[Note: This interview was first published in Wagner News in April, 1983.]
Bass - Baritone Simon Estes
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Simon Estes is one of the few singers working today who has
successfully essayed leading roles in all ten of the major Wagner
operas. His voice is deep and rich, and encompasses both the low
roles such as Hagen and Marke, and the high roles such as Amfortas and
the Dutchman, as well as the others in between, including Wotan.
Estes began singing small roles and soon was singing leading roles in
"standard" repertoire of Verdi and Mozart. The fact that he is
black has made it more difficult for him to gain entry to certain roles
and houses, but once inside, he proves that the delays and hardships
were a waste of his time and the public's. But despite the
progress that has been made in the recent years, he himself points out
that he is the only black male singer doing leading roles in leading
opera houses around the world.
Estes was very gracious and generous to take a few minutes from his
busy schedule in February of 1982 for a conversation. Since the
time was limited, the topics centered mostly on Wagner. Here is
what was said that afternoon . . .
Your most recent success in Wagner is with your Met debut as the
Landgrave in Tannhäuser.
I want to be sure and ask about that, but let me ask first about the Flying Dutchman which you sang at
Bayreuth. Tell me about singing at Bayreuth.
Simon Estes: I sang
the Dutchman first in Zurich in 1977 and I mention that because that is
how my attention came to Wolfgang Wagner. But even before that, a
man named Ralph Jasper heard me singing in LA with Zubin Mehta.
[See my Interviews
with Zubin Mehta.] Jasper said to Wagner that I should be
singing at Bayreuth, and while I was rehearsing in Zurich I got a call
to come and sing for Wagner. I invited him to Zurich where I felt
he would see me to better advantage, but Wagner insists that he hear
everyone on the Bayreuth stage. So I went and sang for him, and
he engaged me that very day. He told me that he had not heard the
Dutchman sung that well since George London in his prime. Then I
sang in the 1978 (Bayreuth) production, and afterword Wagner told me I
sang it better than George London which was a great compliment. I
was very touched that he should say that. So to answer your
question more directly, the Dutchman
at Bayreuth was a big experience for me and a great honor and a
challenge. It was something new because no black man had ever
sung in that theater before, and I was opening the season in the title
role. Needless to say I felt a little bit of pressure... but I'm
happy to say it was very successful. I had heard a few rumors
that there might be some protests, but it did not happen.
BD: Is it
better for you to face the protest and win them over, or to go in
without protest and be just another singer?
SE: I would
rather we not have protests. I wish that the conditions were such
that we would not have to worry about this negative aspect. But I
am very happy that the people in Bayreuth accepted me totally.
Wolfgang Wagner admires me, and I admire him as an administrator and as
also sung the Dutchman in San Francisco.
SE: I've sung
about 13 or 14 different productions of the opera in San Francisco,
Munich, Berlin, Hamburg, Bayreuth, etc.
BD: Is it
ever in three acts, or always in one without an intermission?
SE: I've done
it both ways.
BD: Which do
SE: From a
purely vocal point of view, it's easier if there's an
intermission. In terms of the plot, it's better to go straight
through. Depending on cuts and who is conducting, it runs around
2 hours and 20 or 30 minutes. I think it's better for the
audience to have an intermission because for a person to come and sit
for two and a half hours without being able to get up is a bit hard.
BD: But that
means two interruptions in the story and musical line, so I wondered
how you as an artist felt.
vocally a bit easier in three acts, I think that the audience gets
perhaps a bit better performance from us when we've had the rests.
BD: The San
Francisco production is by Ponnelle, and he sees it all as a dream in
the mind of the steersman. Do you accept that?
SE: If that's
the way he sees it and that's how he produced it, we had to do it that
way. In Bayreuth, Harry Kupfer saw it as a dream through Senta,
and she is onstage from the first note of the overture to the last note
of the opera. My feeling is that's not what Wagner wanted, but
many producers like to do something different today. Ponnelle's
production was more successful in San Francisco than it was in New York
at the Met. Some people say that I was better suited to it than
Jose Van Dam (who sang it in New York), but that's a matter of opinion.
