[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 . . .

Bruce Duffie:    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.

estesSimon 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 a person.

BD:    You've 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 you prefer?

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.

SE:    Being 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?

SE:    The 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?

SE:    That's 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 different operas.

BD:    You've sung all three Wotans?

estesSE:    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?

SE:    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.

BD:    Let's 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 Brüunnhilde.

BD:    Is 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?

SE:    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.

BD:    Does 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?

SE:    Maybe.  I'm not actually sure.

BD:    What's the relationship between Wotan and Fricka?

SE:    Oh 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 arrogant?

SE:    Yes.

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 sung Gunther?

SE:    No.  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?

SE:    It's 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.

BD:    When 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 choose Hagen.

BD:    Would you sing the three Wotans and then Hagen?

SE:    I've 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.

BD:    Perhaps we are used to the baritone Wotan, so if he sings in Götterdämmerung he sings Gunther.

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?

SE:    I 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?

SE:    He's 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 solution.

estesBD:    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 get healed.

BD:    And you're waiting for someone who will understand.

SE:    That's 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?

SE:    Yes.

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?

SE:    King Henry is more interesting, I think.

BD:    Do you ever get out onstage and panic -- what am I singing tonight?

SE:    I've 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 satisfying?

SE:    Somewhat, 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?

SE:    Not 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.

BD:    Do changing time zones bother you?

SE:    It's 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.

BD:    That's strange -- usually singers find it easier when the days lengthen coming West.

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 role.

BD:    How much torment and disappointment can you bring to the role?

estesSE:    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 extremely involved.

BD:    Do you enjoy plumbing the depths of Wagner?

SE:    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?

SE:    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 things.

BD:    You enjoy singing?

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?

SE:    We've 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 so, too. 

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 who brought me to Bayreuth.  He is the man who went out on a limb all by 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 other 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 statement, 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 chorus, 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 a 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 1998.  The transcription was made published in Wagner News in April, 1983.  It was slightly re-edited and posted on this website in 2013.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning 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 like 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.