In his prime, Jon Vickers, who has died aged 88, was an immense presence on the opera stages of the world. Powerfully built, partly as a result of his farming background, and with a voice to match, the Canadian excelled in the most dramatic, heroic tenor roles.
Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, he was a regular at opera houses including Covent Garden and the Met in New York, enthralling audiences not just with his vocal prowess, but also with his extraordinarily intense stage presence and ability to embody even the most testing of roles. At his best, he had few, if any, peers in parts such as Wagner’s Tristan and Parsifal, or Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio – something acknowledged even by those not particularly taken with his distinctively rough-edged style.
Vickers came to opera from the least likely of circumstances. The son of an impoverished former teacher, he spent his school holidays working on farms, while his first employment as a young adult was to be found in local supermarkets. However, when he was spotted singing in a local amateur operetta production and encouraged to make use of his natural talent, he decided to go for it, soon moving to Toronto to study singing.
In 1956, he received his big break when he was offered a contract by the Royal Opera House, and soon appeared as Riccardo in its production of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. From there, his rise was rapid, and appearances at the likes of La Scala in Milan, Bayreuth and the Met soon followed. As well as Wagner, he made roles such as Samson in Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Delila, Verdi’s Otello and Britten’s Peter Grimes very much his own.
Performing under conductors such as Otto Klemperer and Herbert von Karajan, he was also a regular in the recording studio, committing some of his greatest roles to posterity – for many listeners, the likes of his 1962 Florestan with Klemperer and 1973 Otello with Karajan have never been bettered.
Though very much an operatic superstar of his day, Vickers never played the fame game and rarely gave interviews. A devout Christian – his father was also a lay preacher – he famously earned himself the nickname ‘God’s tenor’ when he refused to play Wagner’s Tannhäuser, deeming the part to be offensive to his beliefs.
He said goodbye to the opera stage in 1987 and enjoyed a long and relatively low-profile retirement.