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Jon Vickers: A Hero's Life Hardcover – 31 Dec 1999

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Northeastern University Press; 1st ed 1st printing edition (31 Dec. 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1555534082
  • ISBN-13: 978-1555534080
  • Product Dimensions: 15.6 x 2.5 x 23.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 927,303 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"Jon Vickers: A Hero's Life paints a fascinating, comprehensive, and colorful picture of a spellbinding and irreplaceable artist."--The Opera Quarterly

About the Author

Jeannie Williams has been a staff columnist and founding editor of USA Today, and has written on opera for Opera News, Opera Monthly, Opera Quarterly, BBC Music Magazine, New York Magazine, and the magazine of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She lives in New York City. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 27 Dec. 2001
Format: Hardcover
In her foreword Jeannie Williams admits that the tenor refused all cooperation as is his custom. She therefore asks for our indulgence if there are some mistakes. I haven't found any. Williams fully succeeds in giving us all relevant facts, all psychological clues to the history of a secretive, difficult and often very pompous singer
who somewhat mixed up singing with celebrating mass. All the great moments of a succesful career and a few lesser inspired flings are told in clear and fluent prose. This is one of those exemplary singer biographies that are (somewhat sadly) only published in the Anglo-Saxon world. One has to read the hagiographies still appearing in Italian on worthwhile singers to understand the difference. The book has a fine performance-chronology and a full index. I've got one criticism. Williams clearly heard and (very important) often saw Vickers performing but lesser mortals mostly had to do with the records. There should have been a fuller discography and discussion of Vicker's rather limited recorded output because that would make it clear that the voice had many limits of timbre and height( barely able to touch a B). That too would have made it clear that Pavarotti's success was not only due to better publicity as the author seems to think.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 16 reviews
26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
A Good Bio of a Complex and Difficult Personality 16 Jan. 2000
By madamemusico - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As the author of a Jussi Bjorling biography that was never published in this country, I empathize with the task that faced Jeannie Williams. How can you make the bare details of a career interesting when you get no cooperation from the subject or his family? Then again, where do you draw the line and decide if a negative anecdote is unfair or probably untrue? Williams' solution was to try to present two sides to every argument, a noble idea that still sometimes did not work. The vindictive Terry McEwen, for instance, who rubbed a lot of artists the wrong way, is not entirely to be trusted in his presentation of Vickers as a man who betrayed friends, and there are likewise many singers who felt the same way about Georg Solti that Vickers did (he was a megalomaniac who purposely drowned singers out with his loud, raucous conducting). Even so, the portrait of Vickers that emerges is probably 80% fair and honest. It's the other 20% that disturbs me.
As someone who spent 22 years of their life being backstage with opera singers, conductors etc., I know that this is not and never has been the "nice" world that outsiders often view it as. It is a cut-throat field in which a few dozen major "names" jockey for position in productions and recordings. It is also a business that eats young singers alive and punishes those whio do not "play ball." In this environment, Jon Vickers' actions make perfect sense to me. He had to fight tooth and nail to 1) carve out a repertoire that he felt psychologically and vocally comfortable with, 2) remain on top despite the fact that he could be bossy, difficult to work with and yet not really popular, and 3) maintain his own artistic integrity in the face of the demands of producers and impresarios. The difficulty he had, for instance, in getting his interpretation of "Die Winterreise" accepted is but one example of how petty and hard-minded critics and booking agents could be towards him. (My own opinion is that his "Winterreise" is very poetic and word-directed, more of a psychological than a strictly "musical" interpretation.) I remember when he sang "Forza del Destino" at the Met: the loud-mouthed opera regulars picked apart his singing during intermissions, stating that even such a secondary tenor as Barry Morell could sing it better. So much for Vickers' acceptance as an artist, even when his was the most fascinating and psychologically probing interpretation of the role ever given (I still recall the pained, strangulated voice with which he sang "Solenne in quest'ora"). Sheer athletic vocalism always seems to be appreciated more than artistic probing.
