Music should be met with no color restriction, as life should be. It has the ability to relate in an impromptu of feeling with a growing perspective of human creativity. One is able to tell stories through a fusion of genres, history, style, voice and instrument.
Music is something that came just as natural as breathing for Barbara Smith Conrad and her family growing up in Center Point, Texas.
“I grew up with musicians. My sister was a beautiful singer, my mother, my grandmother had this voice of God,” she says through the phone receiver. “My brother, who is really unbelievably gifted, he could play almost anything. He’s a pianist.”
Opera singer, educator and human rights activist, Barbara Smith Conrad’s story begins its controversial significance in the late 1950s and swims in accomplishment from that point forward.
It was a time when racial segregation was still an alarming familiarity. Change was easing its way into the school system, but that certainly didn’t mean that Blacks were fully accepted.
Gifted with a mezzo-soprano tone, Ms. Conrad’s upbringing was enveloped in music and by the time a feisty Barbara entered high school, she was already winning competitions and gaining preparation for the next stage of her life.
She entered Prairie View A&M University in Prairie View, Texas. “And that’s where the big transition came,” she says.
The University of Texas at Austin entered into their first year of undergraduate integration in 1956. They sent scouts to Prairie View’s campus to recruit students of a certain stature. Among those scouted, Ms. Conrad was chosen.
“My sole interest was to develop, musically, those things which I had no other opportunity to really absorb, and that was great because University of Texas had then, and still has, an excellent music school,” she shares.
The Opera Controversy
Nevertheless, it was a transition met with controversy and documented in the 2011 PBS Independent Lens film, When I Rise.
While adapting to her surroundings and befriending students –– both Black and white — it was Barbara’s gift of voice that led to national recognition for gaining a prominent role in the university’s upcoming opera.
She was singing in one of the music practice rooms when a music teacher heard her and said immediately, “My dear, I think you’re going to be our Dido,” Ms. Conrad laughs. Following her audition, she was officially awarded the role.
Dido, a queen, is the lead female role in Henry Porcelus’ opera Aeneas and Dido, a tragic love story. In the University of Texas’ production, Conrad’s male lead was white.
“And that’s when all the hoopla began,” she sighs. “That’s when it became very … ooohhh (controversial)!”
Six months into rehearsals, the university was threatened that if Conrad, a Negro student, appeared in the opera, the school’s university fund would be cut.
Having being told that by the school’s Dean of Fine Arts, Conrad was distraught. She was threatened and even spit on by classmates, betrayed, and endured headlines that read: “Negro Girl Withdrawn from UT Opera,” and “‘Opera Incident’ Ignites University Controversy.”
There was also a shift in focus when it came to her studies.
She explains, “There was so much attention on this subject and on what had happened. That did shift my energies for a while. This was an international affair. It didn’t occur to (teachers) until we were very much in (the play rehearsals) that that could really create some hostility –– all the ugly things that people can do –– during the time when it was just so awkward for a lot of the people to join hands.”
“When we sing opera, it’s music. It’s drama. It’s languages. All the things you want to learn about and absorb that otherwise you were limited to, you can accomplish in the music world.”
With the opportunity given to leave the school, Barbara chose to stay. “Oh no, there was nothing that could stop me from moving ahead in music because that’s what I am,” she expresses. “My brother Bernard, sister Connie, my mother, any of them, especially those people –– we were music makers.”
The radical attention and discrimination ignited major support on Conrad’s behalf from the Black community and figures such as Sidney Poitier and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Harry Belafonte offered support through action by paying for the continuation of Conrad’s education –– eventually flying her to New York so that they could meet in person.
Their friendship is still bonded today.
“He’s really quite something. He’s the reason I am where I am,” Conrad’s smile illuminates through the phone. “That was a huge moment for me; it still is.”
Ms. Conrad endured strength and learned survival during those tumultuous times. Her love for education, the opera and performance outweighed any obstacle thrown her way and thus, kept her on the journey of embracing dreams.
She may have never graced the stage as “Dido” at the University of Texas, but her gift led her to performances all across the world, including Europe.
In 1985 she was invited back to the University as the recipient of the Distinguished Alumnus Award.
“Until that time, or shortly before that time, I didn’t even think about going to visit the university, to be perfectly honest. It was the first time an African American had been granted that honor and it was a really wonderful, very special time,” she says, humbled.
For one whose breaths and dearest passions lie in the amplitudes of vocal delivery and the dramatics of performances, to be stripped of opportunity is beyond painful. However, for Barbara Smith Conrad, none of it was powerful enough to break her drive nor her spirit.
Reflecting, she shares, “My sisters say, ‘She’s a mean heiffa!’ and I was always teased about that temper of mine kept me going,” she laughs. “But it was more love of community, love of family and the friends I made along the way.”
Learn more about Ms. Conrad’s story at www.whenirisefilm.com.