28 July 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Karajan artists: Jon Vickers – Karajan’s man for passionate characters

Karajan chose the Canadian tenor Jon Vickers when he needed a man for extremely passionate interpretations on stage.

It is no coincidence that Karajan casted him for three characters that commit murder out of jealousy: Otello, Don José and Canio. Other operas Karajan interpreted with Vickers in main characters were “Fidelio”, “The Valkyrie”, “Aida” and “Tristan und Isolde”. Karajan drew upon Vickers’ abilities exclusively for the opera, they never performed sacred works together either in concert or in the studio.

Vickers said in an interview about Karajan as both conductor and director:

“Karajan, in talking with me himself, said, ‘I know that I am not the greatest of producers, but I have conducted so many performances where there was such conflict between what was going on in the pit and what went on the stage that I was determined that I would do my own so that good, bad or indifferent, there was a unification between what went on in the pit and what went on on the stage.’  And I believe he has done that.”

Vickers as Otello with Mirella Freni


Their collaboration started with Siegmund in “The Valkyrie” at the Vienna State Opera in 1959.

“Karajan kept Vickers waiting in Vienna for several days, with no word as to when the audition would be. On the third day, Vickers […] informed Karajan’s office that he was about to leave. The ultimatum had the desired effect. At the audition itself […] Karajan listened to Vickers for all of ten seconds, after which he offered him the role of Tristan. Vickers, not unnaturally, declined it. (Richard Osborne)”

In 1972, he was ready for it and appeared at the Salzburg Easter Festival and in Karajan’s only studio recording – their last and ultimate project.

Vickers with Walter Berry as Kurwenal


Obviously it was the intensity of characterization that Karajan valued a lot in Vickers. In an interview with a Spanish newspaper Karajan said: “It is not enough to say that Vickers is a great actor; he is the very embodiment of the character. […] Acting is a profession, but this is a complete artistic impersonation, an interpretation in which the singer becomes Tristan.”

About Vickers’ interpretation of Canio in “Pagliacci” Karajan thought similarly. When Vickers couldn’t sing the part because of illness, Karajan cancelled the performance at la Scala although a substitute tenor would have been available. He couldn’t imagine conducting the opera without Vickers. “For him, Vickers was Canio. (Osborne)”

At the first ever Salzburg Easter Festival in 1967, Vickers sang the very first lines – Siegmund’s “Wes Herd dies auch sei” in “The Valkyrie”. This short clip from the finale of Act 1 was broadcast on Austrian television.

“Before the first performance […] Jon Vickers misjudged his early afternoon nap and woke up later than he would have liked. Panic gave way to confidence when he realized that he knew the part inside out. The performance went very well. Or so he thought. (Osborne)” Karajan had realised that Vickers sang the part twenty per cent slower than usual. It was no problem for him to adjust the tempo but he did want to know the reason the next day. He was always curious about the physical or phsychological influence on a singer’s performance.

Vickers as Florestan with Christa Ludwig in “Fidelio”


Richard Osborne’s quote about their successful collaboration could stand as a résumé about Karajan’s relationship to singers in general:

“What ultimately bound Vickers to Karajan was the quality of the music-making, the trust Karajan placed in his singers, and the level of support he could give them.”

Vickers as Florestan with Helga Dernesch in “Fidelio”


We’ve prepared playlists with Karajan and Jon Vickers. Listen to them here.

Richard Osborne: “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998


Stay Informed