Nick Glunt | Staff Writer
During her lecture at 10:45 a.m. Thursday in the Amphitheater, Barbara Smith Conrad did what she’s always done best: She sang.
The small woman on stage approached her friend, pianist Patsy Sage, to decide which song to sing. The words that escaped her lips were much more booming than her voice had been before — even with the aid of the microphone.
She sang: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace./ Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”
That first song, “The Prayer of Saint Francis,” was sung in its entirety, followed by Fred McDowell’s “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.” She also sang part of W.B. Stevens’ “Farther Along” and ended her time on stage with “Amazing Grace.”
“My sister said that I was a preacher woman,” Conrad said. “Well, I don’t think so. What I am is a girl born in Northeast Texas into a rural Baptist church, whose values have never changed, whose dreams basically have never changed, but has been fortunate to meet people who have expanded my life in a way that I never dreamed possible.”
Conrad, the fourth speaker in Week Four’s topic on “A Case for the Arts,” is an African-American mezzo-soprano opera singer. She has possessed a natural talent for music since she was very young, growing up in Center Point, Pittsburg, Texas. Though she said she wanted to visit the Chautauqua Institution for a very long time, this visit was her first.
Her speech focused on her various life experiences regarding opera.
Geof Follansbee, Chautauqua Foundation CEO and Thursday’s moderator, said Conrad’s life itself is a case for the arts.
She discussed her time at The University of Texas at Austin, where she inadvertently became a pioneer in the push for equality and diversity at universities.
“To all the people who dream these dreams,” she said of anyone with aspirations in life, “don’t let anyone stop you. Ever.”
Accordingly, Conrad was cast as the female lead in the university’s 1957 production of Dido and Aeneas with a white man as her counterpart, causing a stir. The story gained national attention when the situation reached the Texas legislature, which leaned on the university president to remove her from the cast.
Eventually, a white woman was cast as her replacement.
In response to this event, famed activist Harry Belafonte offered to finance her way to any school in the world.
“Do you know what that means to a young singer?” she said, beaming. “It’s wonderful.”
When she went home to discuss the offer with her parents, her father simply told her to do what she felt was right. Ultimately, Conrad chose to remain where she was, eventually graduating in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in music.
“At the end of the day, you have to do what is in your heart and soul and spirit to do,” she said, “or you will miss out on a big chunk of life.”
Since then, Conrad has performed in well-known venues across North America and Europe alongside, as Follansbee said while introducing her, some of the most talented symphonies in the world.
Conrad said it amazes her to think that she went from living in a deeply segregated world to being able to stand in front of an audience to share her story. She said she is deeply grateful for the chance.
She commended the Chautauqua Institution’s staff and scenery, saying how visiting this place had been a lifelong dream that she never got around to completing. Now that she has, it’s just another dream she’s been able to achieve.
She reminded the audience members to never let go of their dreams.
“Even if it means just singing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,’” Conrad said, “get up and sing your song and let no one stop you.”
Q: You were part of the first class with African Americans in it at Texas, as I understand. How did that figure into your decision or not at all?
A: Oh, very much so. I was lucky to have one voice lesson per semester where I was. And it’s just that the school was not designed that way. There was interest, always. Where there are people who like singing, you’re going to find someone who can do something. But really, it boiled down to that I wanted something resembling an education that would let me go someplace and to do something beyond the boundaries I was used to. And a man came by and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and that’s when I went to my second year of college.
Q: Quickly you were thrust into a situation where this came to the fore where, having been cast in a role where within the music school, all of a sudden you’re surrounded by a university-wide controversy. How do you respond to that? What impact did it have?
A: Well, first you get mad. That’s a healthy thing to do: Just go get mad. And you’ll do something — who knows what that’s going to be. But you have to do something. The university offered me several opportunities, the first being, “Can you stand on your own two feet?” Yes, I can. I used to tell everybody, “My father is Conrad Smith, my mother is Gerrie Smith and we can do anything.” That was very important. Those are the things you grasped. But then you start to meet people who have a similar dream … because I didn’t know quite what to do, Belafonte said, “Choose any school you want and we’ll go there,” and when I talked to my father about it, he said, “If you want to go, go. If you don’t, don’t go. Go right down to that University of Texas and show them how to do it.” Well, that was more (easily) said than done, but it led me to where I am.
Q: (In 1957), when you remained at Texas, were you able to continue your music studies? Were you able to perform in other offerings?
A: That’s a good question. This is why friendships mean so much. Because … they knew I was way behind in everything and hadn’t even had an opportunity to stop and even look at what (Center Point) looked like. So I had support from students and friends and faculty. The thing that’s always impressed me, is how the staff at the College of Fine Arts could be one way and the rest of the world was asleep. We weren’t going anyplace; we were Texans. We had not so many choices, especially those of us who dreamed of having careers of any kind having to do with music. But the best thing of all is: No. 1, your faith, your family, your friends, your dreams; that all comes together. One way or the other, you’ll figure it out — and you do.
Q: What are your favorite roles and songs?
A: Oh my God. Through the eyes and ears of the passions of my brother Denard, who is also a French major, French songs are way up there. But in terms of dramatic roles, the lady at the piano really messed over my life when she said I should sing (Wagner) — one of the best days of my life, actually. [Asking her accompanist, Patsy.] Am I the only African American who did that in Brussels? I met all of those girls, and that was a huge victory. First of all, I’m clearly not German, but may as well be when you’re around Patsy. So — how do I put this? — it was fortuitous. I went from doing lots of Verdi and Carmen … and then found myself falling in love with Wagner.
Q: What are the lessons you consciously teach your students today about character and motivation?
A: Very good question. It’s my Aunt Maggie again, or my grandmother, and she would sit me down in her big rocking chair and she’d say, “Come, let us reason together,” and that started when we wanted band suits for our school, because schools were still segregated then. And then, at the end of that … she said, “You have a built-in motivation for living, child, and you just don’t know it yet.” And that’s been my credo.
Q: Another question has just come up that wants to know a little bit more about your parents and to ask, how did they receive an education for people of their race and generation in the South? It’s remarkable that they were able to become educated.
A: Center Point is Center Point, because anyone who ever lived there or went to school there is enamored with it, because it was the first and only accredited black school in the state of Texas. That’s No. 1; No. 2 is it took on a whole community of people who have something they could be proud of and proud about, and a way to make a living. My father was (one of) five children: He had three brothers and a sister whom I didn’t know, but they walked every weekend, 22 miles from Newsome to Center Point throughout the entire school.
Q: What is your next challenge in life and work that you look forward to taking on?
A: Well, like many people of my generation, I didn’t record as much as I could have and should have. So I’m trying to do some of that. I’m doing a lot of work with AT&T; that’s something that I had not even had any thought about ever in my life. But now I understand what my father meant when he said, “Carry the torch and carry it steady.”
—Transcribed by Emma Morehart