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.