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Jess Walters: In Memoriam
His deep, regal roar was heard round the world -- in New York City, in San Francisco, in Chicago, in London, in Amsterdam, and, of course, in our own fair city -- for almost 60 years. Now, the Lion of Austin Opera will sing no more. Jess Walters, celebrated singer, director, teacher, and the man who did more to further the operatic arts in Austin for longer than just about anyone else, died Sunday, October 8, at the age of 91. Originally from Brooklyn, where he was born Josuoh Wolk, Walters began studying voice when he was 25 and eight years later made a stunning operatic debut singing the title role in the New York Opera Company's production of Macbeth. In another six years, he was making his European debut in the debut season of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, singing Count des Grieux in a production of Massenet's Manon. He made that company his home for the next dozen years, during which time he took part in 684 performances and was, in the words of UT Opera Theatre director Robert DeSimone, "the leading baritone for years." Its significance to Walters' career and to the man personally may be gleaned in his return to London three years ago for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Royal Opera's first performance, during which he was honored. In the course of his extraordinary career, Walters sang some 55 major operatic roles, some of them with such titans of the operatic stage as Maria Callas, Jerome Hines, Roberta Peters, Joan Sutherland, and Richard Tucker. He performed with the Liege in Belgium, and the Chicago, San Francisco, and New York City Opera Companies, with the Royal Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony, and the London Philharmonic. In 1965, after five years in Amsterdam with the Netherlands Opera, Walters and his wife Emma returned to the United States and made Austin their permanent home. Jess continued to sing here, in productions of the UT Opera Theatre, the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Austin, Capitol City Playhouse, and Austin Lyric Opera. He also created and powered Capitol City Playhouse's chamber opera program in the Eighties, an inventive effort to bring opera to a larger audience in an intimate theatrical environment. (I credit that program with sparking my own interest in opera.) And he served on the committees and boards of various civic groups, doing what he could to help make Austin a city in which music and opera could flourish. Perhaps his finest achievement in that regard had to do with his work teaching voice at the University of Texas School of Music. He started in 1965 and didn't stop for 35 years, continuing to see students as late as this past Monday. In one of my last reviews of Walters, I called him "indomitable" and as I picture him, seven weeks before his 92nd birthday, Professor of Voice Emeritus and still working, still pushing, still striving to pass along his great knowledge of music, to nurture another generation of great musical artists, the word seems more apt than ever. He may have passed away, but he was never conquered, not while he had a breath in his body and surely not while he had a song in his heart. His legacy was well summed up by colleague Robert DeSimone, who said of Walters, "He inspired the love of the human voice in the community." Jess Walters is survived by Emma DeFina Walters, the woman who fell in love with Walters' voice when she was a voice student in New York and spent 57 years of marriage with him; and by his son Emeril, an actor, and his family, who live in Manchester, England. A memorial service will be held at a later date.