BD: Does that
production alter your singing of the part?
actual singing, not too much, but in many productions the Dutchman is
very far back -- upstage. I think it takes away from the
importance of the character of the Dutchman when you have it through
the eyes of Senta, or if you employ just one tenor for both the
Steersman and Erik. It takes something away from the concept of
the opera and the character of the Dutchman.
BD: Let us
move to the Ring. You
don't like one singer doing two roles in the Dutchman, so do you approve of
having one singer do more than one role in the Ring operas?
entirely different because these characters are in two different
operas. If the voice is particularly suited to the roles, then
it's OK. We all have to act different characters anyhow in
sung all three Wotans?
SE: The first two,
yes, but I've only studied the Wanderer. I had the chance to sing
it in Dusseldorf, but I had to fly back to America and wasn't able to
do it. I've been asked to do the complete Ring in Hamburg in 1983 and in
Berlin in 1984, and San Francisco has asked me for their new one in the
future. They asked me, but I was already booked for those dates.
BD: Do you
like knowing exactly what role you will be singing in what city on a
specific date several years from now?
Sure. I really do because first of all it means that I'll be able
to put something on the table to eat. But also it's very
rewarding to know that one's career is going well and that people are
interested in you and are asking for you.
talk about Wotan. How do you see him?
SE: I like to
talk more about the Walküre
Wotan because I think that's the most important of the three. It
is perhaps my favorite role in all of opera. I've sung 88 roles
-- most of the Verdi, Mozart, French operas, Boris -- but the Walküre Wotan I find is such a
complete and total role. He's a very complex figure.
Obviously he's a very proud man. He thinks he's a god. Some
people call him a god.
BD: You don't
see him as a god?
SE: We might
call him a mythical one if we want to. He's also compassionate
and vulnerable, vulnerable to Brünnhilde, the one thing he didn't
want. He never wanted anyone to pierce his "shield", and even
tries to fool himself when he starts out the big monologue. He
says that he is speaking with himself, but he is speaking with
Brünnhilde a conscience figure, then, or his inner-mind?
SE: She could
be his inner-mind or conscience, or it could be that regardless of how
strong this man thinks he is and how independent he is, he, too, needs
to cry on somebody's shoulder. So he chooses his favorite
daughter, Brünnhilde, to do this.
BD: Is this
why, when she disobeys him, he is so thoroughly upset?
Absolutely. This is the whole thing. He tells her that he's
not really talking to her but to himself. When she interrupts him
he gets very upset, and at the end of the monologue when she suggests
that she help Siegmund, he tells her that if she does she will get the
worst penalty she can possibly imagine. Then she goes ahead and
does it. Wotan is vulnerable in that he does expose himself to
her, his ideas and real inner thoughts. In the third act she says
to him that she was doing what he really wanted in his heart, and he
tells her that it makes no difference what he wants, she must do what
the law says. He is as hard as nails with her, but then the human
part comes in and he softens. He must punish her, but because she
is so special to him, he makes it so that only the bravest guy in the
world can rescue her.
Wotan know at that point that the rescuer will be Siegfried? And
does Wotan know that the rescuer of Brünnhilde will be the same
man who will topple his reign?
Maybe. I'm not actually sure.
the relationship between Wotan and Fricka?
boy. I don't think he's very happy with Fricka. Of course
he has had a number of affairs and has not been true to her, and Fricka
is very unhappy with him. She is very jealous because he loves
Brünnhilde very, very much, and this makes Fricka angry.
BD: Is there
an incestuous relationship between Wotan and Brünnhilde?
SE: I don't
think so. It's all myth anyhow, so who really knows? I
don't interpret it that way at all. I see Wotan as a father who
is a little weak, and maybe he happens to fear one of his children
because she was a more loyal daughter. But Fricka knows how to
needle him, which she does when she insists that he kill Siegmund
whether he likes it or not. She tells him that he has his part to
uphold and she has her duty, and he is absolutely furious. How
dare this woman talk to him this way? He's also, obviously, very
chauvinistic -- which I'm not in my personal life -- but in the role I
think he has to be.
BD: Is he
BD: Is the
relationship between Wotan and Fracka different in Rheingold and Walküre?
