Conductor / Producer / Translator  Walter  Ducloux

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


'The cultural climate of a country depends not on what you can purchase, but what you can produce." These words of Dr. Walter Ducloux (1913-1997) prophesied the future of regional opera companies throughout the United States into the twenty-first century. Centennial Professor Emeritus of Opera at The University of Texas, Ducloux was an international conductor, pianist, translator, writer, and educator whose career spanned over 50 years from Czechoslovakia to California. His zeal to bring the American public to opera knew no boundaries, be it in Opera News articles, Longhorn Band football half-time shows featuring the "Triumphal March" from Aïda, bus tours to the Dallas Opera's Der Ring des Niebelungen, or informal chats with colleagues in halls of the School of Music about commedia dell'arte or Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos.

A prodigiously gifted individual, whose expertise included philosophy, drama, and languages, Walter was born in Lucerne, Switzerland, in 1913. After his high school study, which included piano and music theory instruction, he began his university study in Munich where he studied both philosophy and German literature, while simultaneously studying composition and piano. After receiving his doctorate in 1935, he moved to Vienna where he attended conducting master classes with both Felix Weingartner and Josef Krips.

After graduating from the Munich Music Academy in 1937, Ducloux returned two years later to his hometown of Lucerne and began his first contract at the Stadttheater and his career as assistant to Bruno Walter at the Lucerne Music Festival, where he first met Arturo Toscanini. Ducloux prepared the chorus of the Verdi Requiem for the Festwochen, and quickly became a close associate to Toscanini because of his fluency in Italian. This encounter with Toscanini became a turning point in his life. Toscanini was beginning his career in America and encouraged Ducloux to follow him to New York in 1939, where Walter became an assistant conductor and opera coach. During the next three years, in addition to his conducting duties and teaching at the University of New Hampshire, Ducloux traveled extensively throughout the U.S. with the renowned Charles Wagner Opera Company. He even conducted The Barber of Seville in Gregory Gymnasium at The University of Texas in 1940.

In 1942 the young conductor was drafted into the U.S. Army, where once again his linguistic skills influenced the direction of his life. As a military intelligence officer, he was assigned to General George Patton as aide-de-camp and interpreter in the invasion of Germany. He earned a battlefield commission and Bronze Star for uncovering and thwarting an Axis plot to ambush an American armored battalion. He also worked during and after the war with the Voice of America.

ducloux After the war he resumed his conducting career in Czechoslovakia as guest conductor with the Czech Philharmonic in Prague, and as the first American conductor of the Czech National Opera. In 1947 he was named head (General Musikdirektor) of the Brünn opera, but the communist invasion quickly ended this phase of his career. In 1948, he assumed the post of conductor of the Ballet Russe in France where he conducted their last great tour through Western Europe. In 1949 he returned to America as guest conductor with both Toscanini's NBC Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and began a four-year assignment with the U.S. State Department as the director of music services.

In 1953 he moved to Los Angeles following in the footsteps of Carl Ebert at the University of Southern California as professor of opera and director of the USC Opera Theater. This 15-year period showcased over 25 operas including The Rake's Progress (Stravinsky), Liebe der Danae (Strauss), Peter Grimes (Britten), and Mathis der Maler (Hindemith). He also began his "third" career of translating over 25 operas into understandable and singable English. His comprehensive understanding of the slightest nuance and detail of Italian, French, Czech, and German gives his widely-used translations a marvelous depth of understanding. Over a 25-year period, he regularly appeared with the Texaco Metropolitan Opera Quiz (a panel of experts quizzed about opera trivia during the intermission of the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcast).

Walter and his wife, opera singer and voice teacher Gina (Rifino), arrived in Austin Texas in the fall of 1968. They brought opera with them. His marvelously witty and comprehensive pre-concert lectures and lecture series induced a love of opera in many who never before had attended an opera. These journeys to the Dallas, Santa Fe, San Francisco, and Houston operas planted the seed for the astoundingly successful Austin Lyric Opera (ALO), which he co-founded in 1986 with Joseph McClain. This "musical congregation" became the core of supporters for the development of the Austin Lyric Opera. He served as ALO's conductor and musical director until 1989. His farewell conducting appearance with the ALO was The Marriage of Figaro in 1994. His statement in 1957, that "opera will never impact American culture until we are producing opera to suit the mainstream environment, using ‘homegrown' American young singers," became the axiom for the unparalleled success of the young, "grassroots" Austin Lyric Opera. In addition to his contribution to the development of the School of Music and to the musical education of University of Texas students, he also envisioned and helped design the Performing Arts Center, which has become one of the foremost cultural centers in Texas.

