Marc A. Scorca: Hello, Mr. Estes. It is such an honor to be in front of the camera with you. And I am a born and brought up New Yorker and I attended many of your performances at The Metropolitan Opera and I'm just so honored to be able to speak to you today.
Simon Estes: Well, I'm honored to speak with you also. And you grew up in New York, so you know everything about New York and The Met and opera.
Marc A. Scorca: My record at The Met when I was an intern there during my college years was 41 performances in 44 days. I learned the repertoire there and it was wonderful that some of those performances were with you.
Simon Estes: Well, I feel very blessed. You probably heard me tell Vincent - a lot of people don't know - I've sung 102 roles. Someone told me just recently: the only singer who's sung more roles than I have is Placido Domingo. And someone said he has sung 107.
Marc A. Scorca: I don't know what his number is. I only know that every time I wake up, there's yet another role he's doing. It's just remarkable how he goes on and on. But our 50th anniversary at OPERA America was in 2020 and you can imagine that our 50th anniversary celebration was somewhat stunted. And part of what we're doing with our 50th anniversary is to establish here, at the National Opera Center, a Hall of Fame, and we're so delighted that you are in our first group of inductees; long delayed induction because of COVID. And we also wanted to create an oral history project where I speak to at least 50 people who have been real pillars in many ways as singers, directors, conductors, designers, as patrons of opera, and really shaped opera over the last half century. So it's in the context of our looking backward at our 50th anniversary that we just wanted to connect with some real titans in the field. If you've seen my interviews with other artists, you know that I always start off with one question, which is: who brought you to your first opera?
Simon Estes: Well, I can tell you who that person was. It was Charles Kelos. He discovered me at the University of Iowa in 1961; he came there and worked with me for two years. But before he started working with me, he said, "Do you know you have a voice to sing opera?" And I said, and this is really true, I said, "What's opera?" Because I come from a small town: Centerville, Iowa. I had never seen an opera in my life; I'd never heard an opera in my life; I'd never heard a symphony orchestra, et cetera. And so he played some recordings for me of a bass named Cesare Siepi and Jerome Hines, Leontyne Price and Maria Callas. And then he played a symphonic piece of music for me: Rimsky-Korsakov, Sheherazade. And I heard this music, and after I heard it, I said, "I really like that stuff." I called it 'stuff', because I'd had no exposure to this type of music in the little town of Centerville. So Charles Kelos, who was my voice teacher, who discovered me at the University of Iowa back in 1961 - and I wouldn't be having the honor of speaking with you right now, had it not been for Charles Kelos. He's still alive in New York City; he's 93.
Marc A. Scorca: I saw in your bio 'The Old Gold Singers'.
Simon Estes: Right, that was a choral group representing the University of Iowa in off-campus appearances. And there were 22 singers, and you could not be a music major and be in The Old Gold Singers. And it was the most popular group. But I was the first person of color to sing in that group. I mean, I go back...my college days started in 1956. And so there was a lot of discrimination even in colleges and universities in those days. But that's exactly what happened to me when I met this man. And he just told me all about opera and I fell in love. I will never forget the first opera I went to. Mr. Kelos took me to the old Met, down on what, 34th street or something like that? I saw Rigoletto with Cesare Siepi as Sparafucile and then he took me to another one of Don Giovanni with Siepi. And I tell you, I fell in love with that music. And I'm so grateful that my teacher took me to my first performance and the first performance I saw was at The Metropolitan Opera, the old Met.
Marc A. Scorca: How spectacular and was that your first trip to New York from Iowa: to go see an opera?
Simon Estes: The first trip was when Mr. Kelos arranged an audition for me at Juilliard School of Music. I was at the University of Iowa and I changed my major a number of times, and I didn't have monies to come; sometimes I only went half a year and then get back and study again. But...
Marc A. Scorca: Your first trip to New York?
Simon Estes: So he told me, he said, "Simon, you need to go to all-musical school" (because I never studied music). And so he arranged an audition for me for Juilliard with Peter Mennin. (I don't know if you remember that name). (He was) the president and Gideon Waldrop was the dean. And so: - I must tell you something; this is really true. I was so naive and having come from a little town in Iowa and I didn't have enough sense to be nervous, when I went out to New York. I was excited - just as excited about seeing the tall skyscrapers as I was for auditioning for Juilliard...so he arranged it. I went, and I sang my four pieces. And when I finished singing, they said, "Would you just wait outside in the hallway." That was in the old Juilliard up at 124th Street. They called me back in, in about 10 minutes...and this is a true story: They said, "Well, we decided: we'd like to give you a full scholarship to come to Juilliard." And I was so naive. I didn't realize the magnitude or the importance of Juilliard. And so I said, "Oh well, thanks." And they looked at me like I was kind of weird. You know, this is Juilliard School of Music. And you say, "Oh well, thanks?" And Mr. Kelos had told them I didn't have any money. And they said, "And we'll get you a Rockefeller grant," and I remember it was Martha Baird, Rockefeller Foundation, and Howard Klein. And, you know, I didn't realize the Rockefeller family was the Rockefeller (family). I didn't know anything about them. I thought it was a family dealing in rocks, and that's the honest truth. And I later found out. So my whole beginning on my journey was rather unusual. Juilliard gives me this scholarship and I was there two years and still there, and then I had a chance to go to Germany and audition for an agent in December, 1964. I flew to Duesseldorf and auditioned for Friedrich Posch, who was one of the big agents in Germany at that time. He heard my voice. (I actually went over to see my girlfriend, but I couldn't tell people that I'd won money to go see my girlfriend. And I had no money as a student to go there.) I had a scholarship at Juilliard, but I worked; I was washing dishes in the kitchen and served food out on the line. And so I went to begin NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) way back in '61. And I walked in - naive again - and said, "Oh, my name is Simon Estes and I have a chance to sing for an agent in opera in Germany." And the receptionist looked at me like I was some kind of a nut. She said, "Well, we don't have money for something like that," she said. "Well, it's a wonderful opportunity." And she said, "Well, okay, I'll let you talk to someone." And I don't remember the person with whom I spoke. When I went in, I told them the same thing. They said, "We just don't have funds for people to fly off to Europe." I said, "Well, I'm a student at Juilliard." They said, "You're what?" I said, "I'm a student at the Juilliard School of Music," and that was back in 1961. Not many colored people were at Juilliard. Their whole idea changed. This is all within an hour's time. And they said, "We're very touched with the way you presented yourself. We don't have funds for that, but I'm going to go out in the office and we're going to take up a collection for you to help you." They collected $287 in the office. And then they told me to go to the New York Community Trust Fund. And the NAACP sent you there. And Howard Wilkins was the president of the NAACP in those days. And I went there and they gave me enough money to fly over to Germany. And I was still a student at Juilliard. So I flew over there - cause I told my girlfriend - I said, "I can't go ask for money unless I can tell the truth." I said, "I have to tell the truth." And so I told them, I had this audition and I sang the 27th - I think it was of December for this agent. He heard me, and then he said, "Can you stay over to the first of the year?" I want to send you to Berlin to the Deutsche Oper for an audition". And I was just like, "Okay, I'll stay." I stayed. I went there. Sang for the opera house at the Deutsche Oper. In those days, Richard Cassilly was there. (He sang Radames). But anyhow, I sang the audition. They said, "We'd like you to come April 19th and sing the King in Aida." And I said, again, "Okay." I go back to Juilliard...