SE: In the Rheingold, he permits her to talk
with him a little more. Of course, it's not such a big
thing. The gold meant an awful lot to him and he certainly didn't
want to have to give it up for Freia, but when he gives up the Ring and
sees the effect -- Fasolt being killed by Fafner. He realizes
that it's a very tricky deal. But by the time Walküre rolls
around, Wotan has had enough of her meddling into his responsibility.
BD: Have you
I won't say that I will not because I can certainly handle the role
vocally, but I have sung Hagen and I think it's one of the greatest
parts every written in opera, too.
BD: Do you
like being evil?
funny... I'm a completely different person off-stage and
on-stage. In my personal life I'm compassionate, generous,
helpful, forgiving, giving person, but when I go on the stage I look at
roles in a different way. I think of the role in terms of the
musical aspect first, the vocal aspect and the dramatic aspect.
So the role of Hagen is such a challenge. I love the music that
he has to sing. That inspires me. I remember being in
Switzerland and having been contracted to sing Hagen in Seattle in
1976. I had not had time to really prepare the role, so I told my
coach I was going to have to call Seattle and tell them I'm not ready
with Hagen. The coach took me into a room and played the
marvelous monologue where Hagen is sitting very evilly in his
chair. As he played I fell in love with those four pages of music
and that inspired me to work really hard to learn the role. You
asked me if I liked playing evil characters and I really don't, but if
they're there I play them, and they are very challenging.
Alberich talks to Hagen, how do you focus on nothing?
SE: It's like
staring into space because that gives the feeling that he's hearing
what's being said but not really, and while he's hearing it his mind is
working already. It's conniving. I think Alberich is even
worse than Hagen, but Hagen is a very evil man.
BD: If they
ever offered you Alberich, would you sing it?
SE: It's an
interesting part, but I don't think I'd do it. In Rheingold, I'd certainly choose to
do Wotan because of the stature of the character, although Alberich is
a better part dramatically. In Rheingold,
Alberich and Loge are the two best parts. Wotan is not so
interesting. In Walküre,
though, Wotan is most important. In Götterdämmerung, I'd
BD: Would you
sing the three Wotans and then Hagen?
discussed it with a few people and they see my side completely, and we
say why not? Some of the older conductors say that one man cannot
possibly sing all four of those parts, but again, if one can do it
vocally, why not? In a very strange way, Hagen is an extension of
Wotan. Not really, but it's the same vocal range and I think it
would be very interesting to do it.
we are used to the baritone Wotan, so if he sings in Götterdämmerung he sings
SE: I'm not
such a great believer in this "fach"
thing, this need to categorize things which is done so much in
Europe. Wotan has been done by baritones, bass-baritones and
basses. The range for Hagen is not as wide as for the Walküre Wotan. Years
ago, certain singers who happened to be successful in these roles had
very, very dark voices, and we've come to think that this is the way it
must be. I don't agree with that philosophy.
BD: Are we
getting away from this?
definitely think so. It puts too many restrictions on us.
Of my 88 roles, there a few -- maybe 7 or 8 -- baritone roles, and
people say to me that they really liked me in the role because it is
darker than a normal baritone.
BD: Have you
done any role in Meistersinger?
SE: I've just
been asked to sing Hans Sachs in San Antonio in 1984. Then I will
have done them all because I'm doing Amfortas in Bayreuth this year,
and that will mean I've sung all the major Wagner operas.
BD: Tell me a
bit about Amfortas, or is he not in your psyche yet?
getting very much into my psyche. I've spent a great deal of time
concentrating on the role in the last month both musically and
dramatically. I'm looking very much forward to singing Amfortas
because in this opera business, there are still certain problems
because of color, especially for black men. We seem to have this
tremendous weight on our shoulders, and we're all looking for a
BD: Is it that we
won't let you be just very good, you have to be great?
SE: There is
no black artist who can be just average. This is not to say that
one does not strive for perfection, but a black in any profession has
to be superior. For a black to be equal, we have to be superior
or we won't be given the opportunity. That's an absolute
fact. So Amfortas is a role that I identify with in many ways --
the pain, the agony, the anguish. It's a wound that I want to see
you're waiting for someone who will understand.
right. Somebody please understand the pain I have and why I want
to do certain things.
BD: There's a
lot of controversy about acting during preludes, and I'm wondering how
you would feel if the director wanted yo to show the fall of Amfortas
during the Prelude to Parsifal?
