(A more up-to-date version of this biography is available at afrovoices.com/simon-estes-biography)
Simon Estes (b. 1938)
by Randye Jones
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 Aida 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
Hollander, 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 Tannhauser. 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. He is currently the The F. Wendell Miller Distinguished Artist in Residence at the Iowa State University's Department of Music and Theatre.
Estes has a big voice with a natural, warm texture. He is a
bass-baritone whose velvety tone adds a unique touch to the Wagnerian
roles he sings.
Musical excerpt: "I Got Plentyof Nuttin'" from Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin. Recorded by Simon Estes, date unknown, companion CD to the book Simon Estes: In His Own Voice by Simon Estes and Mary L. Swanson. LMP, 1999.