For all the acclaim, standing ovations, medals, presidential command performances and success that Simon Estes has had, he still thinks of himself at times as one of five children in a coal-mining family from Centerville, Iowa.
“It made me more humble to say, ‘Wow, look what I’ve done,’ ” Estes said this week in a cellphone interview while en route back to his home state, “but because I’m a Christian, I give God the credit for giving the talent to me that allowed me to do so many things.”
Estes performs Sunday at the Central Performing Arts Center in DeWitt, Iowa, as part of his “Roots & Wings” tour that he said will go on for about two more years, eventually visiting all 99 counties in the state.
He donates half of his fees for the performances to the Simon Estes Iowa Education Foundation, which provides scholarships for state residents.
“When I was a student at the University of Iowa, I had it very difficult, financially speaking,” said Estes, who turned 74 on Friday. “I thought if ever I was blessed, I would certainly want to help young people with scholarships and financial aid.”
In his college days, Estes said, he washed windows, cleaned floors and toilets, and shined shoes to pay for his education.
“I did everything that was legal to get through college,” the bass-baritone said with a laugh.
When he came to Iowa City, it was with the original intention of becoming a doctor. He switched his major to theology and then to psychology.
But it was in 1961, while singing in a choral group on campus, that the director discovered something special.
“He said, ‘You have a voice for singing opera,’ and I said, ‘What’s opera?,’ having come from Centerville,” Estes said.
He studied music at the famed Juilliard School and began singing opera throughout the country and the world in 1965.
Estes’ career reached legendary proportions from there. In a nutshell, he’s performed 102 roles in operas, worked with 113 orchestras and 480 conductors in 80 operahouses across the world.
“I was so busy I didn’t really realize what I was accomplishing. I was thinking more about the next repertoire,” he said.
After 30-35 years of living in Europe and various locations on the East Coast, he returned to Iowa about seven years ago.
“I never dreamed I’d ever live in Iowa again,” said Estes, who teaches at Iowa State University and Wartburg College.
His program for the tour, including the DeWitt date Sunday afternoon, includes an operatic Italian aria, selections from George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and spirituals.
He suffered injuries to his right leg, knee and shoulder in an auto accident about seven years ago. He can’t stand for long periods of time, Estes said, and does most of the performing from a stool onstage.
His foundation has given 333 scholarships worth $3 million to students attending 56 different colleges and universities, including Harvard and Yale.
And that’s besides raising money for scholarships in Switzerland and the Oklahoma branch of his foundation.
For Estes, it’s simply giving back.
“My parents taught me humility, and I still maintain that as one of my qualities, as well as faith,” he said. “I do it out of spiritual reasons, I’m a Christian, as well as my personal spirit that I have.”