Dispatches from the desk of John MacMillan

Mr. Vickers


Back when the dinosaurs ruled the earth, I became friends with a young woman named Wendy Vickers. She and I met at university, though I’d known her siblings Bill and Alison while I was in high school. Even in their teens the Vickers kids exuded popularity and gravitas, starring in school plays and musicals, as well as leading the student council. I counted myself lucky to have won the attention of a Vickers-kid, enough to have warranted her invitation to an Ottawa concert in the early 80s.

It was only after we arrived at the National Arts Centre that I realized it wasn’t just a concert; rather it was a recital by her dad, Jon Vickers. I confess that, to that point, I hadn’t really developed a love of opera. I knew that Bugs Bunny liked The Barber of Seville, and that Wilhelminia Wiggins Fernandez could really belt out a tune in Diva, but that was where opera ended for me. I certainly didn’t know that her dad was one of the world’s great opera singers (he was a “helden-tenor” to be exact, the kind of deep, bracing voice suited to singing heroic roles). That night Mr. Vickers sang arias from his “greatest hits”, so to speak: Samson, Tristan, Florestan in Beethoven’s “Fidelio”, and most memorably as the title role in Benjamin Britten’s powerful “Peter Grimes”.

Wendy told me a story about a time when she had accompanied her dad on a mid-summer US tour. For whatever reason Mr. Vickers chose a Winnebago over air travel, motoring through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois. It being a land-yacht they often docked at campgrounds along the way. Her dad was a man of talent and habit, and enjoyed a daily, lengthy morning shower. One day, after he’d retired to the bathroom, Wendy heard something outside the Winnebago. It was the noise of a dozen or so neighbouring campers, planting rings of lawnchairs around the Vickers’ vehicle, each prepared to enjoy a prelude to that night’s performance as Mr. Vickers moistened and limbered his voice.

I only met him once, backstage at the NAC, as he removed his makeup. He was dubbed “God’s Tenor”, as much for his fierce Christian faith as for his dominant stage presence, and I felt all of that power and glory as he surveyed this uncultured wretch who accompanied his daughter. I babbled something fawning and inconsequential, and he humoured me with a smile and handshake. He said virtually nothing to either of us, so enervated was he from that night’s performance, but I could feel his love for Wendy as he kissed her forehead.

I thought fondly of him, and of Wendy, as I read the New York Times’ announcement of the death of a remarkable Canadian artist, who raised an equally remarkable family. Requiescat in pace, Mr. V.


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