One of just a few African-American male singers who has had a top-rank international operatic career, bass-baritone Simon Estes grew up in Iowa in a house without heat or indoor plumbing. He sang in church as a youth, but when he enrolled at the University of Iowa in the late '50s he had never heard an opera and had no idea he wanted to become a professional singer. He joined an a cappella quartet called the Old Gold Singers, where a professor of voice heard him and invited him to listen to some recordings of opera. Estes took to the music immediately and moved on to study at the Juilliard School in New York and later in Europe. Office workers at New York's NAACP office passed the hat to pay for his trip.
Estes attracted attention when he won a silver medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1966, and soon he was winning major roles in European houses. He became identified with Wagner roles, and in 1978 he became the first African-American male to sing a lead role at the Wagnerian shrine of Bayreuth (in Der fliegende Holländer). His Metropolitan Opera debut in New York came in 1982, in Tannhäuser, and he made a return appearance three years later, as Porgy in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. That production was one of the hits of the 1980s at the Met, and for a time Estes was a familiar face in newspapers and magazines, and even on television.
Outspoken about the lack of opportunities for black male singers in opera, even compared with black women, Estes suffered the effects of racism on many occasions. At one Italian production of Aida he was forced to wear white makeup, and he was once accused of jewelry theft while staying at a hotel in the American South in the 1970s. Estes pointed to the virtually all-white world of opera administration as a factor in holding back African-American singers; audiences, he believed, were interested in the voice above all else.
With a repertory that topped 100 roles, Estes has remained a familiar figure on operatic stages for several decades. His 1999 autobiography, In His Own Voice, was notable in that it was accompanied by a CD illustrating the development of his voice over time.