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WALTERS, JESS

WALTERS, JESS (1908–2000). Jess Walters, opera vocalist and professor, was born on November 18, 1908, in Brooklyn, New York. One of the world’s leading baritones, Walters influenced students and audiences alike.

Born Joshua Wolk to Latvian parents, Walters was the youngest of seven children. While growing up in New York City, Walters hoped to become an artist but was sent to the National Farm School when he was fifteen years old for three years. While at school, he began singing at school events. Walters returned to New York in 1931 at the height of the Great Depression and worked odd jobs such as a gas station attendant, delivery boy, and a leather shop employee. During this time, he sang with Rudy Vallee on Major Bowes Amateur Hour. By the late 1930s, Walters was singing at hotels, supper clubs, churches, and on the radio. It was around this time that he changed his name to Jess Walters.

Walters began studying voice at the age of twenty-five under the guidance of acclaimed piano accompanist, composer, and vocal coach Frank La Forge. He also studied under Mario Pagano, Luigi Guifrida, and Hulda and Luigi Rossini. During his career as a vocalist, Walters was noted for his performances in fifty-five major operatic roles and was an acclaimed member of a number of companies.

His operatic debut took place in 1941 with the New York Opera Company. For his debut, Walters sang the title role in Macbeth and was paid $75 for his performance. He married Emma DeFina in 1943; they had one son. Walters made his European debut in 1947 with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, as Comte des Grieux in Manon. During his tenure there he sang the title role in the British premiere of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. In 1953 he sang opposite Maria Callas in Aida. Walters remained with the company for twelve years and sang in more than fifty performances each season.

From 1960 to 1965 Walters performed with the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam. He also sang with the Liege in Belgium and the Chicago Lyric Opera and San Francisco Opera companies. Walters sang with major orchestras as well, including the Royal Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, and London Philharmonic. In 1997 he returned to London where he was honored in a celebration for the fiftieth anniversary of the Royal Opera’s first performance. During his career he had shared the stage with Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Jon Vickers, Richard Tucker, and many others.

Walters arrived in Texas in 1965 and began his thirty-five-year-career as a professor of voice at the University of Texas in Austin. Walters made many contributions to the Austin music scene. He performed in front of audiences for years in productions of the UT Opera Theatre, Austin Gilbert and Sullivan Society, Capitol City Playhouse, and later in the Austin Lyric Opera. Walters was a featured soloist at many local and community fundraising events well into his eighties and continued to present voice recitals at the University of Texas. He and his wife were honored with a musical tribute by the Austin Gilbert and Sullivan Society in 1998. He taught up to a few days before his death.

Walters died in Austin on October 8, 2000. He was survived by his wife Emma, son Arnold Emil, daughter-in-law Margaret, and granddaughter Gemma.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

"In Memoriam: Jess Walters," University of Texas at Austin Faculty Council (http://www.utexas.edu/faculty/council/2001-2002/memorials/Walters/walters.html), accessed December 1, 2011. The Telegraph (London), October 19, 2009.

Jennifer Cobb

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Handbook of Texas Online, Jennifer Cobb, "Walters, Jess," accessed October 20, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fwabt.

Uploaded on March 17, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.