Simon Estes: A Life in Music WorldCanvass picture of Simon Estes

UI President Bruce Harreld presented the 2019 International Impact Award to internationally acclaimed opera singer Simon Estes in a public ceremony at the beginning of the November 21 WorldCanvass program.  Following the presentation of the award, Estes was interviewed by WorldCanvass host Joan Kjaer about his young life in Centerville, Iowa, his long and successful international operatic career, and the racism he faced in both the European and American contexts as his talents carried him to greater heights.  He shared how music, education, and faith were the bedrock of his upbringing, all of which he says contributed to his success over the years.  

The International Impact Award recognizes distinguished alumni and other individuals with significant ties to the UI who have made important contributions internationally or, in the case of international alumni, abroad in their home countries. It honors exceptional individuals in any field who have made sustained and deep contributions internationally or in the U.S. to promote global understanding.

Estes is a Centerville, Iowa, native and graduate of the University of Iowa. His exceptional musical talents were recognized when he joined the UI’s Old Gold Singers as an undergraduate and they led him to a full scholarship at the Juilliard School of Music. His operatic debut as Ramfis in Aida at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 1965 launched an international career that placed him among the first generation of black opera singers to achieve mainstream success. Estes is viewed as part of a group of performers who were instrumental in helping to break down the barriers of racial prejudice in the world of opera.

He was the first black man to sing a leading role at the prestigious Bayreuth Festival when he performed the title role in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, has given performances in 84 of the world’s greatest opera houses, has sung for six U.S. presidents as well as Pope John Paul II, helped open the 1972 Olympics in Germany, and sang in South Africa in 2010 to open the World Cup, among many other notable performances.

Estes, whose grandfather was a slave and father a coal miner, is ever mindful of the life-changing role philanthropy has played in his own life and has created numerous educational scholarships and foundations at the University of Iowa and around the world to benefit children and students, and raises funds for the United Nations Foundations‘ Nothing But Nets organization to fight malaria. For these efforts, Estes received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017 from the U.N. Here in Iowa, he has received, among many honors and distinctions, the Iowan Award, the state’s highest honor, and the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Achievement Award.

WorldCanvass programs are recorded as audio podcasts and are available on Apple Podcasts, the Public Radio Exchange (PRX), and the WorldCanvass website. University of Iowa International Programs produces the series in partnership with MERGE, 136 South Dubuque Street. Audio production is provided by Kyle Marxen. 

Individuals with disabilities are encouraged to attend all University of Iowa-sponsored events. If you are a person with a disability who requires a reasonable accommodation in order to participate in this program, please contact Amy Green in advance at or 319-335-1433.