Death of an Aging Heldentenor

Jon Vickers died a few days ago, of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease. Maybe you’ve heard of him: he was a Canadian heldentenor, a small guy with a tremendous voice. He was also my first Don José, paired with the luminous and commanding Grace Bumbry.

Grace Bumbry and Jon Vickers in “Près des ramparts des Seville,” aka the Seguidilla, from Bizet’s Carmen

I adored Grace Bumbry as Carmen. This may be a tad unfair: she was not only the first Carmen I saw (on a grainy VHS of Carmen out of Salzburg and under the unfailingly precise Van Karajan, he of the dubious WWII activities), but one of the first operatic heroines I “met,” and loved. I think that before I met her Carmen I’d seen Madama Butterfly, no doubt with a disturbing amount of yellowface, a telecast from the Met. I was very young, it was at my grandparents’ duplex outside Madison, and my mother made me turn away when Butterfly stabbed herself.

I remember being shaken, devastated, that this lady with the voice had stuck her little boy on a swing with that random woman and had actually stabbed herself! (It should be noted that I had a highly overactive imagination; Dracula was totally 100% real, and Butterfly stabbed herself. These things were true, to child me.) Surely that no-account blond dude wasn’t worth her death! At least, I think he was blond. I might be misremembering, though: for all I know, he was Domingo. It has been well more than twenty years, and evidently I was only three.

Grace Bumbry, Julia Hamari, and Olivera Miljakovic in “Mêlons! – Coupons!”, from Bizet’s Carmen

Carmen, under Van Karajan’s artistic and musical leadership, helmed by Vickers and Bumbry, was in many ways my first opera. I found it at rather an opportune time. I was a young, unhappy teenager thrust into teens that would become only more unhappy as they went–life didn’t begin to clear up for me until I went to college, Carmen in my ears. Opera plays a starring role in my adolescence: it was often to my favorite singers that I turned, lonely and afraid, after my family left the city for the ‘burbs. It was not an easy transition for me, and I am unsure if it is one I will ever fully make. Carmen’s defiance in the face of the world–her refusal to toe a man’s line, even if cost her her very life–were a strange lifeline to me.

Jon Vickers (with unimpressed Grace Bumbry) in “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée,” from Bizet’s Carmen

Jon Vickers’ Don José was, to me, the antagonist. I disliked him, intensely. That clarion voice made me grumble, even as it hit every note, breathtakingly perfect. (I have a tendency to cleave to basses, and baritones, and darkly lyric tenors.) Later, as my teen years spooled on, I turned to researching the singers I knew. I discovered that Sam Ramey lived in Chicago, that my heroine Grace Bumbry had made her début at my Lyric, that she had in fact been the first African-American woman to sing at Bayreuth. And, of course, I learned that Jon Vickers was also called God’s tenor, and that he’d refused to perform Tannhäuser because it “denied everything [he] believed in“–he was a deeply religious man. (It fascinates me that murderous Don José and incestuous Siegmund made the cut, but Venus-bangin’ Tannhäuser didn’t.) And then I started college, and the world went from darkness to something closer to grey–much easier to live in, even if it was still dark.

Jon Vickers (and clueless Mirella Freni) in “Ma mère, je la vois,” from Bizet’s Carmen

Over the years my tastes have changed, but opera remains one of my stalwart companions, a place to turn when things go wrong (or when they go right). As a graduate student at the University of Illinois, I attended nearly every performance presented by its excellent young musicians. I never heard a bad note from their pit orchestra–and, since I played bass, cut my teeth on the CSO, and have a musician for a parent, I would have caught mistakes. The young singers, raw and pure, are passionate and exuberant and good. Some day, I will start seeing them in our professional world, making names (and waves). I think I will see their young set designers and the geniuses behind their productions, too, and oh, I will be proud to say that I saw their early work, when they and I were students at that university in the middle of a cornfield. If ever you are there, in the midst of the eternal cornfields, at the right season, drop by Krannert for me, and see a production. It will be time (and money) well-spent.

Jonas Kaufmann (with sneering A.C. Antonacci), in “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée,” from Bizet’s Carmen

Jon Vickers was no longer my only Don José. I watched several, on the lookout for that rare tenor with whom I could actually empathize, before I found Jonas Kaufmann (who is apparently a spinto tenor) and Anna Caterina Antonacci‘s Carmen, seething with enough passion to haul me in and hold me for an eternity, even without Bumbry. Kaufmann’s voice was dark, without, perhaps, that clarion power of Vickers’. I liked it. (My brother E, the mathematician of the family, who prefers precision, said Kaufmann’s vocal interpretation couldn’t compare to Jon Vickers’ superior voice.)

And now Jon Vickers, my first Don José, a light in the darkness of my teenage loneliness, is gone. He was known for many interpretations, but I knew him best as Grace Bumbry’s Don José, clarion-voiced and terrifying in his intensity. Together he, Bumbry, and Van Karajan introduced me to a world which has given me light and joy and beauty. Sleep well, heldentenor.

Jon Vickers, in “Then Shall the Righteous Shine Forth,” from Mendelssohn’s Elijah

One response to “Death of an Aging Heldentenor”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: