Barbara Smith Conrad is a mezzo-soprano whose distinguished career has touched the lives of audiences around the world. She is an artist whose musical breadth encompasses a span as great as the distance between the Baptist church of her youth and opera houses around the world.
Barbara earned her Bachelor of Music degree from The University of Texas in 1959. She entered UT in 1956, the first year in which African American students were admitted to the University as undergraduates. With her natural talents and stage presence, Barbara was encouraged to audition for a role in the University’s 1957 production of Dido and Aeneas. She was awarded the leading role of Dido, the Queen of Carthage, opposite a white boy as Aeneas, her lover. Soon after the start of rehearsals, word spread that a black girl and a white boy were to play the lead roles in a romantic opera, and Barbara’s trouble began. Ultimately, the controversy escalated to the Texas legislature, and 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. 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. The Texas Ex-Students’ Association named her a Distinguished Alumnus in 1985, and the University has honored her with the founding of the Barbara Smith Conrad Endowed Presidential Scholarship in Fine Arts.
Barbara performed with the Metropolitan Opera for eight years, from 1982 to 1989, and 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. 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 1977 Barbara played Marian Anderson in the three-hour 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 continues to complement her performing activities with artist residencies and master classes, establishing herself as one of the foremost builders of voice both in the U.S. and abroad. She 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.
Barbara traces her musical roots to her family’s home in the tiny east Texas community of Center Point, where she and her siblings explored a variety of musical genres on the family piano an in their local Baptist church. It was in this community, to which she still maintains ties, that her love of the spiritual first developed.
Barbara works closely with The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, which is the home of the University’s Endowment for the Study of American Spirituals, to preserve this important American art form.
Biography: DOLPH BRISCOE CENTER FOR AMERICAN HISTORY