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Music Makers: Baritone Simon Estes

June 7, 2000

BASKING RIDGE, N.J. (AP) _ Simon Estes sits in a garden chair in his glassed-in porch, bathing in the afternoon sun. He is talking about the joys _ and tortures _ of his career.

His high cheekbones soon spread into an easy smile. It’s been a good day for the world-class opera star: He has just finished vacuuming his white-on-white living room, spotless from rug to piano to contemporary sofa.

Estes earns a six-figure income from much-lauded performances at the Metropolitan Opera, the Vienna State Opera and other top houses, and he clearly can afford to hire a housekeeper. But the celebrated baritone has his own definition of success _ and of how to live.

``The more I sing, the more, in quotes, ‘success’ I have _whatever that may be _ the more humble and grateful I’d like to become, instead of feeling that everybody has to cater to me and I have to have the presidential suite and a limousine that’s 40 feet long,″ Estes says.

To him, success means ``being at peace with yourself.″

And so, the 62-year-old singer, a bachelor again after a painful divorce, does his own laundry, cooking and cleaning.

Leaving his wife and three daughters, ages 12, 14 and 16, ``was the most difficult thing in my life,″ he says. And after the separation, he would fly around the world touring, ``and I was in hotel rooms crying like a baby.″

Now, though, he’s back on track.

Estes has carved a niche for himself as one of the finest performers of Verdi and Wagner, singing with superstars like Placido Domingo and Leontyne Price. His new autobiography, ``Simon Estes/ In My Own Voice,″ is filled with photos of Estes in the company of world leaders _ Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, former President Bush.

The book begins with his boyhood, growing up in a segregated society in Iowa.

``When I was a kid, we couldn’t go into the swimming pool with white people,″ Estes recalls. ``They’d disinfect the pool, and then they’d let the white kids come in. You know, those ‘black germs’ were in the water.″

While he was in junior high school, in his hometown of Centerville, Iowa, the high school choir director asked him to sing with the older kids. ``I could hit high C along with the sopranos, but the girls didn’t want a boy singing soprano. I could also sing tenor,″ he writes.

His mother, who had an exceptional voice, sang in church and raised a musical family of five children _ three sisters and two brothers. His father first worked as a coal miner, developing asthma while putting in 14-hour days in the dark, damp shafts. Then he supported the family with a variety of jobs that included washing cars, carting hotel luggage and cleaning a movie theater.

In Iowa, blacks represented less than 1 percent of the population and were relegated to menial jobs. Life was a struggle, and the Estes home was warmed by a potbelly stove, with no running water or indoor plumbing until Simon was 14.

Estes worked his way through the University of Iowa, where his mentor was Charles Kellis, a music teacher who noticed the ``skinny, sweet, undernourished kid with a remarkable voice.″ He loaned him recordings by Price, Enrico Caruso and other stars, and gave him daily four- to five-hour lessons, at no cost.

With his splendid voice, Estes took his first airplane flight, from Iowa to New York and auditioned for the Juilliard School. He was accepted with a full scholarship.

But the same discrimination that tortured him in Iowa followed him to New York. He answered an ad for an apartment in The New York Times and when the landlady opened the door, she took one look at his skin and yelled, ``What are you doing here? Get away!″ She slammed the door in his face.

Estes soon became the only black male opera singer of great celebrity. Still, he says, ``The world did not let me forget that I have a darker skin color than you.″

For his 1965 debut at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, he was subjected to makeup that made him look ``white as a ghost.″ And in the 1970s, he says, ``I remember singing in one of those Southern cities, and the director of the opera house came up to me and said, ’Simon, I want to work with you, but I can’t because some of the people who are giving us money said if I engaged you, they’re going to take away the funds. And we need the money.‴

Things slowly changed. In Centerville, the local high school auditorium was named after Estes several years ago. ``That was a way of saying, ’Simon, we’re sorry.‴ He also has performed throughout Iowa, and he is the first black person to receive the state’s highest honor _ the Iowan Award.

But his racially charged journey has left its mark.

When he teaches classes at Iowa State University, he speaks not only about music, but about human values, telling students: ``Don’t ever compromise your principles to try to get a job, or a position or relationship, or whatever.″

And despite his success, he’s still waging an age-old battle to bring more talented black male singers into classical music. There are plenty of black females singers, but only a handful of men.

``Find me a group of people where one gender can sing, and the other gender cannot sing!″ he says. ``It’s one of the last big hurdles that we still have to overcome.″

Estes tempers such frustrations by thinking of Mandela, for whom he has performed.

``Here was a man who was unjustly incarcerated for 27 years. He came out and not one time did he speak of revenge or hatred or bitterness,″ Estes says. ``In order not to have hatred when you have been so unjustly treated requires an inner strength that I personally think has to come from a higher source.″

Before each performance, he prays. ``I pray that the gift God has given me touches somebody’s heart out there,″ says Estes, relaxing one afternoon at his spacious, contemporary house in an upscale neighborhood of the New Jersey countryside.

Suddenly, Estes glances at his watch to make sure it’s not too late to call Switzerland, where his three daughters live with their mother.

The divorce he granted her more than a year ago, after almost two decades of marriage, was tough on his voice, too. And as he flew around singing to adoring audiences, ``I had lumps in my throat bigger than grapefruits _ before, during and after the singing.″

It was especially difficult to face the lead role in Wagner’s ``Flying Dutchman″ for which Estes is famed. At one point, his character says, ``Oh, I’m without a wife and I’m without a child.″

``I’ve always been a very strong person in my life. But this broke me, it really broke me,″ he says.

Eventually, Estes says, ``I thought, ’Well, I have to take this incredible pain and make myself stronger, and go on.‴

He survived through friends and prayer, and the shows went on. And now, his piano accompanist tells him, he’s singing at his best again.

``I’m almost cured,″ Estes says. ``And I think about trying to improve my life, to be a better person.″

He sponsors an educational foundation that gives scholarships to talented students. Two years ago, he founded Simon Estes High School near Cape Town, South Africa, with almost 200 students whose focus is music. Last year, 40 of them attended school in Iowa for the academic year.

Estes believes he has perhaps another decade of performing ahead of him.

In March, he appeared at Carnegie Hall in Ponchielli’s ``La Gioconda,″ to be followed later this season by a performance in Los Angeles of Verdi’s ``Aida″ with Domingo. He’ll also appear in Tokyo and has opera dates throughout Europe.

Estes says he’ll stop performing while he can still sing, so he’ll exit opera while still riding high. His final, dream concert in Washington, D.C., is already planned, except for the exact date. The program will include ``Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,″ as well as a rendition of the 27th Psalm, ``The Lord Is my light.″

And he’ll offer Gustav Mahler’s, ``Ich bin der Welt Abhanden Gekommen,″ which in English means ``I am lost to the world.″ It ends with the words: ``I live alone in my heaven, in my love and in my song.″


``Simon Estes/ In My Own Voice.″ Launderer, $29.95 (with CD).

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