Artist Profile: Simon Estes, Legendary Bass-Baritone

By David Salazar

Simon Estes, born on March 2, 1938, is a legendary bass-baritone.

Born in Iowa, his father was a coal miner and his grandfather was a former slave. His early musical experiences were at the local Baptist church that his family attended. He entered the University of Iowa and was destined to study psychology and religion but ultimately switched to voice. In 1964, he entered the Juilliard School.

After school, he headed to Europe to make a career and in 1965, he made his professional opera debut at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. From there he found himself appearing at the Royal Opera House, La Scala, the Opéra National de Paris, the Vienna State Opera, and the Salzburg Festival, among others. He also made history at the Bayreuth Festival in 1978 (more later) and became a fixture there for six ensuing seasons.

Unfortunately, despite the success in Europe, American success eluded him throughout the 1970s. He got a debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1971, but only in a minor role. The San Francisco Opera did give him better assignments, but the Met Opera did not engage him during this decade of great European success. In 1981 he finally arrived at the Met and won over the audience. From then on he would perform at the Met for the following six consecutive seasons, garnering major assignments; he headlined the first Met Opera performance of “Porgy and Bess,” for example. He also starred alongside Leontyne Price in the soprano’s farewell performance on Jan. 3, 1985.

In addition to his work on the opera stage, Estes has famously worked as a humanitarian, fighting the HIV/AIDS crisis. He also opened the program, “Iowa Students Care” with its “Eliminate Malaria Campaign.” He also donated a public performance for the nonprofit organization, the Foundation for the Revival of Classical Culture.

Moreover, he has been a professor at such universities as the Des Moines Area Community College and Wartburg College, among others.

He has also performed for a number of U.S. presidents, including Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton.

Signature Roles

He sang a wide range of repertory, but the operas of Richard Wagner seemed to be a consistent calling card for Estes. His early career was dominated by the works of Wagner and he was the first black male to perform a leading role at the Bayreuth Festival; he sang “The Flying Dutchman.” His Met debut also came in a Wagner opera, “Tannhäuser,” and late in his career he was the Wotan of choice to inaugurate Otto Schenk’s legendary Ring.

Read more on Estes

The Defining Roles of His Met Career

Watch and Listen

Listen to an album dedicated to the works of Richard Wagner.

And here is an album of Verdi arias.

And here he sings Spirituals.


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