Marc A. Scorca: But you're only 23, 24 at this time.
Simon Estes: I was. When I went out to Juilliard, I was 23. And then I went to Juilliard for two years. I made my debut on April 19th, 1965. So I went back. They told me to sing the King in Aida. So I went back (to New York) and went to Dean Waldrop, and I told him about this. I figured they'd be all excited that a student at Juilliard, going to the Deutsche Oper in West Berlin and singing the King in Aida and Gideon Waldrop said, "Simon, I'm sorry, you can't go." He said, "If you don't finish Juilliard, you will never have a career." My heart just sank. So I went to Christopher West, who was the head of the opera theater within Juilliard back in those days. And he was British and I told him the story. And he said, "Simon, you can't do it; you gotta stay and finish Juilliard or you'll just never have a career." I promise you, I didn't know what to do. I don't remember if I prayed about it or what, but something said "Go east young man, go east," (instead of 'go west young man'). And Mr. Kelos came to New York at that time also. He taught me the King. I arrived in Berlin and they told me I had to sing Ramfis, which is the biggest bass role. And I had already learned the King and it was in German with Richard Cassilly. Gloria Davy did Aida et cetera. And so I called Mr. Kelos from Berlin. He said...(he always called me Simone) - he said, "Simone, I don't understand, but you can do it." I want you to know something. I didn't realize God had given me another talent, and that was to memorize. I memorized Ramfis in Aida in about six to seven days. I'd never been on a stage before in my life with an orchestra or a conductor. I didn't meet Gloria Davy or Richard Cassilly until during the performance. They rehearsed me in a big rehearsal room. None of my artists, colleagues were there. Giuseppe Patane was the conductor. After the performance, he came back to my dressing room and he said, "Nobody told me you'd never sung opera before, and that you were an 'anfinger' (beginner).” He said, "But you did okay." I had never seen a conductor from an orchestra pit. I'd never sung with an orchestra. And I did. He said, "And you didn't make any mistakes." And I learned it in six to seven days and I realized at that point, not only had God given me a talent to sing, he gave me a talent to memorize. I memorized Ramfis in German in those few days.
Marc A. Scorca: That's just extraordinary. And what amazes me about that is, as you say, you had never been on an opera stage, had never sung over a pit, over an orchestra, looking at a conductor far away. And you did it for the first time at Deutsche Oper, Berlin. (Picking up after a poor connection). What an incredible way to make a debut.
Simon Estes: Well, you know, I'm very touched that - you know how unusual it is - because, you're right. I'd never seen a conductor from an orchestra pit, and I'd never sung with an orchestra. And I wasn't nervous. And I don't say that because I was overly confident or cocky. I was simply naive. You don't know the little humble beginnings I come from, from Centerville, Iowa. So I just knew I had to sing it. And I didn't know I could memorize that. I never did that before in my life. And the coach I worked with at the Deutsche Oper: his name was Hilsdorf. And he taught me Ramfis, and he was shocked himself. And so Mr. Kelos told me to call him after the performance. He said, "Simone, how did it go?" I said, "Well, I think it went okay, because the director of the opera house wants me to come see him on Monday." And I said, "Mr. Kelos, all of the singers were singing and vocalizing or something before they sang." He said, "Didn't you vocalize?" I said, "You didn't tell me I had to vocalize before I had to sing." And he said, "I'll talk to you when you get back to New York." I just walked out on the stage - this is the honest truth - and I just sang. And then they offered me more contracts. And in 1966, the state department - to this day I don't know how they knew who I was - they contacted me and wanted me to represent the United States in the first vocal Tchaikovsky Competition. I fly over there; I'd never studied Russian. They said they were going to send me money to study Russian, which they never did. But I flew next to a German actress from East Berlin to Moscow. And she asked me in German because I spoke a little German then..."Why are you going to Moscow?" I said "The Tchaikovsky Competition." She's oh, wow, wow... She was a Russian of course. And I said, "I have this song in Cyrillic and Russian." I said, "Could you teach me a famous song by Tchaikovsky?” She taught me phonetically 'Ni slova, o drug moy' on the airplane from East Berlin to Moscow. And I arrived and Irena Zorina was my accompanist in 1966. And I arrived. She said in broken English, "What's in your Russian, round two?" I said, "Well, this 'Ni slova, o drug moy'"... "Russian, not bad but we make better; we make better." So after the first round - because the state department...they sent me the music, but no money to study. And so I was advanced to the second round and you had to sing four pieces. And one, I sang Gremin's aria, and then I did 'Ni slova, o drug moy' and all these other songs and in Gremin's aria - I'm sure you've heard Eugene Onegin in your lifetime...This aria lasts about six minutes. I did it in two minutes. It's like A B A section. I left out the whole (middle section). I had learned it and all these other Russian songs in two days. And I walked out on the stage, but I just had a mental blank. George London was also on the jury. He talked to me later when we got back. But so when I left out most of the song and the poor accompanist was turning her pages trying to find out: where is he, where is he? I just finished it. And the people in that Tchaikovsky Hall: they all went "ahhhh"; they gasped when I miss Gremin's aria...it's like Old Man River in America. And all the rest of the songs went well. The other three things in Russian and I sang something else, I think Philip's aria from Don Carlo. I was sure I was going to be on the next plane to go back home. They advanced me to the third round and I got the bronze medal. And George London told me, back here in the States, he said, "Simon, you would have gotten the first place, if you hadn't messed up that aria. You know why we advanced you? Not only cause of your talent - because you didn't fall apart. He said they really were moved that you didn't just collapse on the stage. And that's why they advanced you and you ended up getting the bronze medal.”
