Simon Estes' story could be labeled "only in America." A shoeshine boy from Centerville, Iowa -- the grandson of a slave sold for $500 the day before the Emancipation Proclamation and the son of a hotel porter -- goes on to become one of the greatest opera singers in the world.
But if the journey of Estes, who gives a recital this afternoon in Morgan State University's Murphy Auditorium, is peculiarly American in its rags-to-riches brilliance, it also has been (and continues to be) studded by difficulty of an all too familiar kind in this country: racism.
Although the bass-baritone emerged as an important singer in the mid-1960s, it was not until 1982 that he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera. And this season and in the next few to come -- perhaps because of the honesty with which he calls attention to past and what he perceives as present injustices -- Estes will not be heard on the Met's stage.
"You don't sing someplace unless you're invited," he says in a telephone interview. "I'm not one of [Metropolitan Opera music director] Jimmy Levine's favorites, I guess. More than that, I don't want to say."
He doesn't have to. Almost all opera fans know that Estes, regarded by the legendary Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson as the greatest Wotan of the post-World War II era, was passed over five years ago for another bass-baritone when the Met began to record its "Ring" cycle. What Estes did at that time was to suggest that this was just one more example of black men in the operatic world receiving a raw deal.
"I'm not bitter," Estes, 53, says. "But I do try to fight injustice with facts. When people tell me that there's no prejudice in the opera world, I ask them, 'How many blacks are singing leading roles today?' They reel off the usual names -- all of them women -- and then I say, 'Yes, but how many men?' Except for me, they can't think of one. The fact is that Simon Estes is the only black man with a major career in the opera world today. I can assure you that it's not because I'm the first with a major talent -- I have had many, many great predecessors like Bill Warfield who never sang opera in this country -- and, believe me, there are plenty of younger black singers with beautiful voices that deserve to be heard in leading roles at major houses in this country. I'm not saying this is necessarily racism, but it certainly is a problem with a sociological dimension."
As with theater and films, Estes says, it has been easier for black women to play romantic parts in opera than for black men.
"Perhaps a black man singing opposite a white woman is sexually threatening -- I don't know," he says. "All I do know for sure is that my colleagues -- almost all of whom are white -- are not against my singing with them. I'm also convinced that audiences don't care whether you're black or white -- all they want to hear is beautiful singing and first-rate acting."
There has never been any doubt about Estes' ability to provide an abundance of those qualities. His huge voice handles shifts in register and in volume faultlessly, his acting is memorable -- he was said to have been the only good thing about last year's failed London musical, "King," which was based on the life of the great civil rights leader -- and he always brings a special poignancy to his roles, whether that of Wagner's Wotan or
Verdi's King Philip.
"I don't believe in the existence of a 'black' vocal sound, but I think it is entirely possible that personal or group suffering can have an effect on the way one sings," he says, speculating that the experience of oppression might have contributed to the warmth and immediacy of such Jewish singers as Richard Tucker and Robert Merrill.
Surely, few singers have ever come to opera through a more unlikely route than Estes. A basketball scholarship sent him off -- to the University of Iowa, where he was a pre-med student. But because he loved to sing -- the youngster was from a deeply religious home and he had always sung in church choirs -- he registered for voice lessons.
"He was a very skinny, under-nourished kid, who was as sweet as could be and who had a voice that was remarkable," says Charles Kellis, who now teaches at Juilliard and who remains Estes' coach. "But when I suggested that he should be singing opera, his response floored me."
Estes laughs when he is reminded of the story.
"I asked, 'What's opera?' Really, except for a few excerpts on the radio, I had never heard a piece of classical music in my life. Charles opened up a whole new world to me."
Says Kellis, "I gave him some recordings by [Maria] Callas, Leontyne Price and Jerome Hines. He came back a week later and said, 'This is the most beautiful stuff I've ever heard.' His progress was fantastic -- no one could have been more motivated. Two years later I sent him off to Juilliard, and two years after that he got a grant to audition in Europe. He came back with several contracts and the rest is history."
But the history of Estes' career is much more spectacular in Europe than it is in the United States. Less than 10 percent of the singer's engagements take place in his own country, Kellis says, a figure he calls "ridiculous" and "a tragedy for younger black singers for whom Simon should be setting an example."
"I don't know what to say to young black singers who ask me for help -- except to tell them to keep trying to share their gift with the people who want to hear it," Estes says. "This is a problem that's pervasive in the classical music world, not just on operatic stages. It's like sports, where you can be a player but not a manager. At the Metropolitan Opera there are black janitors, ushers and elevator operators, but no black person -- so far as I know -- in a position of any responsibility."
Simon Estes at Morgan State
Where: Murphy Auditorium.
When: Today at 4 p.m.
Call: 444-3286 (box office), 481-6000 (Ticketron).