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Simon Estes (born March 2, 1938) is an operatic bass-baritone of African-American descent who had a major international opera career beginning in the 1960s. He has sung at most of the world's major opera houses as well as in front of presidents, popes and internationally renowned figures and celebrities including Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, Boris Yeltsin, Yasser Arafat, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Notably, he was part of the first generation of black opera singers to achieve widespread success and is viewed as part of a group of performers who were instrumental in helping to break down the barriers of racial prejudice in the opera world.
Estes was born in Centerville, Iowa, the son of Ruth Jeter Estes and Simon Estes. His father was a coal-miner and his grandfather was a former slave who had been sold at auction for $500. Named for his father, Estes was called 'Billy' within his family circle to avoid confusion when addressing the two. One of five children, Estes has three sisters and a younger brother. His family was heavily involved in their local Baptist church, and his earliest musical experiences were had there. He remained active with church musical activities and participated in school music programs throughout his youth.
In 1957 Estes entered the University of Iowa, originally with the intent of studying pre-med. He changed his major to psychology and then religion before finally deciding to switch to vocal music through the influence of faculty member Charles Kellis. At the time Estes had been singing in the university's "Old Gold Singers" (he was notably the group's first black singer) and his voice had grabbed Kellis's interest. Kellis became Estes's first voice teacher and it was he who introduced Estes to opera. After finishing his undergraduate studies, Estes pursued further education at the Juilliard School in 1964, a pursuit which was made possible through funds raised in Iowa.