remembering a great singer

Jon Vickers is dead. A Google search for his name now turns up a number of obituaries. In the last century, so replete with great singers, Vickers stood out as monumental. His stage presence and vocal strength were widely celebrated and sometimes debunked, as were his intransigence, hot temper, and moral rigidity. But he was a great singer, a dramatic tenor who could sing a lyric line like no other if he chose to do so. His career encompassed the most demanding roles for dramatic tenor (except Siegfried, which tends to kill those who attempt it) and a number of big lyric roles as well. In all he sang with seriousness, to be sure, but also with that quality William Hazlitt famously called Gusto, “power or passion defining any object.” Hazlitt found this quality primarily in the works of Titian, Michaelangelo, Reubens, and in Greek sculpture.

Vickers’ held himself to a standard that required him to become fluent in German and Italian. He said in a late interview that his French was only passable. But he didn’t consult his vocal coaches, for whom he had high praise, in order to study the roles he performed linguistically. For that study he consulted language professors who could teach him idiom and nuance. He wanted to understand his operatic and oratorio roles comprehensively, like a method actor. Indeed he was a singing actor in an age that saw the revival of bel canto. Some did not think his voice beautiful. I did.

And I sang with him once, in 1958 in the Cherubini Medea in which he played opposite Maria Callas in the second season of what was then the Dallas Civic Opera. A few years ago I acquired the recording of that performance, released in 2000 after years of dormancy somewhere. I hadn’t known it existed until I discovered it quite by accident looking for something else. Singing as a chorister with such people—I had recently turned twenty-one at the time—was a heady experience for a very young man from West Texas, made more memorable by other aspects of the ensemble.

Our stage director was Alexis Minotis, of the Greek National Theatre, whose 1990 New York Times obituary credits with speaking “a resonant English.” We in Dallas experienced that resonance, but were very seldom able to understand Minotis’ directions—they were Greek to us. Fortunately, Franco Zeffirelli, on hand to direct the Traviata we also sang that year with Callas, was able to translate. I have sometimes wondered if Zeffirelli collected a fee for all his work on the Medea, for which, of course, he had no billing. Minotis would instruct us, and we would do our best to translate those directions into stage behavior with the result that Minotis would scream I don’t know what epithets at us and then hurriedly consult Zeffirelli in Greek, who would tell us what to do so that we could do it.

Rudolph Bing had fired Callas at the Metropolitan Opera just days before she was to perform in Dallas that year as well. We wondered if she would stiff us as she had Bing, but she came to Dallas, more or less resurrected her career, and acquired a devoted biographer in John Ardoin, who made his own career writing about her afterwards. Reviews of the Callas 1958/59 Medea focus on her—there were four performances, I believe, in different cities. But the Dallas performance may be the most renowned of her many performances of the role in and out of opera. And the young Vickers held his own as Giasone, bringing “his huge, glorious voice to this rather one-dimensional role,” as one reviewer put it. I remembered him as a big bluff man who liked to joke around about his ranching life until a Met broadcast of Das Rheingold in the late 1960s changed my perception of him forever.

Of all the Vickers postings I have seen around in the last day or two, this one is to me the most moving. I am grateful to my son, Julian, for it. Here, Vickers sings the great Aria “Total Eclipse,” from Handel’s Samson. The source is Milton’s closet drama, Samson Agonistes. Newburgh Hamilton’s libretto recalls the Poet’s language, often quoting directly. Here’s the specific Miltonic text that stands behind the aria, though Hamilton and Handel give most of the Poet’s theology of light to other characters and to the chorus:

O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
Irrecoverably dark, total Eclipse
Without all hope of day!
O first created Beam, and thou great Word,
Let there be light, and light was over all;
Why am I thus bereav’d thy prime decree?

In his later career Vickers was known almost as much for the role of Handel’s Samson as he was known for Peter Grimes. I think Vickers understood the philosophical chiaroscuro of the Hamilton libretto. I have no idea whether he had read Milton, though it would fit the profile of a singer who consulted professors about turns of language if he had. I think I hear the Poet’s voice in Vickers’ reading of this aria, ‘finding no dawn.’ And I can characterize Vickers’ performance no better than to quote my son: “for me this somehow captures the enormous scale of his artistry in a way that many things don’t.” It’s the difference between Samson and Pagliacci, between tragedy and melodrama.

naming the animals

A Facebook friend has recently inspired me by quoting John Muir—“The mountains are calling, and I must go”—and I’ve been reading Wendell Berry this spring. It takes a poet to call up the land, whether wilderness or human land, with the understanding that land contains us. It takes a great poet, perhaps, to call up the great land or the great water we have never seen or touched with a similar understanding. “Much have I traveled,”wrote such a great poet of imagined encounters with oceans he had never seen, would never see, from the wine-dark sea of Homer to the great Pacific as it unfolded itself to the first European, Cortez, he thought incorrectly.

Summer is coming. As I mow and plant and plan, as I sit on my back porch at dusk and watch the fireflies begin their seasonal dance, I think it isn’t just land that contains us. After a year underground the common firefly makes a brief pilgrimage into the outer air, only to flash briefly, mate, and die; though the mating ensures that the cycle goes on, female fireflies being less than parethenogenetic creatures. And if I raise my eyes to those other beacons; the great ones, Venus and Jupiter—I’ve been searching for Saturn—that present themselves in the evening sky above the chimneys and rooftops that make up my back porch horizon, when I think of the distances that separate them from us who perceive their light after millennia, I think a great mystery contains us, and I understand the ancient psalmist’s need to call it Lord.