Marc A. Scorca: Let's pause there for a second, because there are several things I want to probe here. When you're talking about 1961 or the early 1960's, going to Europe. In 1961, Leontyne Price makes her Metropolitan Opera debut to incredible acclaim...
Simon Estes: I didn't realize that.
Marc A. Scorca: '61 is her Metropolitan Opera debut. And you are in Berlin, at the time of the Berlin Wall.
Simon Estes: It had just gone up in '63.
Marc A. Scorca:...and the whole blockade and JFK...So, this is an incredible moment: international tension. And there you are in Berlin and flying to Russia. Let's remember the Cuban missile crisis and you're going to Russia. And someone like the great Leontyne Price was taking a bit of a hammer to the wall of discrimination in the United States. This was a remarkable moment.
Simon Estes: Yes. Everything happened so fast. I'm a very spiritual person. That's almost as if this whole trip was predestined. I had nothing to do with it. Everything just fell in place because you know yourself, you usually don't sing your first opera at The Metropolitan Opera in the United States and sing a role and never had worked with Jimmy Levine or any of the other singers: Renata Scotto, Placido Domingo. To this day, I must honestly tell you, I don't know how I did it, except it was a gift that God gave me to memorize. I could memorize a whole opera, and I did it in four days. We're doing Khovanshchina out at Chicago Lyric Opera, and Nicolai Ghiaurov was singing Khovansky, and the Russian bass who was singing Dosifey was ill. Carol Fox called me on a Sunday. She knew I read Cyrillic. She said, "Simon, our bass" - because I was there singing Banquo in Macbeth - "Could you possibly learn Dosifey?" To make a long story short, that was a Sunday. By Thursday, I had it known. I learned it. And the Russian bass got well all of a sudden, so I didn't get a chance to sing it.
Marc A. Scorca: You mentioned some important names here. And I just want to probe a little bit. You mentioned Cesare Siepi, George London, Ghiaurov, Carol Fox... Of course, your incredible voice teacher who discovered you; and advanced you to Juilliard, and helped you: a key person in your personal list of saints. He's saint number one. Are there other people in those days who inspired you, who were role models in some fashion...from whom you absorbed wisdom, even if you didn't really know them or study with them? Were there some other people who really played a role?
Simon Estes: Yes, Sergius Kagen was one of the coaches and a voice teacher at Juilliard when I went there and he edited a lot of music. He was one of the main teachers at Juilliard. The reason I mention him...When Julliard accepted me, Mr. Kelos went to Juilliard and he said to Sergius Kagen, "Sergius, I want Simon to only study with you. Is that possible?" And he said, "Well, yes, of course." He said, "Don't touch his voice, but work with him on musicianship and diction and repertoire." I can still remember Sergius Kagen telling me when I was singing the Brahms Four Serious Songs (or Vier ernste Gesaenge): he said, "Mr. Estes, I want that you know...think that you're out in a field, and you're an old man, and you're just walking,” (sings 'Denn es gehet'). And just like that, he touched me about the importance of musicianship, because again, see, I had never studied music. And so he made an impact on me, but the persons that really motivated me were people like... I remember I went to The Met and I heard Jerome Hines sing and I also heard him sing before I came to Juilliard. When I was a student at the University of Iowa, he came to Iowa City and did a recital. And so did William Warfield. Now, Bill Warfield was the first black singer that I knew, that had a classical voice. He didn't sing often; they didn't let him, but he had this. And I remember seeing this black man on stage. I think I was the only black person even in the audience back in 1957 at the University of Iowa and I saw this wonderful man with this voice. I never heard a voice like that before. I'd heard black voices in churches, but not a classical sound. And then Michael Ries, who was with Columbia Artists Management... Ronald Wilford later on became president before him. It was just before Ronald Wilford took over, but Michael Ries was the vice president and Hattie Clark (Rosenbaum) worked with him. And Michael Ries really inspired me and he was the best manager. And then he got me in touch with managers: Emmie Tillet in London; Claude Stricker in Paris. All over Europe he arranged it and all those managers...but what was interesting (and I just thought of this last night), all of the managers (except for Michael Ries in the United States), were women - in London, in Paris, in Spain - Felicitas Keller. And she was Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos' manager and Claude Stricker in Paris, Emmie Tillett in London, Irene Iresto - her husband was a conductor in Milano, and I thought that was interesting because I tried to get with some of the male managers, but none of them would take me. And I just thought of this last night. I thought, isn't that interesting? Then a lady named [indecipherable] became my manager. Now, I don't know what significance that meant, except I know there were two men at [indecipherable] in Munich named Schtohl and Schultz. And the other one - I forgot his name - but they wouldn't take me. And I always felt that there was some sort of a racial thing there, that they wouldn't take me. And I remember I had been singing all over Europe at this time. And I called my mother in the early '70's, in tears. I said, "You know, mother I've sung in many opera houses in Europe. They still won't let me sing in America.” And my mother said, "What's that? Remember what I taught you when you were a little boy and you came home; if you came home and a white boy called you the N word or hit you, what did I tell you?" I said, "Get down on your knees and pray for that boy." She said, "Now you just get down on your knees and you just pray, son." And after that, I sang at The Met, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, DC: all the opera houses in America. And I attribute it to my faith and the inspiration that my parents gave me. My mother and father said you must never hate white people. You can hate what they do and what they say, but don't hate them as human beings. And my daddy who couldn't read or write: his father, (my grandfather) was a slave, sold for $500... I can show you the pictures and the documentation.
