Simon Estes was born in Centerville, Iowa on March 2, 1938, the son of Simon and Ruth (Jeter) Estes. Simon, Sr. came north to Iowa to find better employment as a coal-miner, and was the son of a former slave who had been sold at auction for $500.
Named for his father, Simon, Jr. was simply called ‘Billy’ within his family circle to avoid confusion. One of five children, “Billy” had three sisters and a younger brother, all heavily involved in their local Baptist church. And it’s here, in Centerville, where Simon had his earliest musical experiences, including church musical activities and participation in school music programs, all while battling the ugly stains of racism from day one.
Simon Comes to Iowa City.
In the late 1950’s, Simon came to Iowa City, entering the University of Iowa with the intent of studying medicine. Like many students, he changed his major a couple of times (from psychology to religion) before finally settling in on vocal music, primarily due to the influence of SUI faculty member, Charles Kellis.
One day (1961) in the music building, Simon was rehearsing with the SUI “Old Gold Singers” (he was the group’s first and only black singer). Kellis, as he was walking by the rehearsal hall, heard Simon’s booming voice coming through the door. Later, Kellis caught up with that young singer with the booming voice, offering him free private lessons (Simon was too poor to pay), introducing him to opera, and eventually, helping Simon find his way into the Julliard School of Music.
“When I first met (Simon),” Kellis remembers, “I thought to myself – ‘this is the man, the real man, who’s going to make a big career,’ and he certainly did! He’s the greatest bass baritone of all time!”
Yup, Kellis has it exactly right.
Simon Estes: From Centerville to Center Stage.
Simon Estes, the poor black kid from Centerville, who has had to fight off racial injustice at nearly every turn of his career, has gone on to become an internationally-acclaimed bass baritone, star of the stage at the world’s major opera houses, a regular guest at international festivals, along with making appearances with leading international orchestras under eminent conductors around the world. His 1998 performance of Simon Boccanegra under the direction of Placido Domingo for the Washington Opera Company at The Kennedy Center was his 100th role.
Like many African-American artists of his day, Estes, after graduating from Julliard, decided to go to Europe where racial prejudice was not as much of a barrier as it was in the United States. In 1965, he made his professional opera debut as Ramfis in Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, receiving a warm reception. The following year, Simon scored a major success when he won a bronze medal at Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Competition, which then led to an invitation from President Lyndon Johnson to perform at the White House (1966), followed by several offers for engagements at major opera houses in Europe.
Over his fifty-plus year singing career, Simon has sung in front of presidents, popes and internationally renowned figures including Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, Boris Yeltsin, Yasser Arafat, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Yet, Simon, a very humble man, readily admits that he’s felt even more honor when he sings for elderly residents in nursing homes around the state of Iowa.
Overcoming Racial Prejudice.
Notably, Simon Estes was part of the first generation of black opera singers to achieve widespread success and is viewed as part of a group of performers who were instrumental in helping to break down the barriers of racial prejudice in the opera world. But, it didn’t come without struggles.
In 1981, Simon was finally offered a contract to sing at the home theatre of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. He accepted, but at the time was cautioned by Leontyne Price, the first African-American to become a leading prima donna at the Met, about the difficult road ahead. Price, who suffered actual threats to her life when she first opened at the Met, explained, “Simon, it’s going to be even more difficult for you. Because you are a black male, the discrimination will be greater. You have a beautiful voice; you are musical, intelligent, independent and handsome. With all of these ingredients, you are a threat. It will be more difficult for you than it was for me.”
While Price’s words were partially correct, the Met audience and critics did respond very favorably to Simon’s house debut on January 4, 1982 as Hermann in Wagner’s Tannhäuser with Richard Cassilly in the title role and Leonie Rysanek as Elisabeth.
Simon Sings at the Met.
Simon went on to sing in the next six consecutive seasons at the Met, portraying such roles as Amfortas in Wagner’s Parsifal and Orest in Richard Strauss’s Elektra. In 1985, he sang Porgy in the Met’s first production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.
In 1986, he sang Wotan in the inauguration of the legendary Ring production at the Metropolitan Opera directed by Otto Schenk. He returned to the Met in 1990 to sing Porgy again and for the last time in 1999 to portray Amonasro to Sharon Sweet’s Aida. Perhaps his greatest Met moment was singing the role of Amonasro to Leontyne Price’s Aida for her farewell opera performance which was telecast live on national television on January 3, 1985.
A Standing ‘O’ for Simon Estes.
In 1999, Estes published his autobiography, Simon Estes: In His Own Voice. Estes has worked as a voice, humanities, and foreign language professor at Iowa State University, Boston University, and Wartburg College. He has also established several foundations including the Simon Estes Iowa Educational Foundation; The Simon Estes Music High School near Cape Town, South Africa; and the Switzerland-based Simon Estes International Foundation for Children.
In 2013, the Simon Estes Foundation inaugurated a program called “Iowa Students Care,” to engage Iowa students in the cause of eliminating malaria in Africa by raising funds to provide treated bed nets for African children. Its “Eliminate Malaria Campaign” was engaged in partnership with the United Nations Foundation and its “Nothing But Nets” Campaign, and was endorsed by both the governor and lieutenant governor of the state of Iowa.
In 1980, Estes married Yvonne Baer, and they had three daughters, Jennifer, Lynne, and Tiffany. Sadly, after 21 years, the couple divorced and Baer is now a consultant in Zurich. In 2001, Estes married Ovida Stong, a nurse who had cared for his mother, Ruth (pictured above) in Iowa.
1996 – The Iowa Award.
2021 – Iowa City Honors One Great Iowan.
Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague presents the Iowa City Lifetime Achievement Award to Simon Estes on June 19, 2021.
Rising from humble beginnings in the small town of Centerville, Iowa, this grandson of a slave sold at auction for $500, son of a father who faithfully provided for his family with menial jobs from coal-mining to serving as a hotel porter, is an amazing success story. With family values founded upon a godly heritage, character-building struggle and sacrifice, Simon Estes successfully faced each new hurdle and career challenge, culminating in triumph for this extraordinarily gifted performing artist. When asked if he thought we were victims of fate or makers of our own destiny, he answered quickly “Makers of our own destiny.” Iowa State Department of Music & Theatre
Here’s a tip of the hat to Simon Estes – Thank you for your model of patience and perseverance. As another famed Iowa musician, Meredith Willson, once composed, “May the Good Lord bless and keep you.”
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.