Editor’s note: This story was published in 2017. Some facts and figures have been updated in June 2020.
By Simon Estes as told to Christine Riccelli
Global opera superstar Simon Estes’ accomplishments and accolades are so numerous you’d be forgiven for losing track of them. He has sung with more than 80 opera companies on six continents; with more than 115 symphony orchestras and more than 90 of the world’s greatest conductors; and with other star artists as diverse as Luciano Pavarotti and Johnny Cash. He’s performed in five languages and in more than 100 roles and has sung for the heads of 23 countries, including six U.S. presidents, as well as European royalty, Hollywood A-listers and world leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Pope John Paul II. The Centerville, Iowa, native also has sung at major world events, including the 25th and 50th anniversaries of the United Nations.
As if all that weren’t enough, Estes has mentored, lectured and taught around the world and has been the recipient of honorary degrees from a variety of prestigious institutions. What’s more, his humanitarian and philanthropic efforts are nearly as wide-ranging as his professional ones. He’s established five foundations that focus on education, health and hunger concerns. His “Roots & Wings Tour” is taking him to all 99 Iowa counties; proceeds from the concerts fund scholarships for high school seniors in each county.
Estes lived in Europe for about four decades before returning to the United States in 2005, recently settling in Ankeny with his wife, Ovida. He has three adult daughters from a previous marriage. Now 82, Estes still performs about 20 dates a year—including a scheduled appearance at Carnegie Hall on June 29—and is a professor at Iowa State University and at Des Moines Area Community College. In a conversation condensed by dsm editor Christine Riccelli, Estes reflected on his journey from growing up “colored” in Centerville to becoming an international icon—and how his strong Christian faith made it possible.
Turn the Other Cheek
My grandfather was a slave who was sold for $500—in Virginia, we think. My father couldn’t really read or write; he came to Iowa to work in the coal mines in Centerville, which is where my mother was born and where my three older sisters and I were raised.
I would guess that when I was growing up, Centerville had around 200 colored people—that’s what we were called then—out of a population of over 8,000. Colored people all had menial, sometimes humiliating, jobs—there were no colored schoolteachers, no colored policemen, no colored professional people—but people did what they had to do to survive and support their families.
Colored people weren’t allowed to swim in the public pool, though eventually they let us swim Saturday mornings from 9 to 11, and then we had to get out of the pool and they’d put more disinfectant in the water. At movie theaters, we had to sit upstairs in a little corner where the projector room and the toilets were—it was smelly and noisy. Even in elementary school, us colored kids would raise our hands every year to be safety patrolmen, and not one of us was ever chosen.
Despite the discrimination, my parents taught us to never hate white people—or hate anyone, for that matter. If I came home and told my mother that a white boy called me “the N-word” or hit me, my mother would say, “Well, my son, you get down on your knees and you pray for that boy.” When you’re 7 or 8 years old and your mother says that, you think there’s something wrong with her. “Wait, Mother,” I’d say, “he hit me, he called me the N-word,” and she’d insist, “Get down on your knees and pray.”
I grew up in a very spiritual Christian home, and I’m grateful that my parents taught us to pray for those who mistreated us and to turn the other cheek like Jesus did. If my mother or father said anything at all about discrimination, it would be in the form of a question or statement like “I just don’t know why white people treat us colored people the way they do.”
When I was 11, my mother and I read the Bible through from cover to cover. She said, “Son, shall we read the Bible through again?” I said, “Well, yes.” So we would read three chapters a day and five on Sunday—if you do that, you can complete the whole Bible in a year.
If it had not been for my faith, if I had not studied the Bible to see what Jesus went through, I’m not sure how I would’ve turned out. I learned that it’s OK to forgive someone when they have hurt you. I try to follow those teachings to this day.
Develop Your Talents
Growing up, I sang at the Second Baptist Church—the First Baptist Church was the white church—but my talent was first recognized in elementary school. If you had a good voice, the music teacher would let you sit forward in the room. I got to sit in the front row, so I guess that meant I had a nice voice. Singing, to me, was like talking with someone; it’s just something that I did.
When I was in junior high, the high school choral director invited me to sing in the high school choir, which had never been done before. I remember I sang a solo, “On Top of Old Smoky,” and a white lady—her name was something like Mrs. Poffenberger—was in the music room, and when I finished singing, she was crying. I said, “Oh! I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to make you cry.” She said, “They’re not sad tears—they’re happy tears, because I like the way you sing.” But it still didn’t register to me that I had a special voice.
My voice changed very late. When I first joined the high school choir, I sang first soprano, and my voice didn’t change until I was 18, during my senior year of high school. The voice change made me think I could hardly sing, so I figured I’d never be a singer.
When I graduated from high school, I went to the local junior college for a year, and then I transferred to the University of Iowa. I wanted to sing in the chorus, but at first the choral director wouldn’t let me sing in it because I was colored. He didn’t say that outright, but that was the reason; he instead said my voice wasn’t good enough. So I said, “Can I take voice lessons with you?” He said, “No, I won’t waste my time on you.” But he did tell me that a young teacher, Mr. Charles Kellis, was joining the voice department and that maybe he’d take me on as a student. I said, “OK; I just want to sing.”