Marc A. Scorca: I read that in your biography. It's remarkable.
Simon Estes: And my father said to me - he couldn't read or write; this is true. He was born in 1891. He said, "Son, you must get an education. That's something they can't take away from you." And that's why I started realizing the importance of education was this foundation. And my mother had an incredible voice. If my mother hadn't been born in 1910 and there had not been discrimination, she would have been at The Met. My mother could sing a low D that I sing as a bass. She had this incredible voice; she'd never sung classical music though, but she had this incredible voice, and God gave me that voice through my mother. And to me.
Marc A. Scorca: Now, as American companies weren't hiring you, nonetheless Lyndon Johnson has you singing at the White House? And again, you were a young fellow. You'd gotten an award at the Tchaikovsky Competition and sang at the White House...
Simon Estes: When President Johnson contacted me and wanted me to come, he invited also my mother and my father. My father had since passed away, but my mother had never been on an airplane before in her life. A colored lady, born in 1910, getting an official invitation to the White House because her son was singing for the president. And she was nervous. She said, "I don't know, I wouldn't know what silverware to use." I said, "Mother, just be yourself." I have to tell you this story. I'm sorry, I'm taking a lot of your time. Victor Borge. My mother was sitting at the table at the White House with Victor Borge and all these rich white people. They were all white, of course. And they were talking about their oil in Texas and Oklahoma. And my mother said, "Well, I have oil on my land." They said, "But you said you were from Des Moines, Iowa." She said, "Yes, I am." "But you have oil on your land." She said, "Yes, my car leaks oil all the time out in the front yard!" And I'll bet you that Victor Borge used that story: this colored lady in Iowa who had oil on her land by a leaking car, at the White House.
Marc A. Scorca: I don't know if she was innocent or if she was being very, very smart and making that comment about oil on her land.
Simon Estes: My mother only had 11th grade education, but she was very intelligent and she read all the time. She had a great sense of humor, very strict, but I think it was something that was just spontaneous. She liked to joke. And I think...couldn't you see Martina Arroyo saying something like that. Leontyne wouldn't've told the story like that. But Martina would...
Marc A. Scorca: You're right. Martina and her incredible sense of humor. When she talks about Tosca and one production where she said, "Look, I'm from Harlem: when Tosca kills Scarpa, she leaves the room. She doesn't stick around..." Bayreuth: how did Bayreuth come about and what was that like?
Simon Estes: Okay. I had never sung The Flying Dutchman until September 1977. I was in Zuerich. Claus Helmut Drese was the intendant at the Zuerich opera house in the late '70's. This was 1977. He offered me a job and I'm a bass baritone. He said, "You know, I want you to come to Zuerich and sing a new production opening the season in '77 in Macbeth." Well, I thought he meant Banquo. I said, "Well, yes." He said, "No, I want you to do Macbeth." I said, "Oh, that's the title role?" He said, "Yes, but I think you can do it with your voice." I said, "But I can't do it." He said, "Why?" I said, "Because my friend..." Did you ever know a baritone named Norman Mittelmann? He sang a lot with Placido (Domingo). He was a Jewish baritone from Canada, but he made his whole career basically in Europe. He did sing at The Met. Norman Mittelmann. So Norman was a baritone. And so I said to Dr. Drese, the head of the opera house, "I can't do it because my friend, he sings that role. And I'm staying with him and his wife and his children. And I couldn't do that to my friend.” And he looked at me like I was crazy. He said, "But wait a minute. I'm offering you a new production, opening the season and the title role, and you're going to do that for a friend?" I said, "Yes. Friendship means a lot to me and I can't do that to Norman." He said, "Well, I don't have anything else to offer you so come back and see me next year." I go back the next year. He said, "I would like you to do Porgy. We've never done Porgy in its history at the opera house." I said, "I don't want to do my first performance as Porgy, because I'll get stereotyped." And he said, "You're rather clever." I said, "No, I'm being realistic." He said, "Well, what if I give you Porgy in February? And you open the season in the fall of '77 in the title role of The Flying Dutchman?" I thought he meant Daland. And he said, "No, the Dutchman." I said, "Well, okay." And so I did the Porgy, and in the fall I did the Dutchman. During the rehearsal time in August, in July, Wolfgang Wagner heard about this black guy studying The Flying Dutchman. He contacted me through my manager. He wanted me to come and audition. So, I drove to Bayreuth from Zuerich; sang the audition. He said, "I want you to open the season next year at Bayreuth; a new production; title role of the Hollaender." "Do you want me to do the Hollaender or the Daland?" He said, "Den Hollaender." And Harry Kupfer did the Inszenierung and he approved it too. And so I went to Bayreuth and I had obviously never been on that (stage). The only other black person who ever sang there was Grace Bumbry. And I was the first black man to sing there. And some of the press: they were going to boo that black man off the stage; he has no right to sing in Wagner's Festspielhaus; this is really true. But you know, it didn't make me angry. It didn't make me scared. I had the contract to do it. I just went there and I did. By that time, I had already sung it in Zuerich and the musical director at that time - I can't remember his name - he told Drese that he didn't want me to sing The Flying Dutchman because of my skin color. But Dr. Drese who was the intendant says "I want Simon to sing it." And I sang it, and it ended up being a success there. And it was a success in Bayreuth. And I think, again, naivety was beginning to subside. Now, go down a little bit, but I wasn't nervous when I went to Bayreuth, and I have to tell you something with a lot of humility. God really has been good to me. He gave me a talent to sing. He gave me a talent to love. He gave me a talent not to hate people. He gave me a talent to want to help. And when I sing - I don't know how to explain it to you - I have a certain sensation when I'm singing certain operatic repertoire that I can't describe, but I am so joyful and so happy. And every performance that I sing, I always pray before. And I always say, "God, I hope and pray that the talent of singing that you've given to me, that some person or persons in the audiences, their hearts will be touched to love one another." And that's the message that comes out through me when I sing: I love music. I love people. And I hope that music and the talent that God gave me will help us to love one another.
