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National Recognition for Iowa Opera Trailblazer

Simon Estes of Iowa was the first black man to perform in opera houses all over the world. (DMACC)
Simon Estes of Iowa was the first black man to perform in opera houses all over the world.
September 26, 2016

DES MOINES, Iowa – With racial tensions high in parts of the country, an African-American Iowan who triumphed through adversity is receiving special recognition.

Simon Estes, a world-renowned opera singer, grew up in Centerville. Over the weekend, he was honored at the grand opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

Estes says the museum highlights the contributions that people of color have made on American life, history and culture – contributions he stresses many people don't realize.

"Not only physically but also emotionally and educationally, and of course now scientifically and business-wise,” he stresses. “And so to be included in this museum is really a humbling and honored experience."

After graduating from Julliard School of Music, Estes moved to Germany and eventually became the first black man to perform in opera houses all over the world. Despite his success, he says he still faced discrimination and it was years before he performed at the top opera venues in the U.S. as well.

At the museum, video of Estes will be part of an exhibit featuring three other African-American opera singers.

Estes says he hopes the museum will educate, inspire and motivate people to never give up – lessons he says he learned growing up during times of segregation.

"There were certain restaurants we couldn't eat in,” he relates. “We couldn't swim in the swimming pool with white people. We were not allowed to play golf on the golf course.

“Things like that do not exist as they did when I was coming up, but there are still many areas where we have disparity."

Estes contends that conversations are needed to build understanding between different groups of people. For him, he says, it comes down to words from his faith: Love your neighbor as yourself.

"Love can be a noun and love can also be a verb,” he points out. “And when love is a verb, that means it's put into action, and action means that we're going to interact with other people, we're not going to discriminate against them because of their skin color or their nationality."

As he shares his experiences with students, Estes suggests using determination and discipline to overcome barriers.

He has taught classes at several universities including Harvard, Boston and Iowa State, and this fall at Des Moines Area Community College.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - IA