Simon Estes on Bayreuth, Porgy, & What His Mother Taught Him about Handling Racism

Apr 15, 2016

Simon Estes in the title role of Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman," the role in which he broke a color barrier at the Bayreuth Festival.
Credit Simon Estes Foundation

  In the 1970s, Simon Estes - the son of an Iowa coal miner and grandson of slaves - was triumphing in Europe's most legendary opera houses. He starred at La Scala, Covent Garden, Salzburg, Glyndebourne, and the  Bayreuth Festival (where he was the first male of African descent to sing lead roles).  But here in his home country, top opera companies ignored him, and the reason was obvious: race. That slight could have embittered almost anyone, but not Estes. What saw him through was guidance from his mother - advice she had first given him when he was a child in Centerville, Iowa. Here's a clip of Dr. Estes telling me about it when he came to IPR Classical's studio in March:

Dr. Estes came in to talk about a long-term project he calls "Roots & Wings," which will take him to all 99 of Iowa's counties. (This Sunday, April 17, he's performing in Cherokee, and on May 2nd in Osceola.)  In each one,  local high school choirs and musicians join him for a benefit concert to fund scholarships for Iowa students. It was, after all, an Iowa education that led to his stellar career.  Estes had gone to the University of Iowa to study pre-med, but as an extracurricular activity joined the Old Gold Singers (he was its first African-American member). The glee club's director, Charles Kellis, recognized his world-class gifts and encouraged him to pursue singing seriously. The rest is the stuff of pioneering history. In 1966, Estes became the first African-American man to win  a top medal at the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. He would eventually sing in 84 opera houses and with 115 orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, and London Symphony Orchestra, led by such conductors as Carlo Maria Giulini and Leonard Bernstein. He sang more roles than anyone but Placido Domingo, and counting his oratorio and song achievements makes his overall repertory unsurpassed.

When Estes was first establishing this career, he received offers to sing stereotypically "black" roles - and chose to turn them down. He wanted first to establish his bona fides in the standard repertory. He did that definitively - and then did explore African-American roles and repertory. In 1985, for example, he became the first Porgy in the history of the Metropolitan Opera. (He had sung "mainstream" roles at the Met from 1981.) Here he is telling me about Bayreuth and about the role of Porgy, which is, he says, as demanding as Wagner's Wotan:

Estes was the Met's first Porgy, and fortunately made a commercial recording of the role with Roberta Alexander and Leonard Slatkin - highly recommended!

 Dr. Estes went on to sing for presidents, kings, popes, and Nobel Laureates,  to become a distinguished teacher at Boston University, Iowa State, and Wartburg College in Waverly - and to gain equal renown for his humanitarian work. Below he talks about the Roots and Wings concept; if he hasn't reached your county yet, contact him here to set up a visit!