He is survived by Gina, his wife of 53 years, three children, Claude, Phillip, and Denise, and four grandchildren. In addition to the Bronze Star, his numerous awards included five battle stars and a battlefield commission to lieutenant, as well as the Bronze Medal from the government of Italy for his work with Italian Opera in America, and Germany's Verdienstkreuz (Cross of Merit, first class) for accomplishment in German opera. At the University, Walter held an Ashbel Smith chair, the Frank Erwin Centennial chair in Opera, and received the E. W. Doty Award for Excellence. He and his wife also created the Walter and Gina Ducloux Fine Arts Fellowship Endowment at the University.

==  Biography from the University of Texas at Austin  

Having known of Walter Ducloux from his erudite appearances on the Opera Quiz, when he was in Chicago in mid-April of 1987 to judge opera auditions, I seized the opportunity to arrange an interview.  As usual, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.

Bruce Duffie:   Let’s start out with the easy question... what is the future of opera in America?

Walter Ducloux:   I think the future opera is very brilliant in America.  The reason is that we have an abundance of talent, and that’s the only thing that could prevent opera from really taking hold.  Opera has not yet taken hold of America.

BD:   Is all this talent being directed in the right way?
Ducloux:   Yes and no.  It’s simply that we are not yet an opera-minded country.  This has a number of reasons, but our musical education is primarily instrumental.  It was brought here by Theodore Thomas [who founded the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1891] and by his successor, Frederick Stock.  Those people were all wonderful musicians, builders, and so forth, but not opera people.  In many ways its like in painting.  We have a Masterwork addiction.  We do the greatest works in their original form, but we don’t have the original artists.  For instance, I have heard French-sung productions of Carmen which were absolutely awful, but the only persons who would know would be people who speak French.  This is not what Bizet had in mind, but the great institutions must nowadays be international, and their casts are mainly determined by record companies, or by vice-versa.  Record companies are even more important because, due to the total lack of foresight of a former head of the Musicians Union, Mr. James Petrillo.  He made it impossible for American conductors to win their spurs for American orchestras to record unless the same scale would be used that applies to easy entertainment music.  We could long have replaced orchestras such as the Bamberg or Würzburg, or any number of places in Europe.  We have not only equally good musicians, but better ones, which we would know if they would just have been permitted to record.  Now, gradually it’s getting a little better.  We’ll see what happens after the upcoming recession.  Talent cannot be forever kept out of the sun.  It will come out.  You can let them starve for a while, but sooner or later it doesn’t work.

BD:   You brought up an interesting word, and I want to get your idea of where the balance is in opera between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value.

Ducloux:   There is no difference.  It is both the same.  We are basically entertainers.

BD:   [With mock horror]  There is no artistic achievement involved at all???

Ducloux:   [Laughs]  Of course, but
artistic achievement has to be taken in quotation marks.  What is that?  What members of ASCAP, or the Composers League can tell you what is good music?  I heard last night, for the first time, an award-winning composition, and I’m sorry, but it didn’t tell me anything.

BD:   Leaving out whether a work has won a major prize, what should be the place of music in society?

Ducloux:   It’s very simple.  We still play music.  We don’t work music.  The role of music in our society ought to be the same as the role of sports
memory.  Absolutely that.  Basically, it is an amateur endeavor of which the top layer, if they are willing to sacrifice much of their lives to it, finally will make it big or not so big.  But basically, we still play music as we play tennis, as we play football, as we play everything.  I come back to what I said before, to our Masterwork condition.  Some people ask what good is it listening to singers unless you hear Pavarotti?  I have nothing against Pavarotti.  He is a wonderful singer, but we have a whole country that has been forced by hype to think that’s it, and they will accept nothing else.

BD:   How do we make the ship of opera come about to the right direction?