SE: Let me
tell you how I feel in general about this. If a composer didn't
actually say he wanted action going on during the prelude, I don't
think it should be. That is for the people to start using their
own imagination as composer sets the mood of the opera. I think
it's a little distracting. In the Dutchman at Bayreuth Senta is
there, and I'm sure this is one reason that Harry Kupfer was badly
booed because people didn't want this. They want to leave the
opera the way the composer wrote it.
BD: Acting in
preludes stretches it too far?
BD: Would you
ever sing Klingsor?
SE: I've been
asked to sing it and I've said no. I've been asked also for
Telramund and have turned that down. I'm fortunate in that my
range is very wide. I'm not saying that I'm better than anyone
else, I'm just saying that I'm blessed. I can sing from Sarastro
all the way up to Macbeth or Amfortas. If I were to decide to
sing Telramund or Klingsor, I'd have to talk with the conductor to be
sure I'd not have to bark it or scream it.
BD: Is there
any similarity, beyond the obvious, in the roles of Henry in Lohengrin and Hermann in Tannhäuser?
Henry is more interesting, I think.
BD: Do you
ever get out onstage and panic -- what am I singing tonight?
never had that happen but we all have those dreams.
BD: Do you
ever sing opera in translation?
SE: My only
time was Hagen in Seattle in both German and in English.
BD: Was that
but I prefer to sing it in German. The Landgraf is not a very
rewarding part vocally or musically because it's more recitative.
Very few people walk away humming what the Landgraf has sung that
night. At least Henry has the nice aria and he has more to sing
anyway. Landgraf is OK, but I don't think it's going to make a
career for anyone.
BD: Does the
very long interval bother you -- not having to sing in the middle act?
SE: No, that
doesn't really bother me.
BD: Do you
keep singing or re-warm the voice?
SE: No, I
don't keep singing. I'm kind of a funny singer. I don't
vocalize before I go out to sing. I remember when I was first
starting out 17 years ago, I saw all the other singers warming
up. I asked my teacher about it afterward and he asked me how I
sang. I said just fine, so he said not to worry. He told me
later in my career I might decide to vocalize before going on, but f I
don't have to, I don't have to. It depends on the role,
too. For a very short role I'll maybe do five minutes, but a long
role maybe only a minute or so, or none at all. I don't set rules
down for anyone else. We all feel we must do what we feel most
comfortable with. I feel that I want to save it all for the
public. I'd rather a critic say that I was not warmed up at the
beginning instead of saying I was worn out at the end.
BD: Would it
make any difference if all your big singing was at the very top of the
opera with little or nothing at the end?
really. I know myself very well vocally and I'm just a very lucky
person. I can wake up at three in the morning and sing, or in the
afternoon or evening. I'm very lucky and I'm aware of that.
changing time zones bother you?
harder for me to sing upon arrival here from Europe than the other way
around. When I first started doing it, it was difficult, but I've
been at it for 17 years so it doesn't bother me so much.
strange -- usually singers find it easier when the days lengthen coming
SE: All my
colleagues say that, but that doesn't work as easily for me.
BD: Let me
ask you about one more role -- King Marke.
SE: I love
the role. I've sung it many times and I absolutely adore that
BD: How much
torment and disappointment can you bring to the role?
SE: I think you can
do it all in the monologue if you're really intense and really stress
the text. Richard Cassilly and I sang it together in Italy in
about 1976, and he said it was the first time he was not bored standing
there while Marke sang. I did it like a German lied, like a song. I tried to
keep it legato, and I did a lot with the words. My presence was
BD: Do you
enjoy plumbing the depths of Wagner?
Yes. I think that Wagner was one of the greatest composers that
ever lived musically speaking. I am not an admirer of what I have
read about the man and his attitude toward certain groups of
people. I make that distinction.
BD: Let me
draw a parallel. Would you appreciate if someone who didn't
approve of black people came and admired your performance?
