The Life Stories of Jon Vickers and Eileen Farrell

The last act in nearly every famous opera singer’s career is the authorized biography or the ghostwritten memoir, a much-maligned genre littered with embarrassments. Not long ago, I read more than a hundred such volumes in preparation for a book project of my own, and the experience was positively mind-frying. The first-person accounts are almost always shamelessly selective and self-serving, as the retired diva settles old scores, reinvents history, and polishes the carefully fashioned image she’d like posterity to remember. The official biographies are not much better – especially if their subjects are still alive – since these narratives are too often written by fawning fans with little on their minds other than idol worship.

Right now there seems to be a run on life-and-times books from the generation of important singers who flourished between 1950 and 1980, and as usual the rewards are meager. Along with several more useless biographies of Maria Callas – publishing them is an industry unto itself – we have recently heard from Montserrat Caballé, Franco Corelli, Régine Crespin, Nicolai Gedda, Christa Ludwig, Giulietta Simionato, Joan Sutherland, and Renata Tebaldi. Only Crespin and Ludwig, who wrote their own books largely unaided, come off in print as intelligent, thoughtful, forthcoming, and honest, as they did onstage. I applaud their literary efforts, and they are now joined by two other major artists who have also lucked out with their life stories: tenor Jon Vickers and soprano Eileen Farrell.

I’d even go so far as to say that Jon Vickers: A Hero’s Life, by Jeannie Williams (Northeastern University Press), ranks among the most impressive books I have ever read about an individual singer. Vickers did not cooperate with Williams and even discouraged people from speaking to her – no surprise, considering that tenor’s lifelong distrust of publicity and the press. On the other hand, her not having to worry about Vickers’s official approval has definitely been a liberating factor here. A staff columnist for USA Today and an astute, knowledgeable writer on opera, Williams has not only found plenty of key sources willing to talk but is also free to see her subject whole and make shrewd, fair observations about this paradoxical, often infuriatingly contradictory man. No judgments are passed – readers are given more than enough information pro and con to make up their own minds – but one indisputable fact emerges: Vickers was indeed a great singer who did it his way, and he had a talent big enough to make the crazy world of opera bend to his standards. He ran his world, as one fellow tenor remarks. He told people the rules by which he would play, and they followed them.

More importantly, between his official Covent Garden debut in Un Ballo in Maschera in 1957 and his final Metropolitan Opera performances as Saint-Saëns’s Samson in 1987, Vickers developed into one of the most strikingly original vocal personalities of his generation. His unusual background surely played a part in shaping that peculiarly urgent voice, a rugged childhood in western Canada that prepared him for a life as a farmer, preacher, or tradesman rather than an international opera star. How Vickers came to that calling and why he regarded his voice and the music he sang as sacred trusts is a fascinating tale. That fundamentalist upbringing also helps explain his positively biblical attitudes and explosive temper, character traits that led to violent disputes throughout his career. Williams recounts them all in detail: the stormy battles with conductors, directors, and impresarios; the infamous Tannhäuser controversy that left two opera houses in the lurch when Vickers pulled out after deciding that Wagner’s opera was blasphemous; his conflicted relationship with Canada; his virulent homophobia; the sudden rages that alienated so many colleagues. On the plus side is Vickers’s ferocious commitment and devotion to the important people in his private life, as well as to the artistic ideals he believed in so passionately.

We also read how all this emotional energy was channeled into the creative vitality of his singing to interpret, incomparably, a gallery of troubled heroes: Otello, Siegmund, Peter Grimes, Don José, Canio, Tristan, Parsifal, Florestan, Aeneas, the Samsons of Handel and Saint-Saëns. The astonishing stylistic range of Vickers’s roles immediately sets him apart from other tenors of his generation, but what really makes him special is the haunting plangency of his distinctive timbre and that edge of fear and excitement he brought to his work. If the man himself remains an intriguing enigma, that in no way lessens the achievement of this objectively written, painstakingly researched, immensely readable biography.

In Can’t Help Singing: The Life of Eileen Farrell (Northeastern University Press), the soprano tells her own life story with the aid of co-author Brian Kellow, executive editor of Opera News and definitely the right man for the job. Still feisty as she approaches 80, Farrell may not have left as deep a mark on the opera world as Vickers did, but she too was a maverick who had the career she wanted. The sheer quality of her voice and the varied uses she put it to made it all possible; it was probably an element of diffidence in her makeup that meant she was going to disappoint many along the way who thought her career decisions and approach to high art rather casual. Farrell came to opera late and left early, but she sang steadily for nearly 60 years and excelled every step of the way. Although her ample voice would surely have made her the leading Wagnerian soprano of her day, she preferred concert and radio work and, inspired by her idol Mabel Mercer, singing jazz. Most of all, though, she valued her role as wife and mother.

Farrell’s blunt-spoken manner may also have impeded her progress, although her reputation as the foulest mouth in the business appears to be exaggerated (she denies that she ever told conductor Thomas Schippers, “You leave the singing to me and I’ll leave the cocksucking to you”). Even at that, her racy language and disarming honesty about herself and the many famous musicians she worked with makes her book an entertaining read. And, as with Vickers, we are finally left to admire a unique voice and the one-of-a-kind musical personality that drove it, indispensable elements for any great singer.

The Life Stories of Jon Vickers and Eileen Farrell