From becoming the first black member of the University of Iowa’s Old Gold Singers to stepping into the opera spotlight in West Berlin on April 19, 1965, internationally renowned bass-baritone Simon Estes, 81, has spent his adult life breaking through the color barriers of his youth.
Growing up in Centerville, black children could only swim in the city pool from 9 to 11 a.m. on Saturdays, and when they got out, disinfectant was poured in.
This grandson of a slave who sold for $500 and son of an illiterate coal miner has sung for kings, queens, two popes at the Vatican, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Prize committee, soccer‘s World Cup in South Africa and for six U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama.
On Thursday, Estes will be in Cedar Rapids to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award during the African American Museum of Iowa’s History Makers Gala at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center. Four other Iowans will be honored as History Makers: Lorinda Ampey of Marion, Marie Christian of Davenport, Raynard Kington of Grinnell and Bridget Saffold of Waterloo. (See more about them on page 2C.)
Estes sang at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids in July 2000 to help raise funds for the museum’s new building, which opened in 2003 at 55 12th Ave. SE, and is honored to be recognized by the museum for his achievements. The recipient of numerous local, regional and international awards, he never loses sight of their significance.
“I always feel honored and humbled and grateful,” he said by phone Tuesday from Des Moines Area Community College, one of the schools where he teaches. “I feel that my contribution will help motivate not only people who are African-American, but those who are not, that we’ll all learn to love one another. I always tell students this: I believe God made us different colors, different shapes of our eyes, to test the quality of our character — can we love someone if they look different from the way we look.”
His story is one of perseverance in the face of adversity.
His artistry has graced 84 major opera houses around the world, but the biggest houses in the United States were closed to him during the 1960s and ’70s. It would be 1982 before he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Three years later, he sang the lead role of Porgy when the Met staged its first production of “Porgy and Bess.”
He didn’t realize he was a trailblazer at the time.
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“It’s been a welcome responsibility, but a big responsibility,” he said. “It’s made me be more determined, dedicated and disciplined — and stronger. I had to have courage to endure. I had a lot of discrimination when I started singing, because a lot of the opera houses, especially in the United States, wouldn’t let me sing, because of my skin color.
“I started singing in West Berlin two years after the wall went up. I have often thought, those Germans, at that time, hated everybody that wasn’t white, blue-eyed and German, but they gave me an opportunity to sing. And then I realized I was singing all over Europe — and the opera houses in this country wouldn’t let me sing,” he said.
“I remember I called my mother one time from New York. I was really sad — I was even in tears. I said, ‘You know Mother, I’ve sung in London, in Rome, Vienna and Zurich, Berlin and Hamburg and Munich and Barcelona, Spain, Madrid, Spain, but they won’t let me sing in some of the opera houses in my own country,’”
“And she said, ‘Well now Son, you get down on your knees and you pray.’ And now I’ve sung in all the opera houses in the United States.”
A woman of great faith, that’s the kind of advice she gave her son throughout his life. It’s what he strives to impart to his three daughters and three grandsons, and all of his students, whether from high school assemblies and master classes around the world to his voice students at Iowa State University and Des Moines Area Community College.
He maintains an active schedule of teaching and performing — even though his wife encouraged him to move back to Iowa from Switzerland a dozen years ago, in hopes he might slow down. He hasn’t.
Now living in the Des Moines area, this past July, he traveled to China to sing, lecture and visit the site of the Juilliard School’s new conservatory in Beijing. A former Juilliard student and professor at the venerable New York institution, he has been invited to return to China in May 2020, when the new building is finished. While he was there this summer, former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, now the U.S. ambassador to China, also invited him to sing for a July Fourth celebration.
He’s also more than halfway through his Roots & Wings Tour, in which he plans to sing in all 99 Iowa counties, to raise scholarship funds for high school seniors.
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“People say, ‘Why don’t you retire?’ I say, ‘Well, there’s no place in the Bible that says we have to retire.’ As long as I have good health, I just want to share what I’ve experienced having sung all around the world.”
Education was the key to walking through doors that had been closed to his parents and grandparents.
His mother attended high school, but his father, born in 1891, was taken out of school in third grade. He eventually moved to Centerville to work in the coal mines.
“My parents knew the value of education and faith,” Estes said. “My father really could not read or write, but he said, ‘Son, you must get an education. That is something that nobody can take away from you. My mother was educated. She finished 11th grade, which was a lot for a colored person, as we were called in those days, to even achieve that. My mother was extraordinarily intelligent and was a great mother — a great Christian mother.”
She read the Bible all the way through with him when he was 11, and he continues to study the Scriptures every day.
His parents lived the courage of their convictions.
“They taught us to never hate white people. They said, ‘We don’t appreciate what they do to us, but we must not hate them. We must pray for them.’ My mother and father never spoke negatively about white people,” he said. “They spoke objectively when we were aware of discrimination.”
He’s grateful for the lessons and faith he’s been able to pass on to his children. And while he’s careful not to push his faith onto his students, he does stress the importance of living a good life and singing from their soul.
“I stress to them so very much: I say, ‘Make sure you’re not singing academically or intellectually, which you have to do, but make sure you sing from your heart and your soul.’ And I stress to them the importance of diction, because regardless of the language you’re singing in ... you want to make sure people understand the words. And I tell them to sing musically, sing expressively, use those consonants.
“I don’t go into a lot of the anatomical, physiological aspects of singing, because singing is the only music that’s coming directly from a part of a human being’s body,” he said. “What we have a tendency to do many times in academic and intellectual atmospheres is to only stress vocal technique, which is vitally important, but it’s not everything. If you sing from your heart, that’s what (audiences) feel.”
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He said while many opera singers quit performing between 55 and 65, he attributes his talent and career longevity to blessings from above. When a colleague’s wife called him “a miracle,” to still be singing at his age, he replied, “Tell (her) it’s just the Lord singing, because Simon Estes should not be singing.”
And yet, he is.
If You Go
• What: African American Museum of Iowa’s History Makers Gala
• When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday (10/3)
• Where: The Hotel at Kirkwood Center, 7725 Kirkwood Blvd. SW, Cedar Rapids
• Tickets: Sold out
• Information: Blackiowa.org/event/2019-history-makers-gala/
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