mimi” (“They call me Mimi”). Here, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa sings in a Victoria State Opera production conducted by John Hopkins.
Porgy and Bess
Some still think of Porgy and Bess as a musical, and it does boast enough great songs for several Broadway hits. But Gershwin’s masterpiece is pure opera, through and through, with a vivid cast of fully-fleshed characters, and a powerful story of human strength, persistence and unflagging devotion.
The Magic Flute
The story of Mozart’s glittering Magic Flute can get a touch confusing, with good and evil tightly intertwined. Still, with music that’s often — and justly — called sublime, and an exotic yet endearing array of characters and settings, this is truly an opera fit for kids of all ages.
Listen: ‘Hell’s Revenge’
Swedish Radio Symhony Orchestra and Chorus – Daniel Harding, conductor
Mozart gave the Queen of the Night one of the most treacherous arias in all of opera: “Der Hölle Rache.” It’s heard in Act Two, as the Queen asks her daughter Pamina to murder Sarastro, and includes four, famously stratsopheric, high F-naturals. Here, Natalie Dessay performs in a 2001 Paris production.
In La Traviata, Giuseppe Verdi loosed the full range of his formidable genius. The opera’s taught drama and complex passions are graced by moving portrayals of profound love and painful sacrifice. As for the music, if you don’t leave this opera whistling an unforgettable tune, it’s only because there are too many to choose from.
Watch: “Sempre libera”
Violetta winds up the first act with “Sempre libera” (“Always Free”), a stunning aria reveling in the freedom of her carefree lifestyle — and she sticks with that sentiment even as Alfredo is serenading her. Here, Anna Netrebko performs at the Salzburg Festival.
Born in Paris in 1818, Charles Gounod was a French composer who became prominent through his operas. Most noted for Faust (1852), he also composed many others such as Roméo et Juliette (1867) and La Colombe (1860; The Dove).
While known primarily for these operas, he also composed cantatas, oratorios, and masses. Among one of his most famous non-operatic works is the “Ave Maria.” While these famous works are widely known, other facts about the French composer are not. Here are five things you may not know about Charles Gounod:
- His musical gifts were largely due to the teachings of his mother, who was a pianist. During his childhood and before he entered school, Gounod was taught music by his mother. When he was old enough to begin school, his musical talents became obvious.
- His first opera was Rossini’s Otello. Later in this same year, Gounod would attend Mozart’s Don Giovanni and become particularly influenced by the work. Mozart remained a constant admiration for Gounod throughout his life.
- While studying in Paris, he primarily studied theology, expecting to become a priest. Born in Saint-Cloud, a town near Paris, Gounod earned a degree in Philosophy. Afterwards he moved to Paris. He studied music with Anton Reicha, but spent most of his time in Paris studying theology and soon entered the seminary of Saint-Sulpice. He then decided a priestly lifestyle was not for him and returned to music, specifically to the composition of operas.
- Out of many operas based of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Gounod’s opera has become the most popular in the operatic repertory. Romeo and Juliet has influenced many different types of music, but Gounod’s opera became a hit like no other musical version of the story. (Listen to pieces from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette from the Royal Wallonie Opera Orchestra and Chorus and .)
- In 1888, Gounod was made a grand officier of the Legion of Honour, France’s highest decoration of merit. Established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the Legion of Honour is a merit-based order for persons of high qualifications. Gounod’s conferment into the order shows his stature as a musician and operatic composer. For more information, view Charles Gounod’s timeline.
Watch an excerpt of a performance of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette from the Salzburg Festival:
Not familiar with opera? You may know more opera tunes than you might think. Here are a few you may recognize:
“Duettino – Sull’aria” from Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) by W. A. Mozart
Shawshank Redemption remains perhaps one cinema’s best and most famous movies of all time. The 1994 American drama film starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins tells the story of a banker (played by Tim Robbins) who, despite claiming his innocence, spends 19 years at Shawshank Prison for murdering his wife and her lover. The banker, named Andy Dufresne, befriends a fellow inmate, Ellis “Red” Redding (played by Morgan Freeman), and begins assisting the warden in a money laundering operation to gain protection from the prison guards against inmate violence towards him.
