Simon Lamont Estes (1938- ) is an African American bass-baritone opera singer whose professional opera career began in 1965 when he debuted at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper. In 1978, he became the first Black man to sing at the Bayreuth Festival, the world-renowned event celebrating the operatic works of German composer Richard Wagner.
Born in Centerville, Iowa, Estes began singing opera as a student at the University of Iowa and continued his formal musical training when he enrolled at the Juilliard School of Music in 1963.
Estes made his first contact with German opera when he went to Düsseldorf in 1964 to visit his friend, a fellow Juilliard student who had moved to Germany after graduation. He auditioned for a casting agent, and landed a spot in the spring 1965 production of Aida. The opera, composed by the Italian Giuseppe Verdi, tells the story of an Ethiopian princess enslaved in the Old Kingdom of Egypt. Having learned the role of King Radamès, Estes only learned upon arriving in West Berlin a week before the performance that he would instead be singing the role of the high priest Ramfis. He worked with coaches to memorize the role quickly and stepped onto the stage without having ever rehearsed with the cast or conductor.
Estes’s success in Aida would mark the first in a long string of performances in Germany and other European countries. Estes has appeared in 84 opera houses and with 115 orchestras, and he has sung leading roles in each of Wagner’s ten major operas. In 1966, he won the bronze medal in the prestigious Tchaikovsky International Competition, which opened doors for him to sing with the state operas in Bavaria, Hamburg, Vienna, and Zürich, in addition to venues in Britain, France, Italy, and Spain. He drew particular acclaim for his leading roles in Wagnerian operas, including Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman).
Throughout the 1970s, Estes sang the role of the Hollander in Munich and Zürich, where he caught the attention of Wolfgang Wagner, Richard Wagner’s son. Estes traveled to Germany to audition and opened the 1978 season at the Bayreuth Festival to a full house and good reviews. He continued to sing at the festival for the next six years consecutively. Considering his performance of the Hollander role to be his best, Estes went on to sing it many more times.
While European audiences and opera houses received Estes openly, he struggled to break into major roles in the United States due to racism in the industry. The Metropolitan Opera in New York, the largest classical music organization in the United States, refused to engage with him throughout the 1960s. His break in the United States came with the help of Austrian conductor Kurt Herbert Adler, general director of the San Francisco Opera, who scouted talent from abroad to transform the SFO into a world-class destination. Adler recruited Estes in 1967, and Estes continued to sing major roles at the SFO, including that of the Hollander. He finally broke into the Metropolitan Opera in 1982 as Hermann in Wagner’s Tannhäuser.
Estes lived in Switzerland until the early 2000s, when he and his wife moved back to Iowa. In 2010, Estes embarked on “Roots and Wings,” a concert tour with performances in all 99 of Iowa’s counties. He collaborated with a school choir for each performance and granted scholarships to young Iowans interested in following his path in vocal music.
Source: Simon Estes (Opernsänger), Zürich via Wikimedia Commons
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