Colossal voice in opera

Jon Vickers was known for playing the title role in the opera Peter Grimes.
Jon Vickers was known for playing the title role in the opera Peter Grimes.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK • Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, who brought a colossal voice and raw dramatic intensity to everything he sang, including legendary portrayals of Wagner's Tristan, Verdi's Otello, Beethoven's Florestan and Britten's Peter Grimes, has died. He was 88.

The Royal Opera House in London posted a statement from the Vickers family saying the cause was Alzheimer's disease, but it did not specify where or when he died.

From his early teens, when his robust singing in his family church in Saskatchewan was the talk of the congregation (parishioners remember his final high note in the hymn Jerusalem almost rattling the windows), until his fledgling appearances in the mid-1950s at the Toronto Opera Festival, the sheer size of Vickers' voice was both the glory and the challenge of his artistry.

In dramatic tenor roles demanding stirring power and stamina, he had few rivals. For all his power, he was a master at singing high pianissimo phrases with ethereal beauty.

Making every word he sang matter was another hallmark of his artistry. He was incapable of fudging a text for the sake of vocal effect, a priority he traced to his Christian upbringing, in which hymns and prayers were revered.

Still, detractors found his singing burly and gruff.

Born Jonathan Stewart Vickers in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, he was working as a tool salesman for a company based in Winnipeg, when he was taken under the wing of a respected music director at Knox United Church in Winnipeg. He later auditioned for George Lambert, a voice teacher who recruited students for the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, and was offered a scholarship.

At the conservatory, he met Henrietta Elsie Outerbridge whom he married in 1953. A devoted couple, they were "one of the great love stories of our time", in the words of the soprano Teresa Stratas.

Outerbridge died of cancer in 1991. Two years later, he married a flight attendant 13 years his junior. Survivors include five children, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Vickers made his international debut at London's Convent Garden in 1957 before joining the Metropolitan Opera in New York three years later. He would go on to perform some of the most dramatically heroic roles in opera - his Siegmund in Wagner's Die Walkuere (The Valkyrie) became a signature role.

It was on the Met stage in 1967 that he introduced what many consider his greatest achievement, the title role of Britten's Peter Grimes, conducted by Colin Davis and directed by Tyrone Guthrie.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2015, with the headline 'Colossal voice in opera'. Subscribe