When I Rise was made possible by the generous support of:
AT&T and The University of Texas at Austin
The Briscoe Center thanks the following
University of Texas at Austin entities for their support of When I Rise:
The Office of the President
The Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost
The Division of Diversity and Community Engagement
The Butler School of Music
Barbara Smith Conrad was a mezzo-soprano whose distinguished career has touched the lives of audiences around the world. She was an artist whose musical breadth encompasses a span as great as the distance between the Baptist church of her youth and opera houses around the world.
Barbara earned her Bachelor of Music degree from The University of Texas in 1959. She entered UT in 1956, the first year in which African American students were admitted to the University as undergraduates. With her natural talents and stage presence, Barbara was encouraged to audition for a role in the University’s 1957 production of Dido and Aeneas. She was awarded the leading role of Dido, the Queen of Carthage, opposite a white boy as Aeneas, her lover. Soon after the start of rehearsals, word spread that a black girl and a white boy were to play the lead roles in a romantic opera, and Barbara’s trouble began. Ultimately, the controversy escalated to the Texas legislature, and the president of the University was advised to remove her from the cast. Barbara’s story was covered by national news media, prompting a carte blanche offer from Harry Belafonte to underwrite her studies at the institution of her choice. Barbara, however, chose to remain at the University. She was one of the early pioneers in the movement to create a more open and diverse university community, and her accomplishments and fortitude as a student represent an important chapter in the University’s history. The Texas Ex-Students’ Association named her a Distinguished Alumnus in 1985, and the University has honored her with the founding of the Barbara Smith Conrad Endowed Presidential Scholarship in Fine Arts.
In 1977 Barbara 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, she was invited by President Reagan to sing at the White House in honor of Lady Bird Johnson’s seventy-fifth birthday. A personal highlight for her was an invitation to perform for Pope John Paul II during his 1995 visit to New York City. Among her many other accomplishments is her recording of a collection of Negro spirituals with the choir of the Convent Avenue Baptist Church, released on the Naxos label to critical acclaim.
Barbara complemented her performing activities with artist residencies and master classes, establishing herself as one of the foremost builders of voice both in the U.S. and abroad. She was the co-director and co-founder of the Wagner Theater Program at the Manhattan School of Music, and maintained a private vocal studio in Manhattan.
Barbara traced her musical roots to her family’s home in the tiny east Texas community of Center Point, where she and her siblings explored a variety of musical genres on the family piano an in their local Baptist church. It was in this community that her love of the spiritual first developed.
Barbara worked closely with The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, which is the home of the University’s Endowment for the Study of American Spirituals, to preserve this important American art form.
Among the Briscoe Center’s music holdings include the Texas Folklife Resources Gospel Music Collection, the John Henry Faulk Field Recordings Collection, the William A. Owens Collection, and the John A. Lomax Collection.
Major benefactors of the endowment are UT Distinguished Alumnus Bob Inman and his wife, Nancy who provided initial seed funds for the project and Briscoe Center Advisory Council members Alfred and Meta Hausser, and Dr. O. Howard and Rachel Frazier. Jack Blanton, Beryl Milburn, John Hubbard, and the McCombs Foundation have also given financial support.
Mezzo-soprano Barbara Smith Conrad, also a UT Distinguished Alumnus, served as artistic adviser for the fund-raising initiative. She performed with the most distinguished opera companies in the world, including the Metropolitan Opera Company and the Vienna State Opera. Her musical prowess was shaped by the Negro spirituals of her church in Center Point, Texas and inspired this important project to preserve a major American musical heritage. Ms. Conrad described the ties between spirituals as sung on the concert stage and an opera as having the same demands. The differences are in their histories and languages.
The Negro spiritual rose out of the experiences of African-American slaves, and grew into a world-renowned symbol of an entire community through the skill of gifted composers, arrangers, and performers such as H.T. Burleigh, Roland Hayes, Paul Robeson, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The concerts of these and others educated in the traditions of spiritual music commanded sold-out audiences, and attracted listeners from all ethnic and racial groups. This music, once so vital and universal, has fallen into near obsolescence, and is at risk for an irreparable break in continuity as the last of the singers educated in this style near the end of their careers as teachers and performers.
Barbara Smith Conrad studied and performed spirituals with composer Hall Johnson. In 1994 she recorded the cd, Spirituals with the Convent Avenue Concert Choir on the Naxos label. She was dedicated to keeping this art form alive for the next generation. Much of her work was aimed at teaching, mentoring, and passing on the legacy of her parents, grandparents, and her extended family in Center Point.
The documentary When I Rise: The Story of Barbara Smith Conrad was produced as a fundraising tool to complete the Briscoe Center’s Endowment for the Study of American Spirituals. With the Negro spiritual at the heart of Barbara Conrad’s indoctrination and love of music, the film continues to bring national attention to this important aspect of America’s musical history.