These things beyond us are so familiar as to have become clichés, breeding a contempt (as the saying goes) that can blind one to how remarkable they are. None of us was present at the making of any one of them, as El Shaddai reminded his servant, Job. We inhabit a place that is also theirs. We dwell alongside them. And my summer mood as it comes on tells me it is far better to hold these things in reverence, these things we cannot, did not, make: great land and water, the forest primeval that opens Longfellow’s poem, the heavens, the topsoil at our feet, our fellow creatures that inhabit various places alongside us, than to pursue the ruinous course of vandalism we call industry upon which we westerners have been embarked for the last four centuries or so. Industry has produced its own magnificence, but a survey of the world’s great cities, as they presently realistically are, does not engender much optimism as to the sustainability of present-day industrial logic. From Bangkok to Shanghai to Chernobyl to Detroit to the ruin of New Orleans’ wetlands and the Gulf of Mexico, we humans have left a trail of the waste of our passage that would be tragic if we did not arrogantly continue to pursue the same goals and strategies that have produced waste and destruction on such a scale in the first place.

But this summer of all summers time seems to be turning a corner for me. There’s a freshness in the air sometimes I can’t account for. Now and again I’m surprised by an impulse to be kind to a stranger. We went to the zoo last weekend, and the crowds hardly bothered me at all. We had gone primarily to see St. Louis’s new Polar Bear. I worried he might be too hot, but he had plenty of water to get into to cool off. I accept that zoos are problematic, but they are so familiar to me for so many years that going to the zoo seems normal enough, especially on a beautiful day with an explosion of sunshine and temperatures in the eighties. Though I sometimes think humankind is on the verge of calamity, I could find no presentiment of such a thing in my weekend thoughts, enjoying an afternoon in the park with several thousand of my fellow creatures, human and not. As we threaded our way across the big bridge that traverses the zoo’s central pond we watched pelicans and flamingos, swans and geese, a family of ducks with the little ones swimming after their mother. There we were, in the middle of a space created by capital and industry—everything we saw was named for some benefactor, from the benches and water fountains to the large program areas—and all of it a museum of a kind, built to contain not artifacts but specimens, semblances (some of them living) that put me in mind of the great worth of the world.

To walk in such a place with a cynical detachment seems wrong, no matter the morality of zoos. I thought of some lines from Edna St. Vincent Millay:

The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,—
No higher than the soul is high. . . .

But I think there is no innocence to which we might return, no illo tempore in which we might dwell as free animals amongst the unnamed others. The story of Adam naming the animals, like so many of the stories in Genesis, suggests that the rift in nature is aboriginal. We, the humans, stand one side of it, and the rest stands over against us. But what if it doesn’t? What if the rift is merely a trick of the light, so to speak, not so much a creation of human language as a condition of its use. Prometheus brought fire, but fire burns and cares not a whit who is scorched. It’s up to us humans to care. It’s up to us humans to take up the world in our arms, the world that includes ourselves. Wendell Berry’s critique, to which I mostly subscribe, is teaching me a way of thinking about this taking up.

Central to Berry’s conception of agriculture, which he distinguishes from agribusiness, is that agricultural husbandry (if I can use the old-fashioned expression Berry uses) is always local, always focuses on a particular place, its character, its qualities and capabilities, its particular weather, topography, and of course its history. Even wilderness as we think of it, has a history. There are now no truly wild places left on our planet, save in the great oceanic depths perhaps. I think it is important for us to continue to preserve what we call wilderness, albeit our habit of valuing wilderness areas as recreational places is now beginning to undermine them, with hotels, casinos, and condominiums threatening to overwhelm the Grand Canyon, to name one instance. But the great planetary need, as Berry argues forcefully, is for an adequate ethics in regard to working land. I think we Americans have had quite enough of the frontier mentality that regards land and water as resources to be used up before we move on to the next prairie, the next river, the next mountain, to be destroyed in the service of commerce.

And I think we postmodern humans might well ask ourselves what may be the end point of our extractive industrial logic. What will be the value of the money we have heaped in banks when the real wealth of the planet is gone. Having asked that question, I think we might collectively turn to the places where we live and find that we are native to them. When I lived in the south I thought nostalgically about place as a category of experience, the sense of place as a thing mostly lost; but I am learning from Berry to think that the sense of place is a function of attention and care. Most of us are now native to places that are not capable of the self sufficiency Berry envisions for the ideal family farm. But that’s a myth, even for Berry, or a transcendent archetype. What we could do, as citizens of the mixed places in which we now dwell, is to study the conditions that might enable their renewed flourishing. That flourishing would, for most of us, require the continued importation of many goods and concomitant reliance on services obtained from afar. But we might wish to study conditions required for the preservation and health of the local institutions on which we continue to rely to heal the sick, to educate our children, to put roofs over our heads and food on our tables, to get us from one place to another, to manage and store the funds required by our local systems of exchange, to preserve public order, in general the institutions that support the persons who do the myriad of local jobs that are necessary to the integrity of the local, civilized places in which dwell.

As I continue to think through the things I am learning from Berry, I’ll likely have more to say about these and other matters of local concern, more specific things. But for now, my summer is starting well. I can only wish a similar good fortune to all who read these pages.