Sure. With any talent that anybody has, if they contribute to the
betterment of society that can only be helpful. Talent comes from
God, and we have to accept that talent as it is. If someone
didn't like Dr. Salk, would they stop their child from having a polio
shot? I feel the same way about music. If we look into the
lives of other composers we'll find lots of skeletons in their closets,
but we still admire their music. You have to separate those two
BD: You enjoy
SE: I love to
sing. I am grateful to sing. I'm a very happy person and
I'm happy that I have the opportunity to share my talent with
people. I think it's a great privilege and I'm one of the
luckiest people in the world. I hope the day will come when
artists, regardless of their skin color, will be engaged upon their
vocal and musical talent.
BD: Are we
moving in that direction?
moving in that direction, but unfortunately not fast enough. I've
been asked to sing the Ring
at Bayreuth in 1983, but decisions are going to be made by Solti and
Sir Peter Hall, and those decisions are based on my skin color.
So we'll just have to wait and see what happens with that. There
are a number of black male singers who have the talent to sing who have
been denied the opportunity to use their gifts. What I'm trying
to do is to eradicate this and break down this very tragic barrier.
BD: I feel
it's our loss.
SE: It's our
loss to society and to music, but it's also a great personal loss of
these great young men who have wonderful voices who also want to
participate and they're denied because they happen to be black and
male. Obviously we have made improvement, but it's way
behind. I'm the only black male singing leading roles at the
leading opera houses in the world today. That is a real numerical
tragedy and artistic tragedy. We have some others who are doing
leading roles, but not on the scale that I am, and that's not fair
because they're out there and they're qualified.
BD: We hope
that we continue to make improvements.
SE: I hope
BD: Thank you
for being a singer.
SE: Thank you
for letting me share my ideas. I would like to say at
the closing of this interview that I
have great admiration for Wolfgang Wagner as a man. He is the man
brought me to Bayreuth. He is the man who went out on a limb all
himself. Wieland wasn't there to share it with him. He took
the risk of
bringing a black man to sing a title role and to open the season in a
new production. My wife and I have gotten to know
him personally because we've been at Bayreuth the last four years and
I'm going back again this year. I admire him. He once
stated to me
that he himself would not permit anyone not to engage an artist in
Bayreuth because of their skin color, their religion, or their
nationality. We have talked about this, and he said if there are
reasons for the conductor or producers to deny engagement, that's one
thing. But I think it's very admirable for him to make that
especially in light of his grandfather's feelings. There was a
young black tenor who sang for me and I recommended him for the chorus
at Bayreuth. He was accepted as the first black man in the
so there's history made again and it's all under the direction of
Wolfgang Wagner. He is a man who engages people on their talent
musically and vocally -- and not on their skin color, religion, or
nationality, and I think he should be greatly respected and admired for
this great humanistic and artistic stand that he has taken. He is
very courageous man.
|Simon Estes was born in
Centerville, Iowa, on February 2, 1938. His father was a coal miner.
He, his brother, and two sisters were given a religious upbringing.
Estes was a boy soprano in a local Baptist church. His voice did not
change until his senior year in high school, and for about three years,
his vocal ability was limited. He did, however, sing tenor in the
chorus at the University of Iowa. While there, he began study with
Charles Kellis, who reclassified Estes as a bass-baritone and taught
him vocal technique, diction and interpretation. Kellis also was
responsible for exposing Estes to opera through recordings of artists
such as Leontyne Price. Estes was admitted to Juilliard in 1964 to
continue his studies. He later received a grant to study abroad where,
in 1965, he made his professional debut as Ramfis in Aïda at the Deutsche Oper in
Berlin. In 1966, he received the bronze medal at the Tchaikovsky
Competition in Moscow. In 1978, Estes became the first male
African-American to sing a major role on the stage at Bayreuth. He sang
the title role in Der fliegende
Holländer, which he considers his best, if most demanding,
role. For a time, he did mostly lieder recitals and opera performances
on a more limited basis. Estes credited that as a primary reason for
the warmth and musicality of his voice. Estes made his Metropolitan
Opera debut on January 4, 1982, as the Landgrave in Wagner's Tannhäuser. He preformed
internationally both on the operatic and concert stages. Among his many
achievements, he sang the role of Amonasro in Leontyne Price's finale
at the Met in 1985. He also has joined the faculty at Juilliard.
© 1982 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded at his hotel in Chicago on February
17, 1982. Portions
(along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1986, 1989, 1993 and
transcription was made published in Wagner
News in April, 1983. It was slightly re-edited and posted
website in 2013.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.