Sunday, January 07, 2001

Bass-baritone broke many barriers

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        He has sung for five American presidents and many world leaders. He has performed 100 opera roles on every major stage, sung at the opening ceremonies of the Munich Olympic Games and recorded for 10 classical music labels.

        But back in 1961, Simon Estes' future looked bleak.

  What: Verdi, Requiem Mass. Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Jesus Lopez-Cobos, conductor; Alessandra Marc, soprano; Florence Quivar, mezzo-soprano; John Villars, tenor; Simon Estes, bass; May Festival Chorus, Robert Porco, director.
  When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
  Where: Music Hall.
  Tickets: $13-$52; $10 students. 381-3300.
  Lift Every Voice: Simon Estes is the keynote speaker for a choral workshop with the Exalted Gospel Choir, Reginald Butler, music director, and the May Festival Youth Chorus, James Bagwell, director, 5 p.m. Saturday in Music Hall. Tickets ($18) must be reserved by Monday. Includes dinner/CSO ticket.
        His father, the son of a former slave, died in a hospital of a ruptured appendix, in what seemed to be a preventable death. The family lost their Centerville, Iowa, home. Simon, a struggling student at the University of Iowa, was swindled out of his $600 inheritance.

        “Prayer, faith and the wonderful teaching I received from my mother and father gave me the foundation to cope with many things in life that are sometimes not pleasant,” says Mr. Estes, who divides time between homes in New Jersey and Switzerland.

        Today, Mr. Estes says in his deep bass-baritone, “I am blessed.”

        Mr. Estes will perform with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Friday and Saturday. He is the keynote speaker for a choral workshop Saturday in Music Hall.

Pain of prejudice


        He was enjoying breakfast at home in New Jersey with Tiffany, 12, the youngest of his three daughters, while going through mail after a long absence. The glory, the glamour, the famous friends and acquaintances — which include Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and retired Gen. Colin Powell — all seem far from the small Iowa town where he was born 62 years ago, where he was the only African-American in his high school class.

        He has broken many barriers. Known for Wagnerian roles such as Wotan (the Ring) and the Dutchman (The Flying Dutchman), he was the first African-American to sing at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, in 1978.

        In 1982, he became the first African-American man to open the season at the Metropolitan Opera, singing Landgraf in Wagner's Tannhauser. When he sang the title role in Verdi's Nabucco in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1995, he was the first black man to perform on that stage.

        Among his favorite roles are King Philip in Verdi's Don Carlo and the title roles inVerdi's Macbeth and Simon Boccanegra and Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. In 1975-76, he sang in Tannhauser and Porgy and Bess at the Cincinnati May Festival.

        But the pain of prejudice of repeatedly being denied opera roles because of his color, is never far from his thoughts. Mr. Estes made his name in Europe because he could get little work in his own country.

Have to be "better'


        When he talks to young people, he talks about determination and courage.

        “If you are a member of a minority group, generally speaking, you have to be "better,' ” he says. “I tell them, don't give up. If a person has the basic talent and the ability and they've educated themselves, they can overcome these obstacles.”

        That is the message of his autobiography, Simon Estes: In His Own Voice (LMP, A Landauer Co.; $29.95). As as child, he learned he could not eat ice cream in a whites-only cafe or sit downstairs in a movie theater. Money was a constant problem. “So was food — or lack of it,” he notes in the book, without self-pity.

        But positive experiences outweighed the negative. Two educators took an interest in the skinny young man with the beautiful voice. They helped him see that he could not only succeed — but excel.

Supportive teacher


        The superintendent of schools, E.W. Fannon, encouraged him to work hard. “He'd say, Simon, you're going to be somebody someday. Just keep your nose to the grindstone,' ” Mr. Estes recalls.

        Later, at the University of Iowa, voice teacher Charles Kellis recognized his talent and loaned him opera recordings: Enrico Caruso, Leontyne Price, Eileen Farrell and Cesare Siepi. He couldn't believe his ears.

        “If it had not been for Charles Kellis, I would not be an opera singer today,” Mr. Estes says. “I would have had no exposure to classical music or opera.”

        Because Mr. Estes could not afford voice lessons, Mr. Kellis — who remains his teacher and friend — taught him at no cost. In 1963, Mr. Estes won a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York.

        In 1965, he made his professional debut as the High Priest in Verdi's Aida at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. In 1966, he was a prize winner in the Tchaikovsky Competition.

Blacks under-represented


        Everything was falling into place. But in the United States, the doors remained closed.

        “They would tell me I was too short, too tall, too thin, too heavy, my voice was too big, too small — even too beautiful,” he says. One opera company told him he was qualified — but that sponsors would pull funds if a black man was given a leading role.

        African-Americans are still under-represented, he says, in opera houses, in orchestras and in administrative positions. Things will not improve, he believes, unless young people are given exposure — and opportunity.

        He is doing something about it. The Simon Estes Educational Foundation provides scholarships to promising college students. The Simon and Westella Estes Scholarship Fund (Westella was his sister, now deceased) awards two graduates of Centerville (Iowa) High School.

        The Simon Estes International Foundation for Children supports, among many causes, the Simon Estes High School in South Africa.

        In his free time, he is a teacher and mentor, returning the favor granted to him long ago.

        “When I was a child growing up, I had nothing but positive input from people who were close to me — my parents, my aunts, my uncles, even the minister of my church,” he says. “This positiveness helped me to develop self-confidence and courage.

        “My mother and father taught me to love and taught me faith — those have been the enduring ingredients that have sustained me.”


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