By Judith Hyman, Ph.D.
When most people mention the lost city of Atlantis, mentioning it is usually all they do, perhaps with a certain measure of awe or reverence that we reserve for myths and fables. Then you have Valerie Estes. She actually traveled across the world and tried to find it!
Your new affable and enthusiastic co-chair of the Opera League’s Westside Gatherings, Valerie Estes brings her rich Greek heritage to her volunteerism with the League.
Valerie grew up in Modesto, CA, a town with a vibrant Greek community. Her grandparents came over from Crete in the 1910s.
An integral part of Greek culture is music. When Valerie was seven, her father bought her a piano. “If you learn to play something, I will buy you a bicycle,” he said. Suffice it to say that very quickly, Valerie began to master that instrument. In no time she was belting out the beloved Greek melody of “Miserlou.” By nine she was the organist for Modesto’s Greek Orthodox Church, a position she held for the next 10 years.
At the USC School of Music (now the USC Thornton School of Music) Valerie pursued her education as a Mable Wilson Richards Scholar. En route to earning her Bachelor of Music in piano and accompanying, she volunteered and was selected to be the teaching assistant for the Carl Orff Schulwerk program for preschoolers. Through movement, singing, playing and improvisation, Orff’s method aimed to develop musical intuition. "Orff Schulwerk was the perfect segue to my Greek formative years,” Valerie says. “When I was a child, my grandfather would play bouzouki and sing folk tunes while my grandmother led my sisters and me in a circle dance. Opa!"
Other highlights of her musical life include collaborating in recitals with students of Piatigorsky, Heifetz, and Rejto, and when her piano trio was named a finalist at the Coleman Chamber Music Competition at Caltech.
The opera love bug didn’t strike Valerie until after college, courtesy of LA Opera. No less than seven of her fellow Trojans, two singers and five musicians, were performing at the Dorothy Chandler in those early years. Valerie scooped up a four-opera subscription for the company’s second season, 1987/88. From there, she was hooked. “It was thrilling to watch and listen to my fellow Trojans,” she says. “I’d usually steal backstage to congratulate them afterwards....For me, LA Opera was an interpersonal experience about renewing relationships, experiencing a new art form and finding a musical home in opera.”
Her entry into the Opera League wouldn’t happen until 2009, after she took Jay Galbraith’s six-week Nibelung Study Group on Wagner’s Ring Cycle. One of her fellow students was a certain eager Leaguer, and fellow Westsider, named Monika Whitaker. When Monika decided to step down as Westside Gathering co-chair earlier this year, the first person she thought of as her replacement was Valerie. "I've been attending the Westside Gatherings since I joined the League. I would often bring a friend to share the experience....Monika and Chuck [Bragg, Westside Gathering co-chair] agreed I'd be a natural to take her place."
Valerie has been working with Chuck to develop a survey to explore member interests and expand League membership on the Westside. This has included visiting Westside homes in search of new Gathering venues.
Setting music aside, Valerie’s insights and leadership skills helped her to develop a successful career in direct marketing. Here she connected customers with products, measured campaign performances and produced advertising materials. She held a variety of positions including Development Associate at Sierra Club, Marketing Director for TOVA, and contractor to ad agencies and clients.
Her Greek heritage continues to resonate through Valerie’s life experiences. She whips up a mean pastitsio and loves to folk-dance. In June, when the American Cinemateque hosted the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival at the Egyptian Theatre, Valerie was first in line to see Our Own Maria Callas, a documentary about the legendary Greek-American diva. Fun fact: Valerie sits on the board of directors for the Hellenic University Club of Southern California, one of the organizations that has sponsored this festival since it began in 2006.
So after all this Greek talk, I have to ask: Does she actually talk Greek? “I speak Greek like a second grader,” she says. “I learned the oral language while visiting my grandparents on weekends and hearing Byzantine Greek in the church….I know enough to traverse my way through Greece, and did so on two extended visits. I met cousins and family, toured islands, ruins and the mainland, and in 1992 accompanied an Earthwatch Institute expedition on an archeological dig in Santorini. We were searching for the lost city of Atlantis. Best vacation ever … especially for a Minoan!”
PHOTO CREDIT: Beverly Phillips