Barbara Smith Conrad (born 1940) is an American operatic mezzo-soprano of international acclaim. Born Barbara Smith, she was raised inCenter Point near Pittsburg, Texas. In 1957, Barbara Conrad became the focus of a racial controversy revolving around her role in a student opera at The University of Texas at Austin. Pressure from the Texas Legislature forced her removal from the cast, and her story received national media coverage. Barbara continued her education at The University of Texas at Austin and received her Bachelor of Music degree in 1959.
The youngest of five children, Barbara Smith displayed a love and aptitude for music. As early as age six, Barbara performed with her brother the complicated music of Mozart and traces her musical roots to her family’s home in the east Texas community of Center Point. It was here that she and her siblings explored a variety of musical genres on the family piano and in their local Baptist church.
Barbara was admitted into the University of Texas at Austin in 1956. She was part of the first class of African American undergraduate students to attend the university. In 1957 Barbara auditioned for, and was awarded, the leading role in the university’s production of the opera, Dido and Aeneas. Her role of Dido, the Queen of Carthage, placed her opposite a white student as Aeneas, her lover.
The casting of Barbara incited a campus-wide controversy that escalated to the Texas legislature. The president of the university was advised to remove her from the cast. Barbara’s story was covered by national news media, prompting a carte blanche offer from Harry Belafonte to underwrite her studies at the institution of her choice. Barbara, however, chose to remain at the University of Texas at Austin.
She was one of the early pioneers in the movement to create a more open and diverse university community, and her accomplishments and fortitude as a student represent an important chapter in the university’s history. She earned her Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Texas in 1959. After graduation, she joined Equity, the entertainment labor union. Equity already had a Barbara Smith registered. It was at this time that she began using her father’s first name, Conrad.
Barbara Smith Conrad has performed leading operatic roles with the Vienna State Opera, Teatro Nacional in Venezuela, the Houston Grand Opera, New York City Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, and many other international opera houses throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, and South America. She performed with the Metropolitan Opera for eight years, from 1982 to 1989, under the direction of some of the world’s leading conductors, including Maazel, Bernstein, and Levine. She has performed much of the mezzo-soprano concert repertoire with the world’s greatest orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic and the London, Boston, Cleveland, and Detroit symphonies.
In addition to her operatic stage roles, Barbara played Marian Anderson in the 1977 ABC movie Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years, and in 1994 followed that performance with a European concert/recital tour commemorating the renowned contralto. In 1987, she was invited by President Reagan to sing at the White House in honor of Lady Bird Johnson’s seventy-fifth birthday. A personal highlight for her was an invitation to perform for Pope John Paul II during his 1995 visit to New York City. Among her many other accomplishments is her recording of a collection of Negro spirituals with the choir of the Convent Avenue Baptist Church, released on the Naxos label to critical acclaim.
Today Barbara is the co-director and co-founder of the Wagner Theater Program at the Manhattan School of Music, and maintains a private vocal studio in Manhattan. She was also the subject of a recent documentary, When I Rise, detailing the controversy she encountered at the University of Texas.
I encourage everyone to watch the documentary, “When I Rise”. It gave me the idea for this week’s open threads.
***Information courtesy of Wikipedia and the documentary, When I Rise***