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.