Thirty years ago, folks in the Iowa city of Centerville (pop. 6,558) knew Simon Estes as “the skinny black kid who sings.” Back then, he was a boy soprano, though he had already entered his teens. “He had a high, clear voice and true tone,” recalls Bob Beck, publisher of the Daily lowegian and Citizen, “but none of us would have predicted this.”
“This,” in Estes’ case, is a voice that has since descended multiple octaves to a rich bass-baritone and, at the same time, lifted him to international operatic stardom. Centerville’s most famous voice traveled far to win the silver medal at the 1966 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. He has since performed in the grandest opera houses of Europe, and last January made his acclaimed Metropolitan Opera debut in Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Yet no experience could match the emotion last month when Simon Estes, now 44, stood before a packed house of 1,000 hometowners in the Centerville High School auditorium and treated his rapt audience to a program of Handel, Schubert, Mahler, Copland, Barber and a half dozen spirituals.
“I’ve sung before presidents and kings and had a private audience with the Pope,” he had earlier told students at Lakeview Elementary School. “I’ve met Elizabeth Taylor, the Kennedys and Muhammad Ali. But there is nothing as moving to me as coming back home to sing, because you are responding to me personally.”
Estes’ roots go deep into America’s past. His grandfather had been a slave in Missouri before the Emancipation Proclamation and his father an impoverished coal miner turned porter and chauffeur. The Estes home was without running water, and the family’s only source of fuel in winter was the scrap coal that fell off trucks at the mines. But there was an upright piano in the living room on which Simon’s mother, Ruth, played hymns and encouraged her five youngsters to sing along. By age 8, Simon was a regular in the Second Baptist Church choir.
Theirs was an integrated neighborhood, but young Simon didn’t entirely escape the sting of discrimination. He recalls once being shooed from a local golf course because “colored people were not allowed.” Yet he also remembers his best buddies, Rich Woodin and Jim McAnelly, both white, insisting on sitting with him at the Majestic Theater and daring the manager to cause them grief over it.
“Don’t paint me as bitter,” Simon admonishes now. “Yes, I’ve seen injustice, but I’ve always tried to fight back with love—and facts. When people tell me there’s no prejudice in the opera world, I ask them, ‘How many blacks are singing leading roles today?’ They reel off the names of Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, Shirley Verrett and Martina Arroyo, and I say, ‘Yes, but how many men?’ They can’t think of one, and there are many greatly talented young, black, male opera singers.”
His own musical career almost foundered when his boyish voice changed. He spent eight years at the University of Iowa, first in pre-med, then in theology and social psychology, supporting himself with menial jobs. But he also became a soloist—and the first black—in the university’s Old Gold Singers. That brought him to the attention of voice teacher Charles Kellis, who tutored Estes without pay, then helped to send him on to Juilliard in New York. From there Estes went to Europe to begin his steady climb to operatic prominence. In 1980 he married a Swiss kindergarten teacher, Yvonne Baer, and they maintain homes in Zurich and Manhattan. The family is expected to grow by one, about next May.
Centerville Mayor Don Scott declared two Simon Estes Days, and no fewer than 19 events were scheduled. Preparing for the concert that was part of the program, Estes ministered to a troublesome sore throat before a recital that brought down the house. For the encore, Precious Lord, dedicated to his late father and to Martin Luther King Jr., Estes invited his 72-year-old mother, in from Des Moines, onstage to accompany him on the piano. “I’m going to whop him for doing that,” Mama said laughing, but her son was swallowed up by the crush of admirers. “No matter that I’ve sung in the greatest opera houses,” he could be heard saying, “there’s no feeling like this—anywhere.”