Simon Estes: a musical mountain of a man

For four decades, the opera star's concern for people has matched his considerable vocal achievements.

Classical Music

March 31, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

There is something imposing about Simon Estes -- the man, the voice, the resume.

Tall and handsome, with an easy smile and penetrating eyes, the Iowa native cannot help but dominate any room. He speaks with a resonant sonority that recalls James Earl Jones and sings with a richness and authority that puts him in a class alongside the finest bass-baritones of the past 40 years.

Estes, who will give a recital and master class in Baltimore shortly, won the silver medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1966, and steadily added just about every major opera house in the world to his credits.

In 1978, the singer became the first black man in a major role at the Bayreuth Festival, the sacred shrine to Wagner in Germany. His orchestral engagements have been no less stellar, including the U.S. premiere of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 14 with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

At 64, the bass-baritone doesn't seem the least bit interested in slowing down, let alone bowing out. He just added the 101st role to his repertoire -- Henry VIII in Saint-Saens' little-known opera of that name, singing opposite near-legendary soprano Montserrat Caballe in Barcelona, Spain.

Estes exudes not just confidence, but contentment. It's his nature.

"He is one of the nicest persons you'll ever meet," says Willie Anthony Waters, general and artistic director of the Connecticut Opera. "Even when he disagrees with you, it's with a smile on his face. He's just not a negative person. Negativity doesn't enter into his bones."

That may explain why Estes has no complaints about the backstage world of opera, with its notorious politics and male and female cases of prima donna-itis.

"I have been blessed -- or lucky," says Estes, sitting in an elegant meeting room at Johns Hopkins University's Shriver Hall, where he will sing on Saturday in a recital co-sponsored by the university's Office of Special Events and the Peggy and Yale Gordon Trust.

"I have not had any problems with intrigues. I've seen it happen with others. But I believe in peaceful solutions. I don't argue with a stage director in front of the company; I'll meet with him afterward and talk about it."

When his person-to-person skills are added to his musical ones, Estes seems even more talented.

"I first met him in 1976 or '77," says Waters, "and he was helpful right from the start. He was always available for advice. He has been that way his whole career, always willing to help others, especially young singers -- he set up several foundations to aid students."

Back in the mid-1990s, Waters conducted the first production in South Africa of Porgy and Bess, which starred Estes, and also led a Wagnerian concert in Cape Town that featured the singer.

Waters recalls that Estes arrived late to a rehearsal for that concert because he was distributing 100 instruments that he had gotten someone in Iowa to donate to underprivileged students at a school in Cape Town. It's now called the Simon Estes Music High School.

"He is genuinely a mensch," Waters says.

Advocate for black singers

Estes is also, unavoidably, a role model. Famed contralto Marian Anderson may have broken the color barrier at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, but black opera singers -- especially men -- continue to hit roadblocks.

When Estes made his debut at Bayreuth, it was considered a milestone as impressive as Anderson's. But it took another four years before the Met offered him an important role, even though opera companies in San Francisco, Chicago and other major cities had engaged him many years earlier.

And when the Met chose a white bass-baritone to sing Wotan in its 1980s televised production of Wagner's Ring, after Estes had already distinguished himself in that role with the company, it seemed that things hadn't changed very much.

"That was when Simon spoke out against the Met's treatment of black male singers," says Waters, one of a handful of African-American conductors and currently one of only two African-American general directors of a major opera company in this country.

"And right after Simon went public, it seemed as if a backlash started against him. You heard rumors in New York about how he wasn't singing well anymore. But he was singing just fine in Berlin, Munich and Vienna. The rumors were absolutely not true."

Estes has long had a ready response when he gets questioned about the racial issue in opera.

"Look at the statistics," he says. "How many African-American stage directors and conductors are appearing at leading opera houses? How many African-American men are singing leading roles?

Racism in the opera world

"I've never known one gender that can sing and another that can't, but some opera companies seem to think that when it comes to black singers."

For Estes, the grandson of a slave and son of a hotel porter, the issue is simple: "People need to be judged by their character and abilities," he says. "They should not be denied a chance because of a superficial epidermal appearance.

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