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.”
Barbara Smith Conrad
Barbara Smith Conrad is an internationally renowned mezzo-soprano and civil rights pioneer. 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. Her experiences as an African-American opera student at the University of Texas in the late 1950s are the subject of the PBS documentary “When I Rise.”
Conrad entered UT in 1956, the first year in which African-American students were admitted to the university as undergraduates. When she was cast as the female lead in the university’s 1957 production of Dido and Aeneas, opposite a white male, controversy erupted and escalated to the Texas legislature, and the president of the university was advised to remove her from the cast. Conrad chose to remain at UT and became one of the early pioneers in the movement to create a more open and diverse university community. She graduated in 1959. The Texas Ex-Students’ Association named her a Distinguished Alumnus in 1985, and the university has since honored her with the founding of the Barbara Smith Conrad Endowed Presidential Scholarship in Fine Arts.
Conrad performed with the Metropolitan Opera for eight years, from 1982 to 1989, and has appeared in leading operatic roles with many international opera houses, including the Vienna State Opera, Teatro Nacional in Venezuela, the Houston Grand Opera, New York City Opera and Pittsburgh Opera. 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, Conrad 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, President Reagan invited her to sing at the White House in honor of Lady Bird Johnson’s 75th birthday, and, in 1995, she was invited to perform for Pope John Paul II during his visit to New York City. Among Conrad’s many other accomplishments is her critically acclaimed recording of a collection of Negro spirituals with the choir of the Convent Avenue Baptist Church. Currently, Conrad complements her performing activities with artist residencies and master classes.