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CEDAR RAPIDS — Celebrated bass-baritone and Centerville native Simon Estes, now 83, faced discrimination at the start of his career, when no American opera companies would hire him. So he went to Europe, and in 1965, he debuted with the Deutsche Opera Berlin as Ramfis in “Aida.”
That production launched a barrier-breaking, global career that would see him perform 102 roles in 84 opera houses, and sing with 115 orchestras under the baton of 90 conductors, including Leonard Bernstein and Eugene Ormandy.
This grandson of a slave who sold for $500 has sung for several U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama, royalty, and South African president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
And despite his deep gratitude for Juneteenth being declared a federal holiday, recognizing the end of slavery in America, “It is the end of slavery in terms of certain types of restrictions and violence, but we still don't have complete equality,” he told about 60 people gathered Sunday afternoon for the Cedar Rapids Opera’s panel discussion at the African American Museum of Iowa.
“ … Progress has been made, but we still have a long ways to go,” he said.
The third event in the opera company’s Juneteenth celebration — following outdoor concerts Friday in Iowa City and Saturday in Waterloo — was designed to look at the opera industry through the lens of people of color, said Daniel Kleinknecht, Cedar Rapids Opera’s founder and artistic director.
Titled “Does the Color of My Skin Really Matter?” the answer was a resounding “yes” — skin color still matters in opera and in everyday life, agreed all three panelists.
Joining Estes for the two-hour discussion were soprano Whitney Morrison, 31, of Chicago, and baritone Sidney Outlaw, 39, of New York, who sang with power, polish and passion in the concerts. Moderator was Myron McReynolds, director of education for Orchestra Iowa and former head of the award-winning band program at Iowa City’s City High School. (Estes did not perform in the concerts, but on Friday night, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Cedar Rapids Opera, greeted with cheers and a standing ovation from the audience at the Riverside Festival Stage in Iowa City’s Lower City Park.)
All three singers have wondered about the real reason they haven’t received some roles, like Estes hearing “you’re too tall, too thin, too heavy, but they would never say I was too Black.” Or Outlaw being asked to sing roles inappropriate to his voice and vocal maturity. ”Covert and overt“ examples, Morrison noted.
And all agreed that education and representation are keys for exposing children of color to the world of classical music and opera, to foster an interest at an early age and let them know what’s possible. That’s where smaller companies like Cedar Rapids Opera can play a pivotal role in their communities, Outlaw said.
The road was hard for Estes, who not only had to fight discrimination at home, but endured much smaller paychecks than white performers — and more scrutiny.
Early in his career, Estes, dressed in his tux for a performance in the South, was in his hotel’s elevator when a white woman stepped onboard and accused him of stealing jewelry from another guest. He was the only Black man staying there. He said, “Ma’am, do I look like a thief?” Regardless, his room was searched but to no avail.
And just two years ago, he was in a line of traffic in Ohio, between vehicles with white drivers, all going the same speed, when Estes was pulled over. by police Trembling, he begged the officer not to shoot him as he reached for his license in his back pocket. He asked why he was stopped when the others weren’t. But instead of a plausible explanation, he received a $165 speeding ticket.
Whenever he’s experienced discrimination in his personal or professional life, he said his mother’s advice to pray for that person rings in his ears.
“Some of the same things have happened to me,” said baritone Outlaw, 39.
Shortly after moving to New York, he was stopped for turning right on a red light, which he didn’t know wasn’t allowed in Manhattan. The officer didn’t believe that he and his friend were Juilliard students, grilling them about where Juilliard was, even though it was right behind them and Outlaw was wearing a Juilliard hoodie.
In 2007, his debut at Avery Fisher Hall in New York was tainted when police stopped and frisked him as he was about to enter the stage door. He was dressed in a tux and his face was on banners at the theater, but he said if the person staffing the stage door hadn’t intervened, he would have been detained.
Now a professor and active performer, he advises his students to handle all such incidents “with grace and elegance.“
Morrison also spoke of the need for grace. Skin color doesn’t matter intrinsically, she said, but it does matter in a racialized society.
“But I think we only talk about one side of the coin. It's not just my skin that matters, it's everybody's skin,” she said. “ … (Racism) is not a Black problem, it’s a people problem. If the color of my skin matters, and in many situations it does, the color of everybody’s skin matters. And I think if we could be more aware of how we are granted things — or not — because of that, I think that awareness can help bring a little more mercy and grace to situations that have those discriminations in them.”
Even after his father died from an undiagnosed ruptured appendix, dismissed by a doctor who said he was an old Black man who was going to die anyway, Estes’ mother told him not to hate that doctor, but to pray for him.
“I don’t have hatred in my heart, because I was taught to love my enemies,” he said. “But I will just tell you this: I'm so tired of these things that happened this last year with George Floyd. I looked at my wife and said, ‘I’m tired, just tired.’ But, we have to go on. You can never give up in life, and hatred and bitterness are not the answers. The only way we can get people to change, we've got to change our hearts and drive hatred out of our hearts with love, because it's a much stronger force.”
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