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CEDAR RAPIDS — The grandson of a slave who sold for $500 and the son of a father who could neither read nor write, Centerville native Simon Estes, 84, hurdled every barrier in his path — with the grace his mother taught him — to become an international opera star and trailblazer for artists of color since the 1960s.
He had to begin his career in Europe because no American opera company would hire the young Black man with the soul-stirring bass-baritone voice. He has since sung for kings and queens, presidents, popes, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and the Nobel Prize Committee. He has performed in 84 of the world’s greatest opera houses, on stages around his home state and with 115 symphony orchestras.
In demand as a professor and guest instructor throughout his career, he continues to impart his wisdom and experience to the next generation of performers, currently teaching music and voice at Iowa State University in Ames, and serving as a guest lecturer at Des Moines Area Community College since 2016.
During his keynote speech launching The Gazette’s 2022 Iowa Ideas virtual conference this week, he shared the lessons from his youth that have buoyed him through a celebrated 60-year career that has taken him around world.
Among his many accolades are 13 honorary doctoral degrees, most recently from his alma mater, the Juilliard School in New York, on May 20. And in ceremonies Oct. 21 in Manhattan, Opera America will induct him into the inaugural Opera Fall of Fame.
Great acclaim also has allowed him to give back philanthropically, financing need-based music scholarships and raising money and awareness for humanitarian medical efforts from AIDS/HIV research to malaria prevention for African children — as well as establishing the Simon Estes Music High School in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1997, and the Simon Estes Educational Foundation.
At the urging of his wife to “slow down,” he returned to the Des Moines area about 10 years ago, after living in Europe for much of his career. In July, he retired from opera performances, appearing as Lawyer Frazier in Des Moines Metro Opera’s 50th anniversary season production of “Porgy and Bess.”
However, he told Iowa Ideas listeners that he may still do concerts and recitals, just not operatic roles.
His journey has been far from easy. Born into poverty in a town where Blacks could hold only menial jobs, the racism trickled down to the children. They were allowed to swim in the community pool only from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturdays. After they got out, the water was disinfected before the white kids got in.
Religion was his family’s anchor. Raised in church music with a mother he said could have been an opera singer, his parents championed education and instilled Christian principles in their five children. So after graduating from high school in 1956, Estes enrolled at the University of Iowa in 1957 to study medicine.
But music was his higher calling, and despite one professor telling him he had no talent, professor Charles Kellis recognized his gift, taught him, mentored him, helped him become the first Black member of the UI’s Old Gold Singers, and arranged an audition for him at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School.
“I was very naive, needless to say, having come from Centerville,” Estes said of that audition. “I didn't know the magnitude of Juilliard School of Music. And so when they called me back in, they said, ‘Well, we'd like to give you a scholarship to go to Juilliard.’ I said, ‘Oh, thank you.’ And they looked at each other, like, ‘This guy should be jumping up and down.’ But I didn't realize how important Juilliard was, I think. And then they said, ‘We will get you a Rockefeller grant from the Rockefeller family.’ I always tell people … I wondered if that was a family dealing in rocks.”
Only if those rocks were diamonds in the rough.
Estes attended the renowned school in New York City from 1963 to 1965, then embarked on building an operatic career in Europe, where race was less of a barrier.
It didn’t take long to make an impression. In 1965, he debuted as the chief priest Ramfis in “Aida” in Berlin, and he has gone on to perform 104 roles in German, Italian, French, Spanish, Russian and other languages, and sing with 115 orchestras.
“After a certain number of years, I was finally accepted here in the United States to sing in our opera houses,” he said. Among those was the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, where he originated the role of Porgy in “Porgy and Bess” in 1985, after making his debut there in Wagner’s “Tannhauser” in 1982.
He gives all the glory to God for his talent, aptitude for languages, and unparalleled experiences. And to his mother, Ruth, who got to see him perform at the Met and at the White House, invited by President Lyndon Johnson after Estes won the bronze medal in Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Competition in 1966.
His mother’s devotion to faith and humility has sustained him, especially in the face of discrimination. He continues to embrace and share her example, speaking with the essence of serenity, even when recounting the hard times and racism he’s faced.
From his youth to adulthood, whenever he encountered racism, his mother’s advice was always the same: “Son, get down on your knees and pray” for that person. She told him to stay strong, which he tells his students still today.
“First of all, we have to realize there's only one race, the human race,” he said. “ … But I think God made us different colors, people have different shapes of eyes — to test the character of us as human beings, and we love someone if they look different from the way we look.
“I always tell people and young kids and students of color, you just have to stay strong. I’m a Christian. I believe we should follow the example of Jesus, and he told us to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek.
“That doesn't mean that we accept discrimination and injustice, but that we have to be strong. … We can be sad, we can cry, but we have to never become bitter. Because if you become bitter, it's not good for your health, and it doesn't help solve the problem.
“I long for the day, but I don't think it'll happen in my lifetime, that we would have complete justice and equality. … But we have to keep going on and struggling and never give up, never become bitter. Pray, read the Bible and listen to what God tells us in the Bible — to follow Jesus' example.”
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