Opera legend Jon Vickers dies, aged 88

13 July 2015, 10:55 | Updated: 6 January 2017, 14:45

Imposing Canadian tenor stormed the world’s stages in heroic roles.

Jon Vickers, who became celebrated around the world in a wide range of operatic tenor parts, has died in Canada after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease.

Famed for his imposing stage presence and insightful interpretations of character, Vickers made an unforgettable impact in such roles as Verdi’s Don Carlos, Tristan in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Énée in Berlioz’s The Trojans, and Britten's Peter Grimes.  His performances as Verdi’s Otello were highly praised and he recorded the role twice.

Vickers was born on 29 October 1926 in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. He developed his strong physique, which would serve him so well on stage, while working on a neighbour’s farm. 

After studying at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, he joined the Royal Opera House company in 1957, before moving in 1960 to the Met in New York. He appeared there in 17 roles over 22 seasons, chalking up 277 performances.

For Vickers, conveying dramatic impact and psychological intensity sometimes took precedence over purity of sound. "Art is a wrestling with the meaning of life," he once said, and one critic described him as an "iron column that weeps tears".

His 1983 recording of Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise is considered particularly harrowing and challenging. But his Wagner performances – especially as Siegmund in Die Walküre and as Parsifal ­– were highly praised for their beauty.

A deeply religious and private man, who did not always endear himself to his colleagues, Vickers pulled out of playing Wagner’s Tannhäuser at Covent Garden in the 1970s, saying he found the opera blasphemous. 

He did, however, shine alongside some of the greatest names in 20th century music. He starred opposite Maria Callas's Medea at Covent Garden and was the tenor in a controversial 1959 recording of Handel’s Messiah under Sir Thomas Beecham, which has remained available ever since.

Vickers retired in 1988. Announcing his passing, his family wrote that they would "remember him for his ringing laughter, warmth, and generous spirit. A man of the land who was the most at home on his farm, surrounded by nature and his family, he had an abiding search for the truths and essences of life".