Barbara Smith Conrad: Grace And Fire!

Photo by Robert Caplin

Barbara Smith Conrad‘s career would be remarkable enough, having sung so many of the major roles with legendary conductors in all of the great opera houses around the globe, her artistry honored by both Presidents and Popes.

But it is her inspirational life story of courage and grace under fire, a story celebrated in the PBS documentary When I Rise, that combines with her outstanding achievements to make her one of the most extraordinary singers in the history of American opera.

As a music student in the first racially integrated undergraduate class at the University of Texas in the 1950s, Ms. Conrad found herself at the centre of a civil rights storm that changed her life forever.

She was cast as the romantic lead in a campus production of Dido and Aeneas opposite a white male student, and the resulting controversy traveled all the way from the university to the Texas Legislature. Succumbing to pressure just days before the opera opened, university officials asked Barbara to step down, and a white student assumed the role of Dido.

A flood of media coverage ensued, beginning with the Houston Post and quickly escalating to the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and most notably, a controversial article in Time magazine.

She overcame that controversy and went on to make her operatic debut with the New York City Opera in 1965 under Julius Rudel as Bess in Porgy and Bess. And in 1982, made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in a production of Der Rosenkavalier conducted by James Levine and telecast Live From Lincoln Center, alongside Kiri Te Kanawa, Tatiana Troyanos and Luciano Pavarotti.

Barbara Conrad as Klytemnestra in Elektra. Photo by Jeffrey A. Rycus

Ultimately, Ms Conrad gave over fifty performances at the Metropolitan Opera, in productions including Verdi’s La Forza Del Destino (role of Preziosilla performing with Leona Mitchell, Carlo Bergonzi and Sherill Milnes and conducted by James Levine), Aida (role of Amneris performing with Aprile Millo and Plácido Domingo and conducted by James Levine), and Rigoletto (role of Maddalena performing with Roberta Peters, Louis Quilico, and Dawn Upshaw in her Metropolitan Opera debut).

In the French repertoire her performances ranged from the monumental production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens (role of Hecuba performing with Jessye Norman and Plácido Domingo under James Levine), which was also telecast nationwide, to Ravel’s fanciful L’enfant et les Sortilèges which opened on New Year’s eve as part of a three-part evening titled “Parade.”

Barbara Conrad was also the “excellent” Maria (Opera News) in the acclaimed Metropolitan Opera premiere of Porgy and Bess, which was conducted by James Levine and featured Simon Estes as Porgy.

She appeared with Simon Estes in her first leading Wagnerian roles when she portrayed Fricka and Waltraute to his Wotan in a ground-breaking performance of Die Walküre at Tulsa Opera in 1980.

Barbara Conrad as Amneris in Aida. Photo credit: Marc Raboy.

Not only was it her first professional performance of a major Wagnerian role, but Tulsa Opera led the way in presenting the first performance with African American artists in leading Wagnerian roles.

Opera News wrote of the performance “Barbara Conrad, with a voice like firmly woven velvet, was stunning as Fricka,” and High Fidelity reported “Miss Conrad, with her rich, dramatic mezzo, made her scene with Wotan memorable. In Act III she was equally impressive doubling as Waltraute.”

She appeared again as Fricka in Das Rheingold with Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting the London Symphony at Royal Albert Hall, and Erda in Siegfried at the inaugural Wagnerfest in Valhalla, New York.

Those performances led to a historic invitation from the renowned Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels to perform both major mezzo-soprano roles (Fricka and Waltraute) in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, conducted by Reinhard Peters. This engagement marked the first time an African American artist performed all of the roles in her voice in one Cycle.

Ms. Conrad has been honored by President Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Governor Ann Richards of Texas.  She received the University of Texas Distinguished Alumni Award in 1985 and joined the College of Fine Arts Advisory Council in 1988. The Barbara Smith Conrad Endowed Presidential Scholarship in Fine Arts was established in 1993.

In 2009, the 81st Texas Legislature passed House Concurrent Resolution No. 31 honoring Barbara Smith Conrad. Both the members of the House of Representatives and the Senate received her in the Rotunda of the State Capital, reversing the wrong committed against her as a young student fifty years earlier. And in 2011, she received the Texas Medal of Arts Award for lifetime achievement from The Texas Cultural Trust.

We’re proud to have created Ms. Conrad’s website celebrating these remarkable achievements!

(With credit to Publicist Janice Mayer for extensive material quoted from the bio that Janice wrote for Ms. Conrad.)