Mr. Kellis heard me sing and said, “You have a voice to sing opera.” I more or less said, “What’s opera?” He loaned me some recordings, and when I took them back to Mr. Kellis, I said, “You know, I really like that opera stuff.”
He gave me two years of free voice lessons because I didn’t have any money to pay him. When I was at the University of Iowa, I scrubbed floors, washed toilets, cleaned windows, slept on the floor without a carpet. I never complained; I just had to do it to work my way through college.
Had it not been for Charles Kellis, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you today. I told him, “If ever I have a career in singing, I’d like to pay you back.” He said, “Simon, I don’t want any money. I want you to remain humble the way your parents taught you.”
He taught me for two years and in 1963 told me I needed to go to a music school. He had graduated from Juilliard in 1950, so he arranged an audition for me there. Juilliard gave me a full-ride scholarship. Charles Kellis is still alive and living in New York City; he’s a wonderful friend and we’re still in contact.
When I talk to students today, I tell them that they all have a talent and that they need to try to discover what that talent is. Then if they’re disciplined, determined and dedicated, they’ll succeed in life.
Give Thanks For Your Blessings
On April 19, 1965, I made my debut as Ramfis in “Aida” at the Deutsche Opera House in West Berlin. And from that point on, I was an opera singer. In 1966, I was in Moscow and won third prize in the prestigious Tchaikovsky competition. After that, my career really took off.
Columbia Artist Management signed me and started getting me jobs, primarily in Europe. In 1978, I was the first black male artist to sing in Bayreuth, a city in Germany that’s essentially a shrine to Richard Wagner. I opened the season in a new production of “The Flying Dutchman.”
I was told I’d be booed off the stage because no black man had any right to sing on the Bayreuth opera house stage. Fortunately, there were no boos; it was a big success. I performed the title role six years in a row, and it became a signature role for me.
Back then in the United States, there was a lot of discrimination against black artists in opera, especially black men, but in Europe, people didn’t care as much about skin color as they did the voice. Even after I had sung at great opera houses in Paris, London, Rome, Vienna, Madrid, Zurich—so many—I still couldn’t sing in my own country.
So most of my adult life I’ve lived outside of the United States—in Switzerland for more than 30 years. It was a wonderful education to live in a different country. You start to appreciate their culture, language, architecture, behaviors and so on. I officially moved back to the United States about 12 years ago.
I’ve had such a rewarding and fulfilling life so far. Sometimes I think, “How did I do all of this?” I give all the praise and the glory to God because God is the one who gave me a talent to sing, and singing has enabled me to get an education from an international point of view and to succeed.
I have been blessed and honored to have sung for so many fascinating people and organizations all around the world. I especially feel tremendously blessed when I look back on my history of having a grandfather who was a slave and a father who couldn’t read.
Serve One Another
When I sang at the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, I heard a horrible statistic that a million children die of malaria each year in sub-Sahara Africa. When I heard that, I felt God called me to this mission to help save these children’s lives. Since 2013, our foundation has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars; the funds are sent to the United Nations Foundation, which buys mosquito nets to help prevent children from getting malaria.
I’m also embarking on a mission to combat hunger in Iowa. Recently I was traveling on Interstate 35, and there was a billboard that said, “One out of every five children in Iowa is hungry.” I thought, “That cannot be. This isn’t a third-world country. This is Iowa with all the corn and soybeans. How can we have children who are hungry?” But we do have children who are hungry. So I’m working on raising money to feed these children. No child should be hungry in this state.
I’m still traveling with the Roots & Wings Tour, which I started in 2010. I’ve sung in 55 of Iowa’s 99 counties so far, and my wife and I have awarded 200 scholarships worth more than $200,000 to seniors in each of the counties. The scholarships are for whatever students want to study, not just music.
I share with young people how important it is to get a good education.But I also talk to them about how to get along and the responsibility we all have to be kind to one another. I tell them, “If you’re better in math than this other person, go help them.”
I tell them that my philosophy is that we were put on Earth to serve one another, especially the underprivileged. Jesus came on Earth to serve. In the Bible, he said to feed the poor, help the sick, help the widow, help the orphan and help the prisoner. He didn’t say he came to preach to the rich or to the white. He just said human beings. We are all God’s children.
There’s only one race—a human race—and I personally believe God made us all different to test the quality of our character. Can we love someone else if they look different from the way we do?
I’m still doing about 20 performances a year. Once again, I thank God because most opera singers don’t sing much after age 50 or 60.
People keep asking me, “Why don’t you retire?” I tell them, “I never want to retire the way we define it.” The word “retirement” isn’t even in the Bible. God didn’t tell us that when you’re 62 or 65, you have to retire. Human beings decided that.
I feel that as long as I still have good health, I have the desire and the responsibility to continue working. I love to share what I’ve experienced and learned in the 52 years I’ve had a singing career, and I want to continue to serve.
I always hope that through my singing, people’s hearts will be touched to love God and to love one another.