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Estes, Simon

Published onJul 30, 2021
Estes, Simon

(March 2, 1938 - )

Quick Facts

Renowned opera singer, teacher, philanthropist, humanitarian.

Simon Estes, 2016 by Rose Frantzen (American, b. 1965). Oil on board. Commissioned by University Museums and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U2017.99

Simon Estes was born and raised in Centerville, Iowa, the son of a coalminer and the grandson of a slave. He was one of five children born to Simon and Ruth Estes. Educated in Centerville, he was a good student, participated in choir and athletics, including basketball, football, and track. Starting at a young age he worked as a paperboy, shined shoes and mopped floors at a barber shop. Following high school graduation, Estes attended Centerville Junior College for 1 year before attending the University of Iowa, Iowa City. He had difficulty choosing a major switching from medicine to religion, to psychology, and finally to music.

After some early setbacks and criticism at the University of Iowa, Estes was accepted into studio of Charles Kellis, who believed in Estes’ talent and became his mentor. After graduation he auditioned for The Julliard School in New York City, where he was not only accepted but also received a full academic scholarship. After a year of studying theory, musicianship, and sight-reading, Estes travelled to Europe where he auditioned for the Duetsche Oper, was offered a role, and debuted as Ramfis, the high priest in Verdi’s Aida on April 19, 1965. In the same year, he won third place in the Munich Competition, one of the most respected competitions in the opera world, which led to his being hired to sing at opera houses throughout Germany. In 1966, he won third place in the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, which brought his name to the attention of people in the United States.

Several performances have been historic milestones in Mr. Estes' career. His debut as the Dutchman in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman at the Bayreuth Festival in 1978 was the first appearance of any black male artist there. He made his Metropolitan Opera, New York City, debut on January 4, 1982, as the Landgrave in Wagner's Tannhauser. He was the Metropolitan Opera's first Porgy in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in 1985 and sang the following year with the Boston Pops at the Statue of Liberty centennial celebration. He has sung at the White House for three American Presidents and in 1990 performed at the service honoring Nelson Mandela at New York's Riverside Church and with the National Symphony under the direction of Mstislav Rostropovich for the Fourth of July Celebration in Washington. In the fall of 1994 he sang for Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu in The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Among his recording credits are works on the Auvidis, Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Deutsche Schallplatten, EMI, Phillips Classics and Sony Classical labels.

Estes has performed with all the major international opera companies including the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala Milan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Paris Opera, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, San Francisco Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Florence Opera, and the State Operas of Hamburg, Munich and Vienna as well as the Zurich Opera House. In high demand as a recitalist and orchestral soloist, he has appeared regularly with the Berlin Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, The Philharmonic Orchestra of London and the Vienna Philharmonic. Among the conductors with whom Mr. Estes has worked are Gerd Albrecht, Leonard Bernstein, Gary Bertini, Myung Whun Chung, James Conlon, Sir Colin Davis, Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, Carlo Maria Giulini, James Levine, Lorin Maazel, Kurt Masur, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti, Seiji Ozawa, Mstislav Rostropovich, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Sir Georg Solti, Horst Stein, Marcello Viotti and David Zinman.

Known throughout the world for his opera, concert, and recital performances, as well as for his recordings, he still finds time to share his love and knowledge of music with students from elementary school through college with master classes and lectures.  He is the F. Wendell Miller Distinguished Artist in Residence at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa and Distinguished Professor and Artist in Residence at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.  In his master classes, across the country and the world, Dr. Estes teaches not only music, but artistic and personal values as well. His love and concern for youth is also manifested in the scholarship organizations he has created including: The Simon Estes Fund for Musical Outreach at Iowa State University; The Simon Estes Scholarship Fund at the University of Iowa; The Simon and Westella H. Estes Scholarship Fund at Centerville Community College, Centerville, Iowa; The Simon Estes Educational Foundation, Inc. in Tulsa, Oklahoma; The Simon Estes International Foundation, Inc., Zurich, Switzerland; the Simon Estes Foundation, Ankeny, Iowa; and The Simon Estes Educational Trust, Cape Town, South Africa which provides support for a school for underprivileged children, which is named after him as the Simon Estes Music High School.

Mr. Estes has been recognized in Iowa as well. In 1996, Governor Terry Branstad gave him the Iowa Award which represents the state’s highest citizen award and is intended “to encourage and recognize the outstanding service of Iowans in the fields of science, medicine, law, religion, social welfare, education, agriculture, industry, government, and other public service” and to recognize the “merit of their accomplishments in Iowa and throughout the United States.” In 2000, the Iowa House of Representatives honored Estes through a special resolution. Also, the Simon Estes Riverfront Amphitheater, a popular event venue in Des Moines, bears his name.

At best count, Estes has sung with 115 orchestras and performed 102 opera roles in 84 opera houses on every continent except Antarctica. Of all accomplishments, Estes is most proud of his role as the father of three daughters. He also is a man of great Christian faith, who is grateful for the talents and gifts he has been given by God.  It is Mr. Estes’ desire that through his singing he can share God’s love to touch peoples’ heart to love God and one another.

In July 2017, the United Nations Foundation honored Estes and his wife, Ovida, with its Lifetime Impact Award for their work in this international effort. They are among the organization’s top donors and the first Iowans to receive the award.

Estes holds honorary doctorates from numerous institutions, including Iowa State University. In 2016, Estes was selected to have his portrait painted at the Iowa State Fair by artist Rose Frantzen as part of the ever-expanding Faces of Iowa State project. The completed portrait is installed in Parks Library, Iowa State University campus. As of 2020 the music building on ISU campus was renamed Simon Estes Music Hall.

Selected Sources

The Simon Estes Foundation website:

The Simon Estes Educational Foundation, Inc. website:

Morain, M. “Simon Estes: One voice for a million.” Des Moines Register, Oct. 12, 2013.

Estes, S. & Swanson, M. (1999). Simon Estes; In his own voice. Cumming, Iowa: LMP.

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