The storied opera singing career of Simon Estes, the baritone-bass from Centerville who broke barriers as an international performer beginning in the 1960s, will come to an end in his home state in July.
For nearly 60 years, Estes has wowed audiences from the pope to Nelson Mandela as he traveled the world with his vibrant voice. Next month, he plans to perform in one last opera, “Porgy and Bess,” with the Des Moines Metro Opera.
“It is fitting that my final performance on the operational stage will be in my home state and in Des Moines, Iowa,” Estes said in a news release from the Des Moines Metro Opera announcing this final performance.
Michael Egel, the general and artistic director at the Des Moines Metro Opera, pointed out that this show isn’t just a final opera performance for Estes. It also marks the first time he’s professionally appeared in a full opera production in the state.
“This will be his debut on an Iowa stage, and it will be his debut with us,” Egel said on Wednesday. “He’s done concerts and recitals and performed with symphony orchestras, but he’s never performed on an operatic stage in Iowa.”
Though Estes will step away from the opera stage next month, he intends to continue giving concerts.
“Simon is careful to stress that he’s not going to stop performing; it just won’t be in a fully staged opera,” Egel said.
Estes’ opera farewell will come as part of the Des Moines Metro Opera’s 50th anniversary season, when he also will be the producing adviser for this production, which opens July 1 with performances through July 24.
Across all of his roles in myriad operas — created by luminaries such as Mozart, Wagner and Puccini — Estes estimates “Porgy and Bess” goes toe-to-toe with the best of them.
“Out of all these 102 roles I have sung with all of these composers, Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess’ is one of the greatest operas ever composed,” he said. Many consider it the most significant American opera.
The opera from George Gershwin was first staged on Broadway in 1935 and was based on the novel “Porgy” by DuBose Heyward. It follows the residents of Catfish Row, a Black neighborhood in Charleston, South Carolina, with a focus on the attempts by the beggar Porgy to court Bess.
But in this production, Estes won’t sing the lead role.
“I decided I wasn’t going to do Porgy,” Estes told the Des Moines Register on Wednesday. “I’ve always sung the title role of Porgy, except for this time here in Des Moines.”
Instead, he will play lawyer Frazier in a performance he’s dedicating to the late great Arthur Woodley. When Egel called Estes about performing in “Porgy and Bess,” Estes thought of Woodley.
“They did another new production (of “Porgy and Bess”) at the Met three or four years ago, and this man Arthur Woodley, who was a wonderful good friend of mine, sung the role of the lawyer,” Estes said. “He sounded sensational… To me, it was one of the most beautiful bass-baritone voices in the history of opera.”
Woodley, who had intentions to return to the metro stage, died in November of 2020.
Estes has had a long history with the musical before this latest production. He performed the show on four different continents and at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1985, when he played Porgy opposite Grace Bumbry’s Bess, the first time the venue performed the show.
“It’s such an honor to have him with us. He’s so humble and generous of spirit and giving us his expertise,” Egel said. “It’s meaningful to the other members of the cast to share a stage with someone who’s blazed a way for so many people.”
Simon Estes’ long, storied career
When Estes does make his final bow in an opera on July 24, he will be putting a punctuation mark on a superlative career.
Estes was born in 1938, in Centerville, where his father mined coal. His grandfather was born into slavery and at age 5 was sold for $500 to a family in Missouri, where he worked on a farm. Later, the family gave him a patch of land where he worked and raised 12 children, including Estes’ father.
Estes himself faced poverty as a child and racism throughout his life. Often his father’s pay wasn’t enough to feed the family. His home didn’t have indoor plumbing until 1952.
As one of about 300 Black people in a town of 8,500, Estes was forced to watch movies from the theater’s “crow’s nest” and allowed to swim in the pool only on Saturday mornings, a time reserved for Black residents.
When Estes wanted a job delivering newspapers, the local paper wouldn’t give him a route.
Estes tried to keep a positive frame of mind, he told the Register in 2013. “My mother always told us, ‘Do not hate white people, no matter what they do to you,'” he said. “In grade school, if a white kid called me the N-word, Mother would say, ‘You get down on your knees and pray for that boy.’ It didn’t make sense to me then, but I grew up in a family where we were taught never to hate.”
He went on to attend the University of Iowa, but the opera wasn’t on his radar. In fact, the university’s choir director at the time told Estes that his voice wasn’t good enough for the chorus, a group of 230 people. Another professor, Charles Kellis, heard Estes sing, took him under his wing, gave him voice lessons and introduced him to the opera.
“He was a Black man, and the world needed a Black opera singer. There were Black women — Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price — but still no Black men,” Kellis said in a 2013 interview with the Register.
Estes went on to graduate from the University of Iowa and attended Juilliard on a scholarship. That eventually led to his April 19, 1965, debut in “Aida” at the Deutsche Opera in Berlin. In 1966 he finished in third place at the Tchaikovsky Competition. In 1978, he became the first Black male singer to perform at the Bayreuth Festival in German.
He performed more than 100 roles in 84 major opera houses, and is the only person to perform for the 25th, 50th and 75th anniversaries of the United Nations. His audiences have included presidents and popes as well as historical figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former French president François Mitterrand and South African president Nelson Mandela.
Tutu even wrote a forward for Estes’ 1999 autobiography, “Simon Estes: In His Own Voice.”
“Simon Estes is indeed a worthy role model,” Archbishop Tutu wrote. “I have marveled that despite all the anguish he has suffered, he could be so whole, so magnanimous, so ready to forgive and not nurse grudges, that he could go on the stage despite all that pain and regale the world with such a magnificent voice.”
These achievements earned him recognition in the heart of downtown Des Moines with the Simon Estes Amphitheater, named for the singer, and helped him found a South African high school.
Estes will continue teaching as a professor at Iowa State University and Des Moines Area Community College. He also plans to continue working on a documentary about his life. This won’t be the first documentary Estes has worked on. He also lent his acclaimed voice to narrate the Iowa PBS documentary “Searching for Buxton.”
“I recommend all Iowans see ‘Porgy and Bess,'” Estes said, “not just to hear Simon Estes but to hear all these wonderful artists who will be performing.”
Tickets for “Porgy and Bess” are on sale now through desmoinesmetroopera.org with prices ranging from $20 to $138.