Williams' book does reveal some personal flaws and weaknesses in this most intense of tenors. But this is only to be expected from a singer who gave so much in each and every performance. Pop critics talk about how rock screamers like Joe Cocker tear out their hearts when they sing, but Cocker has nothing on Vickers. He was animal intensity personified, his craggy voice the voice of Everyman in his struggle to survive a brutal and oftimes unfriendly world.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
A biography worthy of the subject 27 April 2001
By james s. calvert, jr. - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This is one of the finest biographies of a singer I have ever read. (And I've read a lot.) Jon Vickers was one of the greatest singers of the past 50 years, the supreme Siegmund, Florestan, Tristan, Aeneas and Peter Grimes of his time. (And no slouch as Otello, Canio, Samson and Parsifal, either.) He was a singer with a unique timbre, an iconoclastic temprement, and a burning sense of his artistic mission. Like many great artists, he could sometimes act a little crazy. He was stubborn, short-tempered (he did not suffer fools at all, much less gladly) and on occasion, downright irrational and almost violent. He was also a deeply spiritual man and great artist capable of giving performances of almost transcendant beauty and intensity.
Jeannie Williams gives a comprehensive picture of the great tenor, both his abundant virtues and his manifest warts. The book is well-reasearched and remarkably complete in its account of his career, considering that Vickers refused to participate or cooperate with the author. Vickers' deep Christian beliefs and convictions are treated respectfully and recognized as an integral part of what made him the artist that he was.
The most fascinating chapters are the ones on Vickers' notorious Tannhäuser cancellation in the late 70s (which left both Covent Garden and the Met in the lurch), and on his relationship with the opera "Peter Grimes." As to the former, Vickers maintained that he could not sing Tannhäuser because his religious convictions prevented him from finding any point of connection with the character, and because he found Tannhäuser "revolting." But every single person interviewed for the book, many of them wholly sympathetic to Vickers, believed that the real reason for Vickers' cancellation was because he could not handle the vocal demands of the part. The author allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusion about the incident. As for Peter Grimes, which many consider Vickers' greatest role, Williams affirms that the composer disliked Vickers interpretation intensely and resented Vickers' unilateral (and unauthorized) rewrite of some of the text. (Vickers later claimed that Britten had sanctioned the changes and that they had been made in collaboration with conductor Colin Davis, but according to Williams, they were entirely Vickers' doing.)
This is the very best kind of operatic biography - written by someone who deeply admires the subject but who does not allow that admiration to cloud her judgment or degenerate into fan-like gush. This will no doubt remain the definitive biography of Vickers for quite some time. Highly recommended.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
A book worth reading 26 Mar. 2000
By Russel E. Higgins - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The eight editorial reviews and the readers' reviews of this biography of John Vickers are very accurate and perceptive. This book is indeed required reading for any opera goer who is interested in the inner workings of opera and the anguish and joy that frequently accompany a dedicated singer. I had seen all Mr. Vickers' roles at the Metropolitan Opera, as well as his famed concert at Carnegie Hall in which he made references to John Wayne, and, in general, rambled on with commentary between sets of songs. (Ms. Williams fails to point out that he sang one of the best "Wintersturms" of his career on this afternoon as an encore.) There is no doubt about it: Vickers' Parsifals, Siegmunds, and his two Tristans at the Met were among the highlights in the long history of The Metropolitan Opera House.(My wife and I were at the famed Nilsson "Tristan" on January 30, 1974, and words cannot begin to describe the beauty and intensity of that performance!) But there was a dark, disturbing side to Mr. Vickers that is brought out in the biography, and, I must say, this dark side disturbed me more than it did Ms. Williams. Indeed, it is hard to justify his brutal rudeness and insensitivity throughout his artistic career. Sally Presant, the soprano who sang Emelia in Mr. Vickers' last "Otellos" in South Africa, sums it up succinctly when she remarks that Vickers was guilty of "incredible intolerance under a heart of pure gold." Mr. Vickers' blatant arrogance and egocentricity is shown a few pages later when he disregards all historical documentation from Sir John Tooley about Handel's "Samson" by saying that only he knows how the opera should be staged and sung, and "This is the way it is." I also found Mr. Vickers to be