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Jon Vickers dies at 88; opera singer nicknamed 'God's tenor'

Canada-born opera singer Jon Vickers, nicknamed "God's tenor" for his inimitable voice and strong Christian beliefs, has died. He was 88.

The Royal Opera House opera, citing a statement from Vickers' family, said he died Friday in the Canadian province of Ontario after a struggle with Alzheimer's disease.

In interviews, Vickers said he never aspired to opera. He wanted to study medicine, but he didn't have the money for medical school. At 20, he was assistant manager of Woolworth's stores in Manitoba, singing in church choirs as business took him across the province.

After winning a scholarship in 1950 to Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music, he appeared in operas throughout Canada. In 1957, he debuted at the Royal Opera in London. A year later, he performed at Germany's Bayreuth festival, going on to become one of the world's leading performers of Richard Wagner, acclaimed for roles including Siegmund in "Die Walkuere."

From 1960, he was a regular at New York's Metropolitan Opera, where his signature roles included Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes."

Vickers stood out among dramatic tenors for the intensity of his performances and his richly powerful voice, described by critic John Ardoin as "holding a hundred colors and inflections."

"Art is a wrestling with the meaning of life," Vickers once said, and his religious faith informed his artistic choices.

Born in Prince Albert, Canada on Oct. 29, 1926, Jonathan Stewart Vickers was one of the world's top tenors for three decades, collecting devoted fans, numerous honorary degrees and two Grammy Awards.

After retiring in 1988, he was drawn back to the rural life he enjoyed as a youngster. His family's statement said he was "a man of the land who was the most at home on his farm, surrounded by nature and his family."

Despite his association with Wagner's works, he found the German composer — whose anti-Semitism made him a favorite of the Nazis — morally objectionable. In 1977, Vickers pulled out of a production of Wagner's "Tannhauser," saying he considered it anti-Christian. Some of his critics suggested that the work's upper range was too challenging for him.

But, while he was known as temperamental, few argued with his artistry.

"His compelling vocal mix of bitter and sweet, of strength and frailty, made his incarnations of tormented heroes, star-crossed lovers and lonely visionaries unforgettable," a critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail wrote in 1998. Luciano Pavarotti's manager, Herbert Breslin, once likened Vickers' voice to "an iron column that weeps tears."

His wife, Henrietta, died in 1991. He is survived by a sister, five children, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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