|JON VICKERS IN ONE OF HIS MANY FAMOUS ROLES, THAT OF VERDI'S "OTELLO"|
People will laugh when I say it, but I feel there has been for some years now a ground-swell of demand for mediocrity. They don't want excellence. We don't have positive heroes anymore; they're negative heroes. What do we attack? We've attacked all the great pillars of civilization. We take great heroes of history and so far as we are capable we snoop around in the excretia of some of these heroes until we find a flaw. So because a hero is not perfection, which if he was he would be God himself, then he's nothing more than anybody on the street.
It's a great quote, relevant to almost every time and place, and reading it this week put me in mind to recall Vickers, one of my favorite opera tenors. He died back this summer, and although I was quite aware of it at the time, I just didn't have the opportunity to write about it. However, Opera News had its obituary on him this week, which not only reminded me to write about him, but to ask you to take a moment to go back to an extremely insightful interview with him conducted by Bruce Duffie in 1981. If you have a few minutes please check it out, for it shows not only why Vickers was so good at his craft, but why the Opera News obituary made a point of discussing how he gave a moral dimension to his work, in a way quite unlike most singers. A couple of quotes to give you a sense of this.
On the difference between musical comedy and opera:
Unless the human element is constantly portrayed, then opera becomes something that I don't like to think that it is, and that is mere entertainment. I can't stand opera as entertainment. If opera degenerates into entertainment, I would far sooner go and watch a good production of My Fair Lady or Brigadoon because I think it's much better entertainment than opera is. . . . For instance, Lenny Bernstein has wrestled with that all his life. He has striven very hard to believe that a really true American opera would develop out of the Broadway musical, and of course it hasn't. I think that Brigadoon has come closer to opera than any musical I've ever seen, but in my belief it will never happen. I think that entertainment, for the most part, deals with the superficialities of life, and works usually become extremely dated because they relate to a certain society and a certain framework that has developed in a certain society.
On where Richard Wagner fits into the equation:
JV: But I think that all great art deals with fundamentals, and this will surprise you: I'm not sure that Wagner falls in that category. Great art wrestles with the timeless, it wrestles with the universal, and at every point deals with the ever-present argument of what constitutes the fundamental moral law.
BD: Spirituality enters into this also?
JV: No question of it. For that reason, I put a question mark of the validity of Richard Wagner as a great artist. A great genius, yes, but a great artist? I'm not sure.
JV: There is a dis-inclination to demand of our artists truth.
BD: Are we lazy?
JV: No, I think it is a very long-developing process. I think it's developed possibly over the last 20 years. People will laugh when I say it, but I feel there has been for some years now a ground-swell of demand for mediocrity. They don't want excellence. We don't have positive heroes anymore; they're negative heroes. What do we attack? We've attacked all the great pillars of civilization. We take great heroes of history and so far as we are capable we snoop around in the excretia of some of these heroes until we find a flaw. So because a hero is not perfection, which if he was he would be God himself, then he's nothing more than anybody on the street.
BD: We're wiping out all of the positive?
JV: Of course. And Wagner is very guilty.
BD: Let's probe Wagner's guilt.
JV: (laughing) Well, I mean it's very simple. Wagner was so very much under the influence of Nietzsche and his philosophies, and to a certain extent by Schopenhauer. He was an anarchist. There's very great evidence to support the fact that the character of Siegfried was supposed to represent the great anarchist Bakunin. Wagner wanted to totally revolutionize society. He wanted to attack the whole fundamental basis upon which the structure and the law of music itself was based. He says so in his writings. He stated that it was his determination to reveal the destructive force of Christianity, that Christianity itself had done this enormous destructive thing to mankind in that it divided man against himself. I think that was ignorance on the part of Wagner. I think the division of man against man is a problem that has been wrestled with since the earliest of all writings in the history of mankind. It wasn't new in the Christian era.
BD: Is it ignorance on the part of Wagner, or just short-sightedness?
JV: Perhaps that, but nevertheless, he devoted this gigantic genius to that destructive force. What did he wrestle with? In all of his operas, he wrestled with the problem of being a bastard; he wrestled with the problem of incest; he wrestled with the problem of adultery and fornication; all of the negative aspects of our society. None of which would disturb me in the least - I think it was right, these things should be brought out into the open and discussed. But to come to the conclusions that he came to is demonic and diabolical.
BD: How do you interpret the very end of the Ring?
JV: It has to be the natural conclusion of such a philosophy, doesn't it?
BD: Is there any cleansing at all?
JV: I don't think so. Do you think that the experience of Germany which took that Wagnerian philosophy and applied it to a nation, to the greatest extent that it was possible for one nation under one man to do, had a cleansing effect on the world? Do you think mankind has learned one thing from it? Do you think in history as of this moment that mankind has progressed one iota from that? I don't.
This is wonderfully provocative. Of course, to an extent this is at odds with Fr. Owen Lee's Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art, in which he is able to separate the man and his work. I think Lee sees great spirituality in some of Wagner's work, especially Parsifal and Meistersinger. That's the way I see Wagner as well; I find Parsifal in particular to be quite spiritually moving, and when you consider how Nietzsche abhorred it, you can understand both sides of the argument. And yet I see Vickers' argument quite powerful as well, and I think it corresponds with the way I feel about other of Wagner's work, even ones with the sublime music. Because there has to be more to music than feelings, is the way I read Vickers.
In fact, Vickers puts his finger on what's wrong with so much of our culture today; we don't think, we feel. Certainly great music must make one feel, but there has to be the humanity, the intellectual component as well, or else it is just entertainment. Bread and circuses, as the Romans might put it.
So I take a moment to thank Jon Vickers not only for his art, but for his humanity, and his intellect as well. If you get a chance, do read that interview - you'll be enlightened by it.