Estes, Simon (Lamont)
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Estes, Simon 1938–
Simon Estes 1938–
African American women have enjoyed fairly frequent success on American operatic stages, with singers such as Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Grace Bumbry, and many more receiving international acclaim. The list of black male singers who have had comparable careers is much shorter, including the bass-baritone Simon Estes and very few others. That, Estes has maintained, is no accident; he has said in a series of interviews that the virtually all-white world of opera administration has balked at the onstage depiction of romantic encounters between black male and white female singers. Audiences, in his view, are not to blame. “The people in the audience,” he told the New York Times, “don’t care whether you’re black or white. They want to hear good singing, and they want to see good acting.”
Simon Estes was born in the small town of Centerville, Iowa, on February 2, 1938. His mother, he recalled to the Omaha World-Herald, had an “incredibly beautiful” voice. His father, the son of a slave, was a coal miner, and Estes grew up in a house with heating system or indoor plumbing. Nevertheless, the family was close and the atmosphere shaped by religion. “We were very poor,” Estes told the World-Herald, “but we had an old upright piano for many years, and many evenings the family would gather around the piano and we would sing and make music together.” Estes also performed at the local Second Baptist Church.
His mother encouraged him to face racism with prayer rather than bitterness, and he did well in school and attended the University of Iowa. At the university, Eistes played basketball and was a member of the student council; in the latter capacity he was instrumental in desegregating the university’s dormitories. He also performed in an a capella ensemble called the Old Gold Singers.
Estes was the group’s first African American member, and his voice caught the attention of Iowa voice professor Charles Kellis, who asked him if he had ever considered an operatic career. At the time, Estes didn’t know what opera was; he had bounced around between pre-med, theology, and psychology courses. But Kellis took him aside and played him a selection of operatic recordings. “I loved them, absolutely loved them,” Estes told the Neu; York Times. “I had no doubt after that what I wanted to do.”
At a Glance…
Born February 2, 1938, in Centervilie, Iowa; son of a coal miner; married Yvonne Baer, a native of Switzerland; children: Jennifer, Lynn, and Tiffany. Education: University of Iowa; Julliard School of Music; further vocal study in Europe.
Career: Operatic bass-baritone. Numerous operatic appearances in Europe and U.S., 1970s-1980s; made debut, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 1982; performed in Metropolitan production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, 1985; extensive recital career; Julliard School of Music, faculty member.
Awards: Tchaikovsky Vocal Competition, medal winner, Moscow, 1966; several foundation grants and honorary doctorates; Tchaikovsky Medal, 1985; Iowa Award of Achievement, 1996.
Addresses: Agent —Columbia Artist Management, Inc., c/o Laurence Tucker, 165 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
Estes won a scholarship to New York’s Julliard School of Music and went on for further study in Europe, partly financed by a collection taken up by office workers at the New York branch of the NAACR He got a foretaste of what awaited him in the operatic world when he was forced to put on whiteface for a role in Verdi’s opera Aida that he won in Berlin in 1965. Estes’s breakthrough came when he won a silver medal at Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Competition the following year; that event, notoriously unfriendly to Americans, had launched the career of fellow American prizewinner Van Cliburn several years before.
President Lyndon Johnson invited Estes to perform at the White House, and his career was on its way. Offers flowed in from top opera houses, and for most of the next several decades Estes kept up a hectic pace. His repertoire included roughly 100 roles. Estes became especially identified with the operas of the German composer Richard Wagner, and in 1978 he became the first black male performer to sing a leading role at Bayreuth, the theater that Wagner had established and was still run by his descendants. His performance in the opera The Flying Dutchman was in his own estimation one of his best, and he went on to perform at Bayreuth for six consecutive years.
In the U.S., however, Estes had a much more difficult time. The refined world of opera did not shield him from the uglier aspects of American racism. At a hotel in the South in the 1970s he was accused, while attired in tails on his way to a performance, of stealing a woman’s pearls, and his room was searched. “‘Boy, what did you do with it?’” Estes recalled hotel personnel saying in a Washington Post interview. And his engagements at American opera houses were fewer and farther between than those in Europe, although he gained a top reputation for his vocal recitals. Estes married Yvonne Baer, a Jewish woman from Switzerland, and began to make his home there for part of the year.
Especially frustrating to Estes was the lack of an offer from New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the most important of all the American opera houses. Finally Estes made his debut there in 1982, in Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser; he observed to the New York Times that “I have been ready to sing leading roles at the Met since 1974 at least.” Even the Tannhäuser role, not considered one of the top challenges in the Wagnerian repertory, was not his first choice, but it did bring him positive reviews and the chance for a return engagement at the Metropolitan three years later. This time it was in an opera that touched a chord with a wider American public: he played the role of Porgy in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.
That performance put Estes in the newspapers and on television talk shows, cementing the success of his career in his native country. He joined the voice faculty at Julliard and devoted much of the rest of his career to helping younger singers, especially those who had faced the same kinds of obstacles that he had. He established a scholarship in his own name at the University of Iowa, and has often given master classes at music schools.
Above all, however, Estes has continued to speak out about the scarcity of African American men in opera. “Look carefully and you’ll see that there are no black opera managers in the U.S.,” he told the Jerusalem Post. “Aside from Simon Estes, there is no other black American opera singer who has a career in the U.S.” In a Washington Post interview he said, “I think it’s a racial problem. And it does encompass this area of romance. It’s okay if a white man is involved with a black woman, but it’s frowned on the other way around.” Critics and observers of opera differed on the accuracy of his evaluation, but none could doubt the importance of the issues he had raised, nor his courage in raising them.
Sadie, Stanley, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., Macmillan, 2001.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 8th ed., Schirmer, 1992.
Jerusalem Post (Israel), October 24, 1994, p. 5
New York Times, January 3, 1982, section 2, p. 15; May 31, 1985, p. A21; February 29, 2000, p. E9.
Omaha World-Herald, September 8, 1997, p. 29.
San Diego Union-Tribune, March 7, 2000, p. E5.
Washington Post, January 24, 1996, p. B1.
Additional information was obtained online at African Voices, http://www.afrovoices.com/estes.html
—James M. Manheim
"Estes, Simon 1938–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/estes-simon-1938
"Estes, Simon 1938–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved February 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/estes-simon-1938