Marc A. Scorca: It's remarkable to listen to your wisdom and your patience and your dignity through all of this. And there must have been years though, when you were having this success in Europe, when you began to wonder, why weren't you singing in Chicago or The Met?
Simon Estes: You're right. I did. When I told you I called my mother: maybe I didn't finish it? I called my mother in the mid '70's just because I've been singing with them since '65. And I said, "Mother, I'm not singing at The Met." Carol Fox did engage me though to sing Banquo in Macbeth and Sarah Caldwell invited me to come to Chicago. Two women again, I always think that's interesting. Sarah Caldwell let me come there, and I sang Flying Dutchman later on with Sarah Caldwell. And I did the title role of Figaro; and I did Banquo in Macbeth and a Greek based (Kostas) Paskalis sang Macbeth. But Herbert Adler did also, he was the only male director of an opera house that invited me to sing in those early years. And, in fact, it was 1968. He invited me to come and sing in a summer season. They had some kind of a summer program for young artists or something. And I did the four villains in The Tales of Hofmann and Kurt Adler did that, but otherwise the other opera houses wouldn't... The director of the Atlanta Opera was singing with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The director of the opera heard me singing and he knew who I was. He called me over to the opera house in Atlanta. And he said, "Simon, I would really like to engage you to come here and sing, but if I engage you, some of my donors said they will not give us any money." And he said to me, and this was a white man. He said, "I want you here and I wish I could engage you, but we have to have the money in order to perform." He said, "I think it's wrong. And please forgive me." And you know what? I admire that man, because he told me the truth and other people would say... Georg Solti and Seiji Ozawa...I had a chance to sing the whole Ring Cycle in Bayreuth after I'd done Parsifal with Jimmy Levine (Amfortas)...And then the Hollaender. (Wolfgang) Wagner wanted me to do the whole Ring Cycle. And so I swallowed my pride. Solti said that I had to come audition. Can you imagine that I already sung The Flying Dutchman in Bayreuth? I had to swallow my pride and audition. And when I got through singing Solti, said, "Well, you have a beautiful voice, but how do you expect to sing Wotan in Bayreuth: you're black." I said, "But I have already sung there." He said, "But I'm Jewish; it's gonna to be a problem enough for me. And then I bring you, if I can get rid of the problem, why shouldn't I get rid of the problem?" I said, "Why do I have to be gotten rid of?" He said, "Well, I just can't do it." And so that did hurt me. I want to tell you that hurt me. And maybe I auditioned sometime late winter. And he had a house in Roccamore, which is right on the coast of the Mediterranean. And some friends of mine had a house and in fact, my ex deceased father-in-law: they had a house on the Mediterranean. Solti's was right next to his. So I went down during the summer. They told me he was there vacationing. I went there. I knocked on his door. I said, "Sir Georg, I want to talk to you." "Hello Simon," he says, "Well, come over this evening." So, I went over that evening. I said, "You know, I have really been sad since you wouldn't accept me to sing the Ring Cycle, (when Wolfgang Wagner wanted me to sing it) because of my skin color. You know, nobody complains that Placido sings Otello; nobody complains of Maria Callas, or when Renata Tebaldi sings Aida." And you know what he said to me? And I believe it. He said, "You know, Simon, I never thought of it. I just never thought of it." I said, "I know you didn't think of it would because black people didn't sing opera." But I said, "Composers wrote for voices. They didn't write for skin color. They wrote for vocal categories." And I went through all of this with him. When he finished talking with me, he said, "Well, you know what? You've convinced me. But, I'll have to talk to Peter Hall, who's doing the production." And so I said, "Well, talk to him." So he talked to Peter Hall. He said, "Simon, would you fly to London?" He said, "I want you to sing for Peter Hall. He's never heard you sing." So I went there to Solti's house. I sang the audition. Solti flipped over. Peter Hall said, "Well, his voice is much too big for this room." Sir Georg says, "Call my car." And that's all he said. And I got a telegram - Columbia Artists Management (Michael Ries) got the telegram the next day saying, "Sir Peter Hall won't take Simon because of his skin color.” He said, "If Simon sings Wotan in Bayreuth, all of the singers have to be black in all the four operas. And we can't find enough black singers to do it.” But Solti said this to me. He said, "But to show you how much I admire your voice and your talent, I will engage you with the quickest possibility with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra,” which he did. He did Simone Boccanegra. I did Fiesco. And he did a Beethoven Ninth with me singing, but he did give me a chance. And he said, "I'm sorry about that, Simon." But when I talked with him in Italy, he never thought about it. And you see, a lot of racism: sometimes people aren't blatantly racist, it's just 'the way it was' in those years until Leontyne Price really opened the door. Some other singers of color sang at The Met, as you know, but Leontyne really opened the door. And I remember at one time I wanted to talk to Leontyne. This is very private, but I know Leontyne would not object my telling of this. I went to talk to her about some racial problems in the business. And she said this to me. She said, "Simon, it's going to be more difficult for you than it was for me." I said, "No Leontyne; I know what you've gone through." And she told me some stories. This was something you may not know. You know, the people from Laurel, Mississippi who sponsored Leontyne - they were white people, of course. When she went back for Christmas