hypocritical. He claims that all his objections are for art's sake, but he is frequently wrong, as evidenced by his arrogance regarding the singing of "Sampson." Moreover, he claims to possess Christian virtues, yet his cruel treatment of such people as Julius Rudel, June Anderson, Carol Vaness, and his friend Roberta Knie is unconscionable to any Christian. If he were truly crusading for justice and honor, why did he not put himself on the line in helping Ms. Knie when she needed it? Mr. Vickers frequently inferred that his egomania was justified by God, but there are many singers who inbue pure Christian virtues who never acted like Vickers. I might mention, in passing, Jerome Hines, Stanford Olsen, Dawn Upshaw, Hans Hotter, Fritz Wunderlich, and Kurt Moll. These singers did not blame everything on someone else and throw childish tantrums at rehearsals. Ms. Williams mentions Mr. Vickers' frequent and blatant cruelty to other artists, all of which is unjustified and hardly worthy of a man who claims to be dedicated to God. He was indeed a great artist, but, as Sir John Tooley remarks near the end of the book in summing up Mr. Vickers' career: He would have been even greater if "his own imagination" could have been "stimulated by others" -- that is, by the many brilliant conductors, directors, and advisors with whom he worked. We can excuse Mr. Vickers' harsh treatment of opera house directors, impressarios, and agents on basis of their unethical behavior; but it is impossible to excuse the cruel treatment of his colleagues throughout his life. I've no doubt that Mr. Vickers' had a heart of gold and that he was a wonderful family man and colleague. However, the darkness and cruelty contaminated these virtues -- a fact that Jeannie Williams brings out in an excellent book that every opera lover should read!
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
BBC Music Magazine review 30 Dec. 1999
By jeannie williams - Published on
Format: Hardcover
By Anthony Peattie
"The strength of this biography is that it never degenerates into hagiography... Jeannie Williams's book does justice to Jon Vickers by documenting his insights into the roles he sang as equal-handedly as the unnecessary controversies that dotted his career....This biography is one of the best studies of a singer that I have ever read." --Anthony Peattie, BBC Music Magazine, January 2000.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
A well-balanced and meticulously researched biography 16 May 2000
By Vincent Lau - Published on
Format: Hardcover
No matter whether or not you like the intrinsic quality of the singer's voice, or that you may look askance at his many idiosyncracies, there is no doubt that Jon Vickers was one of the great singing-actors of the second half of the 20th Century. In this quite impressive biography (the first for Vickers), author Jeannie Williams has set out the illustrious career of Vickers in great detail and clarity. Although Vickers has not collaborated with Williams for the writing of this book, which may account for the presence of a few minor points where the author appears to be not too sure of, it is evident that a lot of meticulous research has been undertaken for the writing of the work. A number of episodes (e.g. the "Tannhauser incident") have been given extensive treatment here. Not only has Williams laid out the views of those who were immediately involved in those controversies, the opinions of friends and colleagues have also been gleaned and revealed without unnecessary embellishments. As such, the book does provide a well-balanced and richly detailed account of Vickers's singing career from the humble beginnings in parishes of his native Canada (where he met with a number of difficulties later on), through his ascent to the pinnacle of the operatic world in which he became the definitive Siegmund, Peter Grimes, Otello and Tristan, to his low-key withdrawal from the stage in the late 80s. Nevertheless, despite all the wealth of details, which are set against the colourful and often cantankerous world of opera, and the fact that Vicker's intergrity and dedication to his art is never in doubt, the singer's emotional character, his behaviour backstage (which has raised a lot of eyebrows) and some of his convictions continue to baffle the reader and, presumably, most people who know him in person. Nevertheless, to be fair, it is almost impossible for any third-party to penetrate the depth of another's psyche and Williams has already tried her best to put on the table all the facts as well as different views so that the reader can make up his own mind as regards Vickers the person as well as the merits of his (and his opponents') arguments. Therefore, while the actual writing is not too stylish, and may sometimes be linguistically a bit bland, this is still an excellent biography of an important singer. The book also contains a selected discography and, above all, an exhaustive chronology of performances which is indispensable for those who need such information. On the whole, the book can be recommended with enthusiasm.
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