Ducloux:   For my part, we have just started an opera company in Austin, Texas, which is not an opera-minded city per se.  We opened with The Magic Flute, and it was a smash-hit.  It left us not only in the black, but beyond that.  Our second opera, which went on last month, was Romeo and Juliet.  Both of them, of course, were in English.  [Laughs]  I say of course!  We worked very carefully with American singers, and, as I said, it was an enormous success.  Some people asked me if it wouldn’t have been better to do Faust, and I said not in my opinion.  Some people who came for Romeo and Juliet would not have come for Faust, because it had been done in Dallas and in Houston very well, and with all the stars that we did not have.  But our audiences had not seen Romeo and Juliet for quite a while, and for some this might also be a good first-opera.  I’m a Swiss by birth, and I grew up in the small town of Lucerne, and I had a great advantage, namely that I remember my first opera was Rigoletto.  I didn’t know what an aria was, or a recitative, and anything like that.  I only saw and heard that story of the father with his daughter.  I identified the people on the stage with the characters they played, and that is a wonderful experience which everybody should have.  We were seven years old, and later one of my school mates told me, very knowingly, that in real life the girl who was killed is actually the wife of the one who kills her!  [Both laugh]  I refused to believe it.  Nobody could be that bad to someone on the stage if they loved each other in private life.

BD:   Now, you say we should not always have Masterpieces, and yet your first recollection is one of the great Masterpieces of the operatic canon.

Ducloux:   But I didn’t know it was a great Masterpiece.

BD:   Would it have made the same impact on you if they had done [Verdi’s] I Masnadieri?

Ducloux:   Very possibly, because I knew Schiller
s play Die Räuber, on which it is based.  I had no idea what Rigoletto was.  My mother told me the basic story about this court jester, and so forth, but that was all I knew.  Since then, I have seen opera all over the world, and sometimes repertoire that I never knew, and I loved it all.  For two years I was in Czechoslovakia, and I conducted there.  I started with The Bartered Bride.  As an American Officer, I was able to conduct the Prague National Opera.  A friend of mine, Martin Bernstein, a professor of music at New York University [who won a bronze star for his work in military intelligence] advised me.  We were buddies in the war and had a room together.  He said I should do The Bartered Bride.  They’ll be enchanted!  I said I can’t go there.  Why can’t I do Aïda, or Carmen, or La Bohème?  He said I should show them that I can do The Bartered Bride as well as they can!

BD:   And you did?

Ducloux:   And I did!  The second opera I did was Rusalka, and ever since it is one of my great loves.

BD:   I keep coming back to the question of expanding the repertoire.

Ducloux:   But we are doing that.  We are doing expansion.  I came to America in 1939, and if we could see the situation then and now, side by side, we would be amazed at what has happened in the meantime.  It is partly the universities, but partly the smaller communities which have a very nicely going opera.

BD:   So, we are really moving in the right direction?

Ducloux:   We are moving in the right direction.  Let us come back to that.  I was privy to what happened when Ezio Pinza was asked to do Boris Godunov.  He answered unequivocally that he would do it in Italian.  Why?  Because Pinza knew that as an Italian, he would be unbeatable.  Doing it in Russian, however, he would be beatable.  Another big singer from that era, Lawrence Tibbett, was all for opera in the language of the audience.  Nowadays, I want to work in an ambiance where everybody understands what it’s about, but since we need world stars, we cannot have them singing in English.  It would be completely foolish if we asked Domingo to sing Aïda in French in Paris.  He simply wouldn’t do it.

BD:   Now we’ve got this gimmick of the supertitles.  Is that making this discussion spurious?

Ducloux:   Of course.  This discussion comes up every day.  Even though I enjoy them myself with things I don’t know, they are a little bit like the titles in art films.  Houston has a very fine opera company, and I take my hat off to David Gockley any day.  I was with him in Houston many years ago, but now I see the audience looking up above at the titles, and not viewing the singer.  He is there, and wants to project, and wants to talk to you.  It would be a little bit like you’re sitting here, and you don’t look at me.  You
re looking elsewhere at what I’m saying!

BD:   Rather than glancing up and glancing down, they’re keeping their eyes focused on the titles?