holidays or whatever from Juilliard, she still had to go in the back door. That hurt her, but she swallowed her pride and she went to the back door to go in their house. And also, she got letters, saying, "If you open The Metropolitan Opera in Anthony and Cleopatra, we're going to kill you." She had letters threatening her life. And then she tells me, "Simon: it's going to be more difficult for you." I said, "No, Leontyne, you were the groundbreaker for us." And she said, "Simon, no. It's going to be tough." (I'm quoting Leontyne now). And I would never quote her. I know her really well. We sung together in San Francisco and The Met and we're (I would say) as close as I could be to her: she said, "It's going to be more difficult for you because you're a black man; you're intelligent, you're independent (and I'm not saying this about myself, but she said)...and you're handsome." And she said, "You're going to be a threat." She said, "Well, whatever you do, don't you ever give up." And when we first sang together, it was out in San Francisco when Luciano (Pavarotti) was singing his first Radames and Leontyne was out there, singing La Forza del Destino. Margaret Price was singing the Aida.
Marc A. Scorca: I didn't realize that you are in that cast, though. Who was the Amneris? Was it Grace (Bumbry)?
Simon Estes: No, it was (Stefania) Toczyska. She sang the Amneris, because I remember Jean-Pierre Ponnelle said, "Simon," because I did a lot of productions with Ponnelle - he said, "The two best people in that cast were you and Toczyska." John Pierre said that; but what happened? Margaret Price got sick and Leontyne had to jump in. Cause she knew Aida, of course...Leontyne had never heard me sing live. We were rehearsing in front of the whole cast and in our Aida/Amonasro duet, she started crying in rehearsal. She said, Simon, "Singing next to you is like singing next to a black god.” And the tears were going down her cheeks. I said, "Leontyne, no, you're the one." She said, "Simon. No." I will never forget that. It's a wonderful moving experience to sing that role with her and to be ready...
Marc A. Scorca: ...in some of Verdi's most beautiful music.
Simon Estes: Yes. Unbelievable. Just unbelievable.
Marc A. Scorca: I didn't realize that you were in that famous Aida where one Price substituted for another Price.
Simon Estes: Exactly. And I think if Florence Price, you know, the only black female composer of classical music. That's interesting we're talking today...excuse me, I'm getting emotional. She was the only black woman, who composed classical music. And I was listening to her fourth symphony today when I was driving: Florence Price and Leontyne Price.
Marc A. Scorca: Repertoire and what you've been saying now about your experience is just so moving; thank you for sharing all of that. You've talked about Mozart (Figaro) and you've talked about Verdi and Khovanschina and Wagner and Ring Cycle and Dutchman and all of it. Was there a repertoire in which you felt most comfortable?
Simon Estes: A man taught me two years ago, if you can imagine that, here in Iowa. His name was Thomas Phillips. He was a very important black man in Iowa. He was with Pioneer Corn; he was one of the executives. And he said, "Simon, it's wonderful that your mother taught you to be humble, but you're not humble and you're not bragging and you're not boasting, if you present facts to people: F A C T S: facts.” He said, "Don't be"...cause I would never talk about myself. And the question you just asked me, it's hard for me to answer that because I want to always be humble and I don't want you to think that I'm some great... I've never said I was a great singer. I've never said that. I always say, "I go out and try to do my best."
Marc A. Scorca: (But) the breadth of your repertoire and whether there's a particular composer you just feel most comfortable with?
Simon Estes: Well, I have sung so many composers. If you stop and think: Strauss, for example, I've sung Oreste in Elektra; I've sung John the Baptist; I've sung the title role of Boris Godunov in German and in Russian. I've sung all - or most - of Verdi's operas: some baritones, some title roles and some basses. And as I say, my repertoire, I've sung Scarpia; I've sung Sarastro, and I don't know of anything else that I really want to sing, cause I've sung a hundred and two roles and I've sung La boheme with Pavarotti and (Mirella) Freni. I sang with Birgit Nilsson (Wotan). And Nilsson said something that I say with the greatest amount of humility. When I sang with her that third act in Valkyrie, she said, "Simon, the two greatest Wotans with whom I've ever sung are George London and Hans Hotter, but your voice is more beautiful. Don't stay in Bayreuth too long and get the Bayreuth bark." And I listened to her. I didn't stay there too long. I could've stayed longer. But she said, "Don't stay too long." And what Leontyne Price said to me...those two women - it humbles me to say when Leontyne said, "Simon, you sound like a black god." I've sung Schubert, I've done so many Schubert songs and Brahms songs and Gustav Mahler songs. The beginning of my career, when they didn't let me sing opera, I did lots of recitals. The first year I got with Columbia Artists Management, I did 45 recitals throughout the United States and Canada and got $500 a concert. But I didn't know what was happening then, either. But you know what? I was learning musicianship. I was the only stage presence. And I remember when I sang my first Hollaender in Bayreuth, someone wrote - a critic - Simon Estes is the first person who sings Wagner bel canto and doesn't scream it all out. Nilsson told me don't bark. But singing Schubert and Brahms and all that repertoire, I didn't realize...I was being discriminated against and I was sad. I want you to know I was sad that they wouldn't let me sing opera, but on the one hand, it was almost like a blessing in disguise, because at the beginning I didn't sing all of these big, heavy roles. I just had Schubert and - God bless me - I just loved all that music and Brahms.
