Photograph of Simon Estes

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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.

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Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. Created by Randye Jones. Created/Last modified: June 11, 2015. Accessed: .

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