Opera singer Conrad fought racism with song


Barbara Smith Conrad

Josh Cooper | Staff Writer

Growing up in the segregated south, Barbara Smith Conrad knew firsthand the pain racial discrimination brought. She also knew firsthand the healing power of music.

“Music absolutely saved my life,” Conrad said.

Conrad grew up in a very musical environment, and singing was her passion. She came to the forefront of national attention in 1957, when she was forcibly removed from the cast of an opera production at the University of Texas.

She was cast opposite a white boy in the school’s production of Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. Segregationists in the Texas legislature threatened to pull the school’s funding if she was not removed from the production. The university gave in and replaced Conrad with a white student.

It was then that Harry Belafonte stepped in and offered to send Conrad to any university in the world. She stayed at the University of Texas.

“For me, it was a matter of pride,” Conrad said. “Why should I go someplace else just because you can’t handle the fact that our skin is different?”

Ultimately, Conrad went on to an illustrious opera career, performing with the Metropolitan Opera Company and the New York Philharmonic, as well as venues throughout Europe and North America.

Conrad said that music not only helped her get through the “opera incident,” as the local newspaper referred to it at the time, but also to keep a positive mindset in the segregated environment in which she grew up.

“No matter how you shape it, it was a segregated part of the world,” Conrad said. “Luckily for me, I was stupid enough to think I didn’t have to worry about anything because I had music. So I didn’t.”

She reminisced that while she felt racial discrimination outside of the music school at the University of Texas, there was a completely different mindset among the music students and teachers.

“Musicians have a whole different philosophy,” Conrad said. “It had nothing to do with anything except, ‘Can you play?’ or ‘Can you sing?’ Nothing else made any difference. It never occurred to me that I needed to do anything special to garner the love of those around me.”

“That says something about the power of music to bring people together,” she said.

Her journey is the subject of a documentary film titled “When I Rise.” The film will be screened at 12:15 p.m. Friday at the Chautauqua Cinema.

Sherra Babcock, director of the Department of Education, said Conrad’s story fits in well with this week’s theme.

“I invited her to come because of her story,” Babcock said. “We’re doing a week on ‘a case for the arts,’ and her life story is the arts. We asked her to come talk about her life in the arts and how the arts have come to define her life.”

Chautauqua is an exemplary setting, Conrad said, and one she has been looking forward to visiting for years.

“I’ve always talked about coming here,” Conrad said. “This is my ideal scene. I have traveled many miles to get to a place like this, and I’m happy to really discover it firsthand.”

She said Chautauqua offers a unique community connectedness.

“What’s immediate is what a warmth there is,” Conrad said. “People automatically know that you’re going to fall in love with this place, so they don’t have to do much to convince you.”

Conrad will be keeping very busy this week. She not only is giving today’s lecture, but she also will be screening her film and speaking with and coaching the voice and opera students here.

She said Chautauqua bears some resemblance to her hometown of Pittsburg, Texas.

“What is very reminiscent of my hometown is the quietude, the sweetness of the air around you, and friendly people smiling and saying hello,” Conrad said.

“It’s not very much different from what home is like.”