Marc A. Scorca: In my conversation with Sherrill Milnes, he said the good thing about doing song recitals, as you've just described, is that you get to be a musician without worrying about high notes. When you do opera, you're worrying about that high note; in the song literature, you get to be a musician without the worry.
Simon Estes: And you know, I tell all young singers - I mean, I've taught all over. I've lectured at Harvard and Duke University, Moscow Conservatory, Australia, you name it - don't just start singing opera, sing recitals. It will be good for your voice; it teaches you musicianship; it teaches you that you don't have to just give that power all the time. And sometimes something very soft can touch people's hearts. When I sang with Montserrat Caballe in her career - I've sung with Caballe since 1966 - I will never forget her pianissimo. I was singing Julius Caesar at Carnegie Hall. I still remember - that was 1967 - and of course she was young then, and she was floating these high pianissimo notes. It was a concert version, and I was just sitting there, still the skinny colored kid from Centerville, Iowa - Just like can't believe it. And the conductor said, "Simon stand up, you've got to sing". I forgot to stand up and sing. I was mesmerized because of a pianissimo and I tell singers, "Everything doesn't have to be like that (has clenched fist). And if you sing recitals, you'll sing longer." I'm 83. And I can tell you right now, I can sing a lot of the repertory. You'd be surprised.
Marc A. Scorca: No, I wouldn't be surprised. And listening to your speaking voice, I know that that voice is still right there.
Simon Estes: I just sang last year before the COVID. I did a concert with the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra outdoors and 100,000 people were there. Joseph Giunta, who's been the conductor of the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra for over almost 40 years - his wife was there; she was the singer. The next day he called me after the concert that I had sung. And they were 100,000 people on the steps of the Capitol. He called me. He said, "Simon, I have to tell you what Carrie said, when we got home last night." He said, Carrie said, "Joseph: Simon Estes...I was crying tears." And I (Joseph) said, "Simon Estes is a living miracle. And I have to tell you, that's what my wife said." Now, I believe miracles are done by God. I really do. A miracle is a miracle. And I know that this voice, this talent that I have is not from me, it's from God. And I'm not trying to push my faith and my religion on you because I know at 83, I should not be able to sing this way. And I just sang last Thursday with the Iowa State University Wind Ensemble. They did a July concert and they asked me to come sing. There were 5,000 people there. And they said, "How can you sing like that?" And I said, "This is God singing through me and God is love."
Marc A. Scorca: The last set of questions I have here is about the way you give, not only vocally, but I'm thinking about the Simon Estes Foundation and the Iowa Children Care. And you have the Estes Children's Foundation, and a lot of these are involved in dealing with malaria in Africa; with HIV/Aids has been a commitment of yours. Tell me about that part of your work and how thinking about malaria in Africa has become a focus of yours. How did you become committed to that eradication?
Simon Estes: In 2010, I was asked to sing for the grand finale concert of the World Cup in Johannesburg, South Africa and Andrea Bocelli and I were the tournament soloists. So it was at the Coca Cola dome in Johannesburg. And I founded the Simon Estes Music High School, even before that in South Africa, in the Cape Town area. So anyhow, before I went out to sing, the moderator said (not for my benefit) - there were 12,000 people in that dome. He talked about malaria, in that every 30 seconds, a little black child in Africa was dying from malaria. 90% of all of the malaria deaths in the world were in Sub-Sahara Africa and 1 million children were dying every year from malaria. And I never heard that. Before I went out on the stage, they're saying, "Don't forget to talk about yourself, Simon." I went out. I said, "I'm not going to talk about myself. I heard something tonight that I never knew." I didn't know we still had malaria. We eradicated malaria in the United States in 1951/1952. Of course, I thought it was all over the world. So that really touched my heart. I'll make a long story short. I came back. My wife was with me. We flew out to Washington, DC to the United Nations Foundation. I called them up. They gave me an audience. I said, "I heard your statistic." And they said, "It's absolutely true." I said, "You mean to tell me in this particular year, a million children are dying?" They said, "Yes." So I decided to do a concert at Iowa State University, where I'm a professor. I got a thousand white high school students from 52 high schools to sing a Christmas concert with me. And 2013, the 15th of December, we did a Christmas concert. And that concert, we raised $100,000. I gave every penny to the United Nations and then I realized I needed to do more. So I met a very important man (I won't tell his name), and I said, "Can you help me raise money?" And I said, "I don't want you to donate anything to me. I don't want you to give me anything." I said, "I will work for it." And so he called me a week later. He said, "Come out. I want to help you with your project." He's the wealthiest man in Iowa. You can look it up, but I won't tell you his name. And so he arranged for me to meet a number of people to do concerts. And so I did concerts and within six months I raised $432,000. I sent every penny to the United Nations. I could show you my whole studio here. They call me the singing ambassador for the United Nations Foundation and they've given me plaques and that sort of thing. And then when I was in Zuerich, one of the richest countries in the world, this was in the late '70's, early '60's, and I was singing all the time, because of Zuerich opera house. I was living there. My wife; we had two children born there, and one in the States, but the children's hospital: they only had two cabins for children, who've had bone marrow transplants. When they have leukemia, they have to live in a sterilized environment for up to six months. We had two little cabins, the size of this room here and children were dying. So I went to the children's hospital. I said, "Why don't you have more?" - cause I was already doing some work for children in Europe. They said, "Well, we don't have room". Anyhow, I did a concert at the Tonhalle (that's the Carnegie Hall of Zuerich) and we raised over $400,000 (Swiss Francs: at that time it was almost the same). Over 400,000 Swiss Francs. I gave it all to the children's hospital. I went to talk to the director of that hospital. I said, "Why haven't you built something?" He said, "We don't have any room." I said, "I can tell you how you have room. I said, you see that wall? Knock that wall down and put in two of these plastic cabins; they're like tents." "Oh, we never thought of that," they said. So they did. And I have a picture of all these little children. God had called me to do this. I believe that love is stronger than hate. And I believe that kindness is so important and we have to care and we want to help. Everybody can't be perfect; everybody can't do everything. But music has been an avenue for me, that has enabled me. And I always say - God working through me - God helped save hundreds of thousands of children's lives in this world. And nobody knows about it. I'm telling you now and a few other people, but I don't talk about it unless someone asks me and it's all because of music and singing that has enabled me to do this. And I'm still doing it til this day.