Ducloux:   Right.  I seem to make a fetish out of it, but I don’t really.  To me, an Italian Aïda, or Rigoletto, or a French Carmen, are fine.  Those are my native tongues, but I have a hard time hearing even the Wagner operas, which I know so well, in German.  Lotte Lehmann, of all people produced Der Rosenkavalier in Santa Barbara in English.  She told me about it herself.  She said that she was not a Viennese, and was never satisfied with the way she projected that text as the Viennese Marschallin.  She knew she was perhaps the most famous Marschallin at that time, and Strauss loved it, but she wasn’t quite happy!  She said she heard Leonie Rysanek and Walter Berry, and they were the best because they talked in their native lingo, and it had that certain caché.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   I read in one of the biographies that you had worked with movie companies as an advisor on opera.

Ducloux:   Yes, in fact I conducted a number of things.  I conducted Interrupted Melody, the Marjorie Lawrence story.  It was Eileen Farrell who did the singing.  That was my first time.

BD:   Were you pleased with the way opera was presented in the film?
Ducloux:   Yes, I would say by and large.  It was presented as an entertainment.  There are many things I could take objection to, and say this and that and the other, or that it was not in a way in which we sometimes see it presented.  We tend to think of the artist
s feeling of exultation about what he is doing.  We are so precious about it, that we are the children of God!  We’re not!  We’re a rather set group of people who take themselves very seriously, and woe unto you if you spit in our soup!  You have no right to do that because we are kissed by the Lord.  This notion is ridiculous, and yet you see that today in the audiences for contemporary music.  I’ve seen that myself fifty years ago when I studied in Vienna.  Our lingo of music would be Schoenberg, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Zemlinsky, and Krenek.  Puccini and Verdi would be old-fashioned, as well as nice old things like Monteverdi.  [Both laugh]  But who is wrong?  We are wrong, not the audiences.  The audiences are right.  The audiences have a good natural bent, as Verdi said clearly.  The problem lies with the people who artificially promote for the sake of earning revenue, namely the publishers.

BD:   It has nothing to do with the producers and their up-to-date ideas of production?

Ducloux:   Yes, the producers also like to do new things, but there are wonderful things of olden days.  One of the greatest joys I ever had was not very long ago at the University of Texas when I did my first The Coronation of Poppea [Monteverdi].  It was superb.  I had heard it years ago when I was a student in Munich, and I thought it was so drab, so dry, so absolutely uninspired that I thought it was really dead.  Some of his madrigals may be nice, but not a whole opera.  Then later on you grow into this work.  I am worried because now we are all children of our time.  It
s clear that a man of my age, in my 70s, means my formative years are in the 1930s, and I have trouble as all of my contemporaries probably have, to get adjusted to things that were not brought to us early on.  I know it would be as impossible for me to do a Bohème the way it was done in 1896, because I was not alive at that time.

BD:   So, you must bring to it what you can?

Ducloux:   Right!  I still think, for instance, that the stagings I saw of Wagner in Munich, where I got my Ph.D., with sets by Emil Preetorius, and conducting of Hans Knappertsbusch were unforgettable experiences.  Maybe if I saw them today, they would strike me, perhaps, as being a little bit old-fashioned, especially regarding the lighting. 

BD:   But you have grown, and the production team has grown.  Even the whole world has grown over those fifty years.

Ducloux:   Right, but we have not necessarily grown in a decisive way.  My generation still has something to offer.  We have something to say.

BD:   When you talk about the things that were going on in your formative years, such as Wozzeck, and Lulu, and Jonny Spielt Auf [Krenek], why are you not the ideal person to interpret these works?

Ducloux:   [Smiles]  I did, for instance, Mathis der Maler [Hindemith], which is a great work, for the first time uncut at the University of Southern California.  I made a discovery there, which was that my students were so caught up in that piece that they pleaded with me to do it uncut because it was masterful.

BD:   There you are, back to Masterworks again.

Ducloux:   Yes, right, but it’s really about the artist’s role in times of great human stress, such as war, and so forth.  Should he fight?  Should he take up the cudgel?  Should he take up the gun, the sword, or should he just paint?  He actually fails as a soldier.  He’s a complete waste.  Then, in his vision of the temptations of St. Anthony, St. Paul tells him his function is to paint.  That’s what God gave him to do, and that’s what he should do.

BD:   You’ve produced this Masterpiece and other Masterpieces.  Do you also produce things that are of the second and perhaps the third strata?

