Friday, December 07, 2007

Holding the stage

Talk about a man out of his time. Just as Western high art was collapsing in the mid-twentieth century, one man stood against the stream in its defence. He was a Canadian opera singer, a heroic tenor, named Jon Vickers.

There's an interview by Bruce Duffie in which Vickers explains some of his views on art. It's worth reading in full, but the sections I enjoyed most are these:

BD: Do you think that opera should speak to everyone?

JV: Absolutely. I'm not sure that it can speak to everyone, but it should attempt always to speak to everyone. There is a great difference between entertaining the masses and seeking to make them turn their eyes symbolically to that idealistic, divine struggle that is the example of manhood and womanhood. You understand? That element within mankind which is divine. I think that once we lower our sights from that which is unattainable, that degree of perfection which is totally beyond our understanding, beyond our comprehension and beyond our grasp, then if we only shoot at the tree-tops we'll only hit the tops of the fence posts.

* * *

BD: Is the music the servant of man or is it the other way round - is man the servant of the music? ...

JV: We are all servants of Man if, in my thinking, we recognize the divinity with the word "Man." I think that we cannot judge Manhood by men. We must judge men by Manhood. And when we speak of Manhood, we talk of that spark of the divine in man. And if that spark isn't there, then in our definition of man we have lowered the whole standard of work.

* * *

BD: You say that we are losing this in the vocal decline of our age. Will it ever come back?

JV: I'm not sure that there is a vocal decline.

BD: An aesthetic decline?

JV: I think there is a decline in exactly what we are talking about. 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: Should we not observe monsters at all?

JV: Yes. But I don't think we should embrace their philosophies. Look at the philosophical lines. In France, Voltaire showed the revolution; and then came Napoleon, and Napoleon was a monster. He was a great genius, but he was a monster. The same thing happened in German thought - Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Wagner, Freud. The destruction of Christian principles, the lowering of man's sight from divinity to an acceptance of man's own majestic intellectual capacity that by himself he would pick himself up by his shoestraps and elevate himself to being divine. And, of course, what was the result? Hitler. And Stalin.

There have been some debates lately about the positive and negative effects of Christianity on Western civilisation. Vickers stands as an example of the more positive influence.

For example, when Vickers says that "I think that we cannot judge Manhood by men. We must judge men by Manhood" he is clearly rejecting the nominalist, anti-realist trend within modernist thought. He is asserting the reality of an entity "Manhood", external to our own wills, by which we might be judged and to which we might aspire.

Not only would modernist thought deny the reality of such entities, it would treat them as oppressive constructs which limit a man's freedom to self-determine according to his own will.

Vicker's Christianity allowed him to confidently assert a philosophical realism, which meant that he could positively look to and defend the ideals of his own civilisation.

A second interesting aspect of Vicker's Christianity is that it was not in the least productive of effeminacy. Vickers was a powerfully masculine presence on stage. For instance, Monteverdi's operas are often sung with high-pitched voices in the male roles (counter-tenors or mezzo sopranos). Although this does produce a beautiful sound, it doesn't heighten the dramatic interplay between the male and female characters.

So it's stunning to hear for the first time Vickers play the role of Nero in Monterverdi's Coronation of Poppea. This You Tube video isn't of great quality but it does convey Vicker's stage presence. I hope you enjoy it.


  1. I find Opera more and more relaxing as time goes by, and not too long ago it was nothing more than frustrating to listen to. Moreover, I've stopped listening to mainstream broadcast radio of late - all the stuff they play there is exactly the same... I think I'm undergoing a metamorphosis.

    I can trace this process to when I started reading The New Criterion. Readers of this blog may wish to visit it - it's the only journal (I buy them too) of literary and art criticism from a conservative standpoint.

  2. There is, nevertheless, a nagging circularity problem involved in "judging men by Manhood." My own sentiments on the matter are quite clear, but I've had to struggle with the chicken-and-egg nature of Manhood as a concept.

    We may judge men by Manhood, but where does our concept of Manhood come from, if not from men?

    The only answer I've ever found satistfying is in C. S. Lewis's The Abolition Of Man. Lewis pointed to the Tao, or the metaphysically given structure of all things, as the source. Though it might seem to verge on Platonism to embed an abstraction such as Manhood in the Tao, it still seems to be the right place for it. No other source would be consistent with its immutability, or its overpowering appeal.

    That last might require some qualification. Even when we were all brutes scratching fleas from our hides and whacking one another with antelope femurs, some of us had aspirations toward higher and finer things. Those aspirations directed and formed us, through natural selection, into what we progressively became, even though throughout most of the process unbounded unscrupulousess and viciousness would seem to have had far greater practical evolutionary weight.

    Of course, most evolutionists would dismiss this notion as wishfulness, but they have no alternative explanation for our moral and spiritual ascent.