Dr. Simon Estes - Baritone
"Educational institutions can make a great contribution to discussing race. The higher the education, often times the less prejudice somone is"
I am spending the month celebrating African American Opera singers who have made a significant contribution to music, specifically opera. The opera singers highlighted in this series have all inspired me for many reasons. I have worked with some, I have participated in master classes with some, and for those who are no longer with us, I was told about their history by my parents and former music teachers.
Today I am featuring renowned opera singer and educator Dr. Simon Estes, born on March 2, 1938, in Centerville, Iowa. Estes has performed in many of the world's major opera houses and has received numerous awards and honors for his contributions to the opera industry. He has performed over one hundred opera roles in over 85 international opera houses. He was the first African American male opera singer to perform a lead role at Bayreuth Festival. The media was not kind to him leading up to the performance due to the color of his skin. He went on to perform to rave reviews.
Estes began his university career as a pre-med student in 1957 at the University of Iowa. In 1961, a voice teacher, Mr. Charles Kellis, heard Estes sing in one of the university choirs. Kellis introduced Estes to several classical recordings leading Dr. Estes to change his professional career path to singing. Upon graduating from the University of Iowa, Estes enrolled in the Juilliard School in 1964. In 1965, he received a music grant from the NAACP and the New York City Trust Fund to audition for the role of Ramfis in Aida. Estes was cast in the role and made his professional debut at the Deutsche Opera in Berlin. He later won third prize in the Munich International Music Competition in 1965 and the bronze medal at the 1966 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.
From my personal experience, Dr. Estes modeled how opera singers of color should conduct themselves on and off stage, as well as communicating with management, advocating for themselves as artists, and advocating for their colleagues when called to do so. I can recall watching him during one of the rehearsals of Simone Bocanegra. He was gracious, and humble, and inspired me to be a better artist.
Dr. Estes recently made his final operatic performance at Demoines Opera in the role of Lawyer Frazier in Porgy and Bess in 2022. A beautiful grace note to a spectacular career. He will continue to perform in recitals and concerts around the world as well as continue to teach at Iowa State University.