When Simon Estes, internationally renowned bass-baritone, auditioned for the University of Iowa chorus in 1957, he was turned away.
The head of the vocal department told him he didn’t have any talent. At the time, there were no black students among those 230 voices.
But Estes, grandson of a slave from Centerville, doesn’t resent that or any of the other difficulties he faced during his college years — even though at times he lived on cereal and water and slept on uncarpeted floors.
“I had to struggle financially because my parents didn’t have any money,” Estes said. “So I’d work — scrub floors, shine shoes, you name it, I did everything to get through college. And I thought, ‘If ever I’m blessed someday, I would like to help other students so it wouldn’t be such a strong burden on them financially.’”
And he has helped other students all around the world. The performer, who also works as a professor at Iowa State, Wartburg College and Boston University, has organized numerous scholarship organizations that bear his name: the Simon Estes Educational Foundation in Tulsa, Okla., which has raised more than $6 million since its founding in 1983; the Simon Estes International Foundation, which offers medical care in Switzerland and Bulgaria; and the Simon Estes School in South Africa, which gives musical opportunities to some of the poorest children in the area.
Beginning Friday, Estes is starting a new philanthropic effort. His new program, Roots and Wings, will take him on a concert tour of each of Iowa’s 99 counties.
At each stop, Estes will be joined by a current music student from Iowa State or Wartburg College, and a choir composed of local high school students and community members. And at each stop, scholarships will be given to one high school student regardless of what he or she plans to study, and to one music student.
This support for artistic education may be even more vital after the Des Moines Public School system announced Friday that it will cut 300 positions, mostly in the arts, music and physical education.
Equally important to Estes and to those who will share the stage with him are the performance opportunities for aspiring artists.
“He’s going to find great musicians everywhere he goes and give them their first chance for real exposure,” said Jesse Donner, senior in music who will perform with Estes in Hampton and West Des Moines. “Musicians never usually have a real ‘job’ until they’re in their 30s.”
Estes said he hopes these concerts will lead to more paid jobs for young, local musicians. While the cost of attending a concert is similar to a movie ticket, the project should have economic benefits for the state of Iowa, in addition to entertainment and academic value.
“It’s an ambitious project,” said Michael Golemo, chairman of the music department. “Simon is very excited and working very hard to make it happen. He’s a special part of our music and theater department.”
Four concerts have been scheduled, and Estes said six or seven more are currently being discussed.
“It’s a great thrill and an honor, and I look at it even as a blessing to be able to share with the young students at these institutions the experiences that I’ve had singing at all the major opera houses in the world,” he said. “I work with them on voice and diction in different languages, interpretation and what it’s like to be a professional opera singer — the responsibilities that go along with it.”
Estes’ experiences certainly qualify him to discuss those responsibilities.
After being rejected by the Iowa chorus, Estes was assigned to a new teacher on the staff — one who would take on the supposedly talentless student. Charles Kellis heard in Estes the potential to sing opera, and encouraged him to audition at Julliard.
“I took a special interest and spent a lot of extra time with him because he kept improving,” said Kellis, who currently lives in New York City and still teaches private voice lessons.
During his college years, Estes was working overnight shifts to support his mother and younger brother while he was a full-time student. After saving up for a plane ticket to New York and auditioning, Estes was awarded a full scholarship to Julliard, where he studied in 1963 and 1964.
By 1965, he was making his debut on the international stage in Germany’s Deutsche Oper as the high priest Ramfis in Verdi’s “Aida.”
The next year, he won third prize in the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.
“My career just kind of catapulted after having won that bronze medal — it was almost like a fairy tale,” he said. “If someone had told me when I was in Centerville that I would be able to go to Europe and around the world — I would never have dreamed that. So much happened so fast in my life.”
Estes went on to perform hundreds of roles in major opera houses around the world. He’s sung to six U.S. presidents, kings and queens and political leaders such as Nelson Mandela. He recently performed at the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors.
And to this day he still talks to his mentor, Kellis.
Even after gaining economic success, however, Estes had to face obstacles based on his race.
“There were many opera houses, I’m sorry to say more in my own country, the United States, that wouldn’t let me sing. The Europeans went more on your talent than your skin color, but it was very difficult,” he said.
“Still today there are very, very, very few men of color that are singing in the opera houses of the world. I think that’s a tragedy, because there are lots of talents out there. We have a long way to go.”
He said the strong faith he inherited from his parents has helped him through those times.
“My faith gave me the courage not to hate and to be strong in spite of obstacles and not to be deterred,” he said. “My grandfather was a slave that sold at auction for $500. My father couldn’t read or write. But he knew the value of an education. He always told me and my sisters, ‘You’ve got to get an education, that’s one thing they can’t take from you.’ So I had a foundation in faith, church, spirituality, education and the ability to forgive if somebody mistreated me.”
These principles still guide his life as he tries to create a better world for the next generation.
“Never give up, never hate, never be violent. Keep hope. Keep hope alive.”
Jesse Donner, senior in music, and Lexi Rainforth, junior in music, will be sharing the stage with Estes in the weeks to come. Here, they shared their thoughts on the man, the music, and the opportunity that Roots and Wings represents for them:
“He’s just inspirational. He never really talks about himself, and when he does, it’s in a roundabout sort of way that focuses on other people. He encourages us all the time — just wants the best for us,” Rainforth said.
“We’re really lucky to have him — he’s got a really big heart. He’ll take the time to talk to singers about things other than singing, looking at the big picture, rather than the details. He talks about their positives, and gets them to be better,” Donner said.
“The most important thing to Simon isn’t showing off, it’s communicating and doing something beautiful. He really just wants to make people fall in love with music again. He told me, pick something that the people will enjoy listening to, not something that’s academic,” Donner said.
“In a lesson one day, out of nowhere, he was like, ‘You’re going to do this with me.’ That was the end of last semester — then I had to kind of keep it under wraps a bit. He’s giving people like me a chance to get out there and get our voices heard,” Rainforth said.
“It’s a great honor [to perform with Estes] — he’s had such a fantastic career. And when you’re a music major, you shouldn’t turn down any opportunity to perform,” Donner said.
Donner will join Estes this Friday in Hampton and next Friday in West Des Moines. Rainforth will join them in West Des Moines.