One of the most powerful scenes of the movie occurs when Andy, after locking a prison guard out of the warden’s office, plays Mozart’s “Sull’aria” from Le Nozze di Figaro over the prison public announcement system.
Occurring in Act Three, the aria is a duet between Contessa and Susanna. Contessa dictates a letter designed to expose the infidelity of her husband. The song reflects Dufresne’s wife’s affair, but at the same time provides hope and peace for the rest of the prisoners. Considered one of the greatest cinematic uses of opera, many people fail to recognize the power of opera not only in movies, but in society in general.
“La Mamma Morta” from Andrea Chénier by Umberto Giordano
The 1993 release of Philadelphia represented one of the first mainstream Hollywood movies to address HIV/AIDS. Tom Hanks, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor for the role, portrayed a successful Philadelphia lawyer who, unbeknownst to his law firm, has AIDS. Beckett is not open about his homosexuality or sickness around the office, but one day one of the firm’s partners discovers a lesion on Beckett’s forehead. He is soon fired, which Beckett believes is because of his illness. Beckett decides to sue his law firm for discrimination. A poignant scene from the film shows Beckett and his soon to be attorney, Joe Miller (played by Denzel Washington), listening to one of Beckett’s favorite opera arias.
“La Mamma Morta” from Andrea Chénier, an aria sung by the character Maddalena di Coigny, tells the story of how her mother was killed protecting her during the French Revolution. Maddalena describes how she almost gave up on life after the events. After hearing the “voice of love,” however, she chooses to go on with her life. In the film, Beckett states this is his favorite opera. Miller, while watching Beckett react to the aria, comes finds a man who loves life and deserves more than discrimination. Through the aria, Miller learns what Beckett is truly feeling. The scene becomes a turning point for Miller’s involvement in Beckett’s lawsuit.
“Ride of the Valküres” from Die Walküre by Richard Wagner
Apocalypse Now, released in 1979, is an epic war film depicting the Vietnam War. One would not think that opera would appear in movie set during this time, but Wagner’s famous “Ride of the Valküres” appears very fittingly. The figure of the Valkyrie derives from Norse mythology. They are female figures who pick certain soldiers who have died on the battle field and take them to Valhalla, the afterlife hall of slain warriors. In Apocalypse Now, a group of soldiers attack a Vietnamese village on a beach and during the process blare Wagner’s famous operatic tune from their helicopters’ speakers to intimidate the enemy. The now famous battle scene perfectly utilizes the tune to show the soldiers’ heroic nature.
The song is triumphal and symbolizes riding into hell itself. (Watch this version from New York Metropolitan Opera’s production.) The song allows for the director to juxtapose the heroic nature of the American soldiers with the poor moral justifications of the character of Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore for being there in the first place: he wanted a nice surfing position.
What are some other movies that have featured opera pieces? Tell us some of your favorite opera moments in film in the comments below.
Our friends at Opera Carolina have just announced the line-up of shows and stars for their 2011-2012 season. Congratulations to Opera Carolina, and thank you to Wells Fargo for its generous ongoing support of opera in our region. From Opera Carolina’s press release:
WDAV Program Director Frank Dominguez traveled to Winston-Salem this week to chat with the stars of Piedmont Opera’s upcoming production of Puccini’s Turandot. Soprano Carter Scott and tenor Jose Luis Duval give Frank – and you – an insider’s view!
>> Listen to the interview
>> See Piedmont Opera’s production of Turandot
Last weekend’s winter storm wreaked havoc all over the region…including WDAV’s technical connections with NPR. Due to a satellite snafu, our faithful World of Opera listeners only got to hear two-thirds of a production of Handel’s Agrippina, presented by the legendary Venice opera house La Fenice.