Vickers (Jonathan Stewart) was born into a large family, the sixth of eight children. Since his father was a lay preacher he often sang at services before securing a scholarship in 1950 to study at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, where he worked with George Lambert on technique and Herman Geiger-Torel on interpretation. Having made his debut with the Canadian Opera Company in 1954 as the Duke / Rigoletto, Vickers sang with this company until 1956 while also appearing during the same years at the Stratford Festival in Ontario as Don José / Carmen and as the Male Chorus / The Rape of Lucretia.
In 1957 Vickers joined the Covent Garden Opera Company at the Royal Opera House in London. He first appeared as Riccardo / Un ballo in maschera and went on to enjoy a long association (until 1985) with this company and its successor, the Royal Opera Company. His roles included the title parts in Don Carlo, Otello, Peter Grimes and Handel’s Samson; Énée / Les Troyens, Radamès / Aida, Florestan / Fidelio, Canio / Pagliacci and Tristan / Tristan und Isolde.
At the Bayreuth Festival Vickers made his debut in 1958 as Siegmund / Die Walküre, also singing the title role in Parsifal in 1964. At the Vienna State Opera he first appeared in 1959 and with La Scala, Milan in 1960 (as Florestan); in the same year he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, as Canio. Here, in addition to many of the roles already mentioned, Vickers sang Erik / Der fliegende Holländer, Herman / The Queen of Spades, Samson / Samson et Dalila, Don Alvaro / La forza del destino, Lača / Jenůfa and Vašek / The Bartered Bride; his final appearance at the Met took place in 1987. Elsewhere in the USA Vickers sang regularly between 1959 and 1970 with the San Francisco Opera and also with the Dallas Opera. Here he appeared as Giasone / Medea opposite Maria Callas in 1958 (repeated at Covent Garden in 1959) and in the title role of Andrea Chénier in 1973. With the Boston Opera he sang the title role in Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini for the work’s American premiere in 1975.
Vickers was much admired by Herbert von Karajan, for whom he sang Don José (1966–1967) and Otello (1970–1972) at the Salzburg Festival and Siegmund and Tristan at the Salzburg Easter Festival. Two of his finest performances took place at the Orange Festival in 1974 when he sang Pollione / Norma opposite Montserrat Caballé and Herod / Salome with Rudolf Kempe conducting.
During the late 1970s Vickers was scheduled to sing the title role in Tannhäuser at both Covent Garden and the Met, but withdrew. He retired in 1988. In addition to his operatic career he was an exciting oratorio singer and frequently sang in recital.
On stage Vickers was remarkably compelling, often investing his performances with a pronounced sense of inner conflict or at other times of transcendent insight. His voice was extraordinarily vigorous, although its range, especially at the top, was limited.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).