Marc A. Scorca: You are inspiring. I can't wait for people to hear this interview and to realize the power of your words. You know, the last question I had for you today: You were born in Iowa, central Iowa, and you have sung in every opera capital in the world...
Simon Estes: 84 different opera houses and 115 different symphony orchestras from Australia to Japan: all over the world.
Marc A. Scorca: So you could, as a great opera singer (those are my words), live in New York or Vienna or Paris or London and you're back in Iowa. What does Iowa mean to you?
Simon Estes: Well, my roots are here and this tour that I have sung, where I made all this money...I want you to see something... (Shows poster for concerts raising money to eradicate malaria: 'No more Malaria in Africa'). Okay. That's when I knew about malaria. I didn't know about it and well... I've been all over the world. So I was a professor at Boston University and I'd been there six years; I could still be there. In fact, they offered me to be Dean of the whole School of the University of Boston, but my wife said, "Simon," (and this was eight years ago. I think). "You're not getting any younger. Why don't you slow down and just go out and help people, children in Iowa?" So I thought about it. And while I was there, they invited me to go to Harvard. I did things. I'd do lectures at Harvard. MIT: I did things for their medical school. I was an obedient husband. So I said, "Okay, we'll go back to Iowa." We came back to Iowa and I decided to do a roots and wings, 99 county tour. In other words, I want to sing in all 99 counties. I've now done 56 and we had to cancel some that were planned because of COVID, but now the next one will be October 24th in a town in Iowa and another one on November 21st at a university here in Iowa. And so I'm going to keep raising money to help these children. But my wife said "Cut back." And so in a few years, I have given over $200,000 to high school, graduating seniors here in Iowa, to go to a university or college, wherever they want to go, and study whatever they want to study, because they need funds and money to go. So I decided to come back to Iowa and do that. And I've sung now in 56 counties. And then the day after the concert, they have a general assembly. And they ask me to talk to all of the students in that county. And so I talk to them about education; about love; about being a human being; about being kind. They want to learn. When I tell them, when I was a kid in Centerville, colored people, as we were called, we couldn't swim in the swimming pool with white people. They would let us in and swim on Saturdays, from nine o'clock to 11, we had to get out of the swimming pool. They put more disinfectant into the water. I can tell you tons of stories of discrimination, but my mother and my daddy said, "Son, don't ever hate people." The strongest statement that either my parents made to me about white people all those years, I was growing up in Centerville: my mother said this. If it's in the form of a question or in the form of a statement, she would just say, "Son, I don't know why white people treat us colored people this way." They never told us to hate white people. They just always said, "Turn the other cheek and kill them with kindness." And so I came back to Iowa where my roots were, where I was born in a little town in Centerville, Iowa. I was born in a house 27 feet by 25 feet. The doctor came out and delivered me from my mother's womb because colored people couldn't go to the hospital and have babies. And that same doctor that delivered me breastfed on my grandmother's slave's breast. And isn't that a whole circle? This is absolutely true. I could show you a picture of my grandfather was a slave, sold for $500. $500. And his wife: my grandmother breastfed the doctor who delivered me for my mother, Dr. Brennan.
Marc A. Scorca: That's the reason to go back and live in Iowa to be a part of the roots; the ground that gave you life. It's just remarkable.
Simon Estes: I feel so blessed and so humble. And I'm so honored and humbled to talk with you. And this is not to try to sell Simon Estes. I'm a servant of God's and people say, "Who is God?" God is love and love is God. And if you love someone, you're not going to lie to them; you're not going to lie about them; you're not gonna hurt them. If they need help, you're going to help them. If they make a mistake, you're going to forgive them, because none of us is infallible and we have to let love control us. And love is music. My daughter, my oldest daughter gave me a beautiful plaque and it says, "Love is the Music of the Soul." And all the students that I work with, whether they're at Juilliard or Boston University, Iowa State University, I tell the students, don't only sing with your technique, which is vitally important, but sing from your soul and your heart, and that's what will touch the people.
Marc A. Scorca: I can't tell you how fabulous it is to spend this time with you. I'm so grateful that you've allowed me into your studio; into your life this morning. I can't wait to greet you in person, and I just wish you Godspeed in your good work and look forward to more communication between us. Thank you so much for this time.
Simon Estes: Thank you. And God bless you and you have an incredible face. I really mean that. I've seen people's faces all over the world, but the moment you came on the screen...I've never met you before, but you have a wonderful countenance and you're very blessed with that.
Marc A. Scorca: I really appreciate that from you. That's an incredible compliment. Have a good rest of day.