Knoxville — Simon Estes is scheduled to perform at the Knoxville Performing Arts Center on Sunday, Dec. 1, and to his knowledge, this will be his first performance in the community.
Estes has performed in every major opera venue in the world. He seemed to find it funny that he has never performed in Knoxville, a town he remembers traveling through with his family, as they made their way to Des Moines.
Growing up in a financially poor family in Centerville, the family had strong faith in God.
"We were millionaires in our faith in God," Estes points out. When he was around 11 years old, he and his mother read through the entire Bible in one year by reading three chapters a day and five on Sunday. This was something he was able to accomplish, in seven months, with his wife of 13 years, Ovida.
Estes gives full credit to God for his voice and success. His mother and an older sister also had incredible voices. His sister played piano and the family listened to classical music when he was a child.
When he was in junior high school, the high school choral director recognized his talent and invited him to sing with the high school choir. Back then, in the 1950s, his voice hadn't changed yet and he sang soprano with the girls.
Compare that today, when young children giggle when he talks with them with his deep, bass voice. Estes doesn't mind.
The music he most often considered as a young man was popular music. He enjoyed artists such as Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra.
He attended junior college in Centerville. From there, he went on to the University of Iowa, where Charles Kellis heard him sing and told him that he could sing opera. Estes went on to the Julliard School in New York City. Upon completing his training there, Estes was hired to sing in an opera in Berlin, West Germany, in 1965.
"We have very special gifts and talents from God," Estes says of himself and his fellow opera singers. The ability to project their voices, and fill large opera houses, without the assistance of microphones, requires "very special vocal cords." Estes said he cares for his vocal cords by avoiding alcohol, tobacco, drugs and by thanking God every day for his gifts.
"I really give the Lord credit," Estes said.
Throughout his illustrious career, Estes has performed for kings and queens, presidents and other world leaders. Three years ago, Estes was asked to perform during the grand finale concert of the World Cup soccer tournament in South Africa. He was called there to perform, Estes said, and while in Africa, God had another mission for him.
It was while he was in South Africa that Estes learned that one million children in Africa die of malaria each year. Of all of the deaths from malaria in the world, 90 percent occur in Africa. Every 30 seconds, someone dies. In most cases, the disease is contracted through mosquito bites.
"It's been heavy on my heart for quite some time," Estes said. He has set a goal, with his foundation, to purchase one million mosquito nets to save African children. He is receiving assistance from the United Nations Foundation.
To help him meet his goal, $5 - which is the cost of one of these mosquito nets - of the asking price for one of his CD's is donated to the cause. Estes is hopeful that, by the end of May, he will be able to achieve his goal.
Those who attend his concert in Knoxville will be able to support his mission. Just buying a ticket for the concert itself will support aspiring music students across the country.
Half of Estes' fee is donated to his foundation's scholarship fund. Knoxville Middle School Vocal Director Megan Phillips was the very first recipient of one of these scholarships.
Estes said he wanted to share the blessings he has received in life and find a way to give back to others who share his passion. When attending the University of Iowa, he worked hard, whether it was cleaning floors or other manual labor, to pay for his education. He's hoping he can help today's students with their finances so they will not have to work as hard.
Estes has also shared his gifts with college students. He is a former professor at Boston University and a current professor for Iowa State University and Wartburg College. Estes says he has resumed permanent residency in Iowa, giving up the job in Boston, at the behest of his wife. He keeps a home in Waverly, home of Wartburg.
His Knoxville concert will be diversified and will include performance of Broadway music, opera and spiritual songs. There will be something for everyone, Estes said, and the concert will close with a performance of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" with the high school choir.
"I hope they come out," Estes said of local residents to the concert. He has received standing ovations in every concert he has performed in Iowa, which has included all 99 counties.
"I look forward to coming to Knoxville," Estes said.
As of Thursday morning, Knoxville High School Choral Director Jackie Duffy reported that locally, there were fifteen $50 tickets; two $35 tickets; and seventy-five $25 tickets available. Online there were twenty-six $50 tickets, seventeen $35 tickets and sixty $25 tickets still available.
Estes, as he does with every high school performance, will share his story with, and take questions from the student body in an assembly on Dec. 2.