Simon Estes Speaks about His Life & Work

Jul 30, 2014

In May, Simon Estes came to IPR to talk about his life and work, and one hour seemed way too short! His history is extraordinary: his grandparents were slaves, his father was a miner in Centerville, IA , then a major coal town, and he grew up to become one of the world's greatest opera singers. He broke many color barriers, including becoming the first black man to sing lead roles at the Bayreuth Festival (founded by Richard Wagner to showcase his operas). Dr. Estes has now sung at all the world's major opera houses in over 100 roles, and has also worked with 115 orchestras and 90 leading conductors (we discussed his friend Carlo Maria Giulini at the end of the interview). He has performed for kings and queens and for six presidents (in performances at the White House) as well as for Nobel Laureates like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Two days after our talk, he flew to New York to sing at an event honoring another Nobelist, Elie Wiesel. Estes has won numerous major awards himself.

Dr. Simon Estes

Dr. Estes also told me about his "Iowa Students Care" program. It involves students in all of Iowa's counties in fundraising that literally saves the lives of thousands of African children, by providing treated mosquito nets to protect against malaria. (Estes is carrying it out in cooperation with the UN's "Nothing But Nets" program.) We also talked about how a remarkable University of Iowa music teacher set him on his musical path, and why he delayed singing stereotypically "black" roles like Porgy and Joe  until his career was firmly established. And I remain awed by the story of his mother,  whose teachings on how to practice forgiveness inoculated Estes against bitterness as he faced racism, from his childhood to the top of the US opera world. Listen to our conversation below - I guarantee you will be inspired!  

Estes eventually felt that his credentials in the standard repertory were secure enough that he could sing Porgy and Joe; near the end of the interview below, you’ll hear a short sample of his singing "Old Man River" – I played the whole song during the live interview. You can buy a copy of that and more on his Save the Children, Save Their Lives CD, the proceeds of which go to his mosquito-net project. You can get your copy here.

Simon Estes as Hagen in Wagner's Gotterdammerung, Seattle, 1977
Credit Seattle Opera; simonestesfoundation