The upcoming performer for McPherson College’s Fern Lingenfelter Artist Series has performed for Presidents and Popes, and paved the way for performing artists of color.
But bass-baritone opera singer Simon Estes takes no credit for himself. His deep Christian faith draws him to give God the recognition.
“I believe that God has given everyone a talent or a gift,” he said, “And that he’s given it to serve him first, and then to serve each other. I’m not a star. The stars are in heaven and God put them there. I’m just a human being who’s been blessed.”
Estes, who has been a major figure in the world of opera for the past half century, will be the second-ever performer in the Lingenfelter Series at 4 p.m., Sunday, March 12 at the McPherson Church of the Brethren adjacent to the MC campus.
He is excited about performing at MC and considers it a deep honor, he said, largely because his wife, Ovida, grew up in the Church of the Brethren (McPherson College’s foundational Christian denomination). In addition, three of his sisters-in-law attended McPherson College, with two graduating from MC.
Estes graduated from the University of Iowa, where he worked hard to make his way through – cleaning windows, sleeping on floors, and struggling to buy meals. Considering that just two generations before him slaveholders forced his grandfather into servitude, Estes considered his own situation a great opportunity.
“I just thought, if I’m blessed someday, I want to help young people in colleges as well as children,” he said. “I’ve been tremendously blessed by the Lord. I just believe we are put on this earth to love one another and help one another.”
Making his operatic debut in 1965 with the Deutsche Opera in “Aida,” Estes has since gone on to add more than 100 operatic roles to his repertoire.
Among his performances have been many historic and landmark roles – particularly ones that broke down walls of racism. As an African-American opera singer, he paved the way for people of color who went into the performing arts. Many of them seek Estes out after performances to share how his example was motivating.
“They have certainly thanked me, and I have been humbled by that,” he said. “I have been grateful that I was able to be used and they were inspired by that and didn’t give up.”
In a prominent groundbreaking role, Estes appeared in the title role of Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” for six successive years at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. That marked the first time a black male artist appeared in any role in the more than 140-year history of the festival, which was founded by Wagner himself.
Estes has performed with 115 orchestras and 84 opera houses worldwide. Among his audiences have been United States Presidents George H.W. Bush, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon and Barack Obama.
He’s the only vocalist to sing at both the 25th and 50th anniversaries of the United Nations. He helped to celebrate the opening of the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 and the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. He sang for the inauguration of the first black governor in the United States in 1990, performed for Nelson Mandela, and performed at the Conference of The Anatomy of Hate – which is funded by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee and The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.
In addition, he’s been Grammy Nominated for Best Classical Album of the Year, inaugurated the role of Porgy in “Porgy & Bess” for the Metropolitan Opera, and worked with the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, John Denver, Audrey Hepburn, Whitney Houston, Barry Manilow, Gregory Peck and Wynton Marsalis.
As a part of his social mission, Estes has held concerts to support the United Nations Mosquito Netting Project, which supplies and maintaining treated mosquito nets to save children’s lives from malaria in Africa. His performance for the Lingenfelter Series will also support the netting project in lieu of an honorarium.
“I think God laid in on my heart,” Estes said of his support for the netting project.
To learn more about Estes, visit www.simonestesfoundation.org.
The Fern Lingenfelter Artist Series was established in 2016 thanks to a generous commitment to McPherson College, in honor of MC alumna and piano teacher Fern Lingenfelter. Her son, Steve Clark – chairman of Clark Investment Group in Wichita, Kan. – generously established the supporting fund at MC.
This cultural series consists of two annual music performance events, with a special emphasis on piano. Lingenfelter taught piano in McPherson for years – both to traditional college students on the MC campus and younger students at a studio downtown. Lingenfelter passed away in 1962, but her son, Steve Clark, said he has seen a long and lasting influence from her lifetime of work. Establishing the fund is his way to say, “Thank you,” and to support the music and the instrument she loved.