Iowan Simon Estes’ Last Opera Will Be in Des Moines
The opera singing career of Simon Estes, the Centerville bass-baritone who broke barriers as an international performer starting in the 1960s, will come to an end in his home state in July.
For nearly 60 years, Estes 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 final opera, “Porgy and Bess,” with the Des Moines Metro Opera.
“It is fitting that my final performance on the opera stage will be in my home country and in Des Moines, Iowa,” Estes said in a Des Moines Metro Opera press release announcing this final performance.
Michael Egel, general and artistic director of Des Moines Metro Opera, emphasized that this show is not just a final opera performance for Estes. It is also the first time he has appeared professionally in a full opera production in the state.
“It will be his debut on an Iowa stage, and it will be his debut with us,” Egel said Wednesday. “He gave concerts and recitals and performed with symphony orchestras, but he never performed on an opera stage in Iowa.”
Although Estes is leaving the opera stage next month, he intends to continue giving concerts.
“Simon is careful to point out that he won’t stop performing; it just won’t be in a fully staged opera,” Egel said.
Estes’ farewell to opera will come as part of the Des Moines Metro Opera’s 50th anniversary season, when he will also serve as production adviser for that production, which opens July 1 with performances through July 24. July.
In all of his roles in a myriad of operas – created by such luminaries as Mozart, Wagner and Puccini – Estes believes “Porgy and Bess” goes hand in hand with the best of them.
“Of all those 102 roles I’ve sung with all those composers, Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess’ is one of the greatest operas ever composed,” he said. Many consider it the most important American opera.
George Gershwin’s opera was first staged on Broadway in 1935 and was based on DuBose Heyward’s novel “Porgy.” It follows the residents of Catfish Row, a black neighborhood in Charleston, South Carolina, focusing on beggar Porgy’s attempts to woo Bess.
But in this production, Estes will not sing the lead role.
“I decided I wasn’t going to do Porgy,” Estes told the Des Moines Register on Wednesday. “I always sang the title role of Porgy, except this time here in Des Moines.”
Instead, he’ll play the lawyer Frazier in a performance he dedicates to the late great Arthur Woodley. When Egel called Estes about starring 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, sang the part of the lawyer” , Estes said. “He sounded sensational… For me, he was one of the most beautiful low baritone voices in the history of opera.”
Woodley, who intended to return to the subway scene, died in November 2020.
After:The famous Iowan receives an honorary degree from Juilliard for his lyrical achievements
Estes had a long history with the musical before this latest production. He performed the show on four different continents and at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York 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 gives us his expertise,” Egel said. “It’s meaningful for the other cast members to share a stage with someone who paved the way for so many. “
The long and rich career of Simon Estes
When Estes bows out at an opera on July 24, he’ll put a punctuation mark on an outstanding 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 piece of land where he worked and raised 12 children, including Estes’s father.
Estes himself faced poverty as a child and racism throughout his life. Often his father’s salary was not enough to feed the family. His home had no 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 was only allowed to swim in the pool on Saturdays. morning, an hour reserved for black residents.
When Estes wanted a job delivering newspapers, the local paper didn’t give him directions.
Estes tried to keep a positive mindset, he told the Register in 2013. “My mom always told us, ‘Don’t hate white people no matter what they do to you,'” a he declared. “In elementary school, if a white kid called me the N-word, my mom would say, ‘You get down on your knees and pray for that boy.’ It didn’t make sense to me at the time, but I grew up in a family where we were taught never to hate.”
He then attended the University of Iowa, but opera was not on his radar. In fact, the college choir director at the time told Estes that his voice wasn’t good enough for the choir, a group of 230 people. Another teacher, Charles Kellis, heard Estes sing, took him under his wing, gave him singing lessons and introduced him to 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 then graduated from the University of Iowa and attended Juilliard on a scholarship. This eventually led to her debut on April 19, 1965 in “Aida” at the Deutsche Opera in Berlin. In 1966, he finished third in the Tchaikovsky Competition. In 1978 he became the first black male singer to perform at the Bayreuth Festival in German.
He has performed more than 100 roles in 84 major operas 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 Francois Mitterrand and South African President Nelson Mandela.
Tutu even wrote a foreword for Estes’ 1999 autobiography, “Simon Estes: In His Own Voice.”
“Simon Estes is indeed a worthy role model,” Bishop Tutu wrote. “I marveled that despite all the anguish he went through, he was able to be so whole, so magnanimous, so ready to forgive and hold no grudges, that he was able to go on stage despite all that pain. and regale the world with such a beautiful voice.”
These accomplishments brought him recognition in the heart of downtown Des Moines with the Simon Estes Amphitheater, named after the singer, and helped him found a South African high school.
Estes will continue to teach 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 everyone in Iowa see ‘Porgy and Bess,'” Estes said, “not just to hear Simon Estes, but to hear all of these wonderful artists who will be performing.”
Tickets for “Porgy and Bess” are on sale now at desmoinesmetroopera.org with prices ranging from $20 to $138.