Iowa State faculty member Simon Estes, inducted into Opera Hall of Fame


Simon Estes in 2019, singing “The Lord’s Prayer” at the Lutheran Church of Hope’s 25th Birthday Celebration in West Des Moines.

Margaret Troup

The world-renowned bass baritone opera singer, Simon Estes, has been inducted into the newly formed Opera Hall of Fame by the nonprofit organization OPERA America.

Estes first began training in the art of opera in 1961 at the University of Iowa.

“A teacher heard me singing and he told me, ‘You know, you have a voice to sing opera.’ And I said, ‘what’s opera?’” Estes said.

While OPERA America celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2020, the Opera Hall of Fame has only just debuted this year, and Estes is one of its first 10 inductees.

“I couldn’t believe it, because it never existed,” Estes said. “But then I got this email and I was shocked. I’m in the first 10 people to have received this honor and it was really, really humbling.”

Throughout his career, Estes has performed in countries all over the world, such as France, Italy, Russia and Germany. He has also performed entire operas in each countries’ native tongues. 

“The difference [between performing in Europe and America] was just learning the languages,” Estes said. “I’ve sang in all those languages and I’ve recorded in German, Italian, French, Russian, English and Spanish. God gave me a talent for languages and a talent for opera. He has given us very special vocal cords that our voices can project over an orchestra and so people can hear us without amplification.”

Estes’ work in both opera and humanitarianism has broken barriers in multiple different countries.

“When I first started singing, there was a lot of racial discrimination, especially for men of color,” Estes said. “It is much, much better than when I first started singing, but we’ve only reached a plateau. That’s why most of my career was in Europe, because those opera houses judged me on my talent and not on my skin color.”

In addition to being the first African American lead singer at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Estes has spent a significant amount of time and money providing for those who are less fortunate.

“In the last number of years, I’ve been helping save children’s lives in Africa,” Estes said. “I was singing in 2010 in Johannesburg, Africa, for the grand finale concert for the World Cup in soccer. I heard the moderator mention that there were 1 million children [under] 5 years of age that would die every year because they didn’t have a $5.00 tree net under which to sleep. They were getting bit by mosquitoes and they would get malaria.”

In response to this alarming issue, Estes immediately used his talents for singing to help both give aid to the children in Africa as well as to groups of students who Estes can personally relate to.

“I did a lot of benefit concerts and raised $532,000 and I gave it all to the United Nations and Salvations in 2013-2014 to help save these childrens’ lives,” Estes said. “ I have scholarship funds at Iowa State University, the University of Iowa and at DMACC to help students because, when I was at the University of Iowa I was very, very poor and I always wanted to help students financially, so I’ve helped give students scholarships all around the world.”

Estes began teaching at Iowa State 22 years ago. As of March 4 of this year, the musical hall on campus was officially renamed the “Simon Estes Music Hall” for Estes’ dedication to music and the teachings of it.

“It’s a really, really deep honor to have a building named after me,” Estes said. “I’ve worked with the students with languages, interpretation and musicianship. I do master classes where the students ask questions not only about the music program but [anything] really.”

Estes concluded the interview by reflecting on how happy his career at Iowa State has made him over the years.

“I just want the readers to know that I’m really happy teaching at Iowa State University,” Estes said. “I think we have a wonderful president, Wendy Wintersteen, and I’m just so happy to be there. I can’t wait for COVID-19 to be over with and we can start teaching in person again.”