Simon Estes (b. 1938)

by Randye Jones

estes2Simon 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.

Simon Estes and soprano Grace Bumbry in the title roles of the 1985 Metropolitan Opera production of Porgy and Bess

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 Price’s finale at the Met on January 5, 1985. One month later, he joined soprano Grace Bumbry in the title roles for the Met’s premiere of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. In the audience for the premiere performance were baritone Todd Duncan and soprano Anne Wiggins Brown, who created the roles fifty years earlier.

He also joined the faculty at Juilliard and served as the The F. Wendell Miller Distinguished Artist in Residence at the Iowa State University’s Department of Music and Theatre.


Estes’ voice was big with a natural, warm texture. His bass-baritone with its velvety tone added a unique touch to the Wagnerian roles he sang. He retired from the operatic stage in the role of Lawyer Frazier in the Des Moines (Iowa) Metro Opera production of Porgy and Bess in 2022.


databaseThe Spirituals Database is a searchable listing of compact discs, long-playing discs, 78 rpm, and audio cassette recordings by various vocalists, including this artist, of Negro Spirituals set for concert performance. Information is available about song selections spanning a century from Burleigh’s “Deep River” to the present day. To see the recordings by this artist currently represented in the database, please click on the image to the right.

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Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. Created by Randye Jones. Created/Last modified: February 6, 2024. Accessed:.