Ducloux:   I must make an admission to you...  I am of the opinion that the twentieth century is fundamentally dominated by one Titan, and his name is Richard Strauss.  He’s not only a talent
that’s obviousbut I have done the first American productions of Friedenstag, and Die Liebe der Danae.  Now gradually, Santa Fe is starting to do these works.  They have just printed my translation of Friedenstag, and for next year’s offering in the middle of the season, that will be the first production since we did it at the University of Southern California [USC].  I have a feeling that Strauss is an Olympian.

BD:   So we are coming back to what we were talking about, the business of only wanting to do Masterpieces, and only wanting to hear world-class stars.  Is there any correlation then between the status of the work and the status of the performer?

Ducloux:   Yes, I would say that.  There are places my taste cannot go, even now where I am in Austin.  We simply cannot afford the top stars which Chicago and the Met and San Francisco and Los Angeles can afford.  My choice of artists must be guided also by my own gut feeling regarding what they can do.  Can they identify with those roles?  Usually, this is the great thing about young American artists, because they can!

BD:   They can identify with the great roles.  Can they also identify with the good roles in the secondary operas?  I’m talking again about expansion of repertoire.

Ducloux:   Yes, [laughs] but I’m sorry I have to make a confession to you.  I do not consider The Rake’s Progress a Masterpiece.  It’s the piece of a master, but not a Masterpiece.

BD:   Should it be done?

Ducloux:   Yes, certainly!  I’ve done it!  I had great satisfaction in doing it, but not the same feeling I had when we did Die Liebe der Danae.

BD:   Considering these values, how do you decide which works you will produce and which works you will not produce?

Ducloux:   Partly because of the potential of the production, I enter into it very soberly.  Can we afford a cast?  At the university, it’s quite different.  There, I ask if we have singers, and do we have an orchestra that can play that?  In a professional situation, that is also important because you pay for every rehearsal.  My first opera in Texas was Der Rosenkavalier with a student orchestra.

BD:   They were able to cope with it?

Ducloux:   They coped with it!  It was foolish, and I was crazy to do that...

BD:   But it worked?

Ducloux:   But it worked!  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’re here in Chicago judging some auditions.  What do you look for when you’re listening to young voices?

Ducloux:   Nothing in particular.  I could not specify, but for one thing, it is not only a voice.  I have an easy way to determine it.  How many blocks would I walk to hear that person in the opera house?

BD:   You know you’ve got a good performer when you will slog through the snow for a couple of miles?

Ducloux:   [Laughs[  When the whole person does something for me.

BD:   You’re optimistic about all of this?

Ducloux:   Certainly!  We are entering a new world, and it may be that we are now coming into a situation in which England was after World War Two.  Our great wealth and our ability to buy everything that we want is jeopardized right now.  The dollar is falling more and more, and I can see where we can no longer afford to have the world’s greatest singers.  You can in Chicago or at the Met, but would they sing in Tulsa, or Phoenix, or places like that?

BD:   Should they?

Ducloux:   Why not?  From their standpoint, they want the best just as you want the best.  Ultimately we come to a point where we produce the best, and we are on the threshold of that.  We don’t know that, but Germany knows it.

BD:   Sure.  Many of the best young American singers are over in Germany.

Ducloux:   Right.  When I’m over there, I’m asked where those people come from, and I tell them they all come from universities all over the US.  This is happening poco a poco [little by little].  The whole process is changing to where we are producing the talents, and the talents will ultimately do a new work.  You get half a million dollars, so you gnash your teeth and you do a new work.

BD:   I trust you are saying that we still should do new works, should we not?

Ducloux:   Yes, we should, but a good work is not always the outcome.  That was made clear to me when I saw Nixon in China [John Adams].  It was a little bit like the blind leading the lame!  It needs a director of the quality of George Abbott, or Joshua Logan.  Where are those younger people coming who are working in opera?  Logan told Rudolf Bing [General Manager of the Met 1950-72] that he could only direct things in English because it’s the only language he speaks fluently.  But Logan is big enough to say such a thing.  He can do anything he wants.

BD:   How do we decide before a work is produced, whether it’s good or not?

Ducloux:   Ultimately, everybody must be his own judge!

BD:   [Noting that Ducloux had to go to another appointment]  Thank you for spending the time with me today.

Ducloux:   I
m sorry I must leave.  It was good to speak with you.


© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on April 15, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1990 and 1993.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.