There are performances that you see when you're a teenager that leave a life-long imprint on your soul ... if you're lucky. For me, such a performance was Canadian tenor Jon Vickers in Benjamin Britten's PETER GRIMES at the Metropolitan Opera in March or April of 1969. I was a lonely, eighteen year-old freshman at Columbia (cf. WHAT IT WAS LIKE), but I knew that I already had my transfer papers to paradise (cf. Sarah Lawrence College) so I could take out a weeknight to go to the Met. After all, they're both on the West Side, right?
And I was curious about PETER GRIMES because when I was in high school I had directed a one-act play by Peter Shaffer called "The Private Ear" that makes major mention of Britten's opera. So I decided to go. Little did I know that I was going to be seeing one of the great portrayals in all of opera in the twentieth century.
At the time, I was not an opera fan. I had seen exactly one opera: THE MAGIC FLUTE. The famous Marc Chagall-designed production. My grandfather was an opera-addict (see my Blog #5 – Fathers and Sons and Fathers – for the full lowdown), so I guess there was some 'opera' in my blood. I was certainly a fan of Broadway musicals, so the jump to opera shouldn't have been that hard to predict. On some level, musical theatre is musical theatre is musical theatre.
But nothing prepared me for Jon Vickers in this role, the story of a tormented English fisherman. I saw the first act from standing room, not an uncommon spot for me, the fairly impoverished student. But I saw the last two acts from fifth row center. (I had scoped out where the best empty seats might be at the first intermission and scooted into a great single seat at the last moment.) A lot of subscribers left after the first act. They probably didn't realize then that they were walking out on a legend. Nowadays, they probably boast about how they saw Vickers in PETER GRIMES.
How do I describe Vickers' performance in PETER GRIMES? It was as if he were having a nervous breakdown onstage -- while singing. I've noticed that some of the obituaries compare him to Marlon Brando and Zero Mostel; he was nothing like them, except for the fact that he was, like them, absolutely unique and yet universal. His acting is concentrated beyond belief. He was a famous Otello in Verdi's late masterpiece, and two of his Desdemonas – Leonie Rysanek and Renata Scotto – say that he actually hurt them physically onstage. The opera singers he's being compared to – Maria Callas, Leonie Rysanek, and Teresa Stratas – are the usual short list of Greatest Singing Actors. I will never forget the sight of him as Peter Grimes, sitting on the stage, singing his heart and soul out.
By accounts, he could be a difficult man. He was known to bully underlings and be openly homophobic. A fundamentalist Christian, he refused to sing Tannhauser, considering it "blasphemous." He was famous for yelling at a Dallas audience, "SHUT UP WITH YOUR DAMN COUGHING!" during TRISTAN UND ISOLDE. One of his great on-stage partners Birgit Nilsson said that Vickers "was almost always unhappy." Nonetheless, he was in great demand at all the major opera houses of the world until he retired in 1988.
Whatever he was as a human being, as a performer he was one of the greatest I've ever seen. He truly left a bit of himself – his blood, his heart, his soul – onstage. I was lucky to have seen him.
Here is a YouTube taste of his frightening Genius as Peter Grimes
Jon Vickers as Peter Grimes will never die. R.I.P, Jon Vickers.