Finding her voice: How Barbara Smith Conrad sang her way into civil-rights history
By JOSH MAX
Barbara Smith Conrad at home
Barbara Smith Conrad closes her eyes and draws a deep breath in the kitchen of her upper West Side apartment. A moment later, the room is filled with rich, soaring tones that seem to come from the bottom of her soul as she sings a spiritual she's known since she was 6:
"Lord, I feel like my time ain't long/Lord, I feel like my time ain't long/Lord, I feel like my time ain't long ..."
It's a sound that has carried the mezzo-soprano all the way from the tiny town of Pittsburg, Tex., where she was born in 1940, to the Metropolitan Opera and far beyond.
A New Yorker since 1959, Conrad has lived in this drop-dead gorgeous, two-bedroom apartment since 1971. It's a suitably diva-fabulous abode: The office, or "green room," is decorated with placid celery-green walls, green floor, green ceiling, green chandelier and green candles. The living room, where she receives scores of vocal students these days, is dominated by a Baldwin grand piano offset by violet walls, and the lengthy hallway is decorated with photos of Conrad singing with Placido Domingo and other opera stars.
The only remaining survivor of five siblings, Conrad says she considers her New York students kin. April Haines, Conrad's student and friend of 18 years and a singer in the Metropolitan Opera chorus, says the feeling's mutual.
"Barbara brings the concept of family to people she knows here in New York," Haines says. "And we, her students, come to her as family. But she is a New York institution all by herself, too."
Conrad still performs at select benefits and charity functions, and is known for her work to preserve and celebrate Negro spirituals. Her alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, recently named her artistic adviser/ambassador for the collection of Negro spirituals at its Center for American History.
Any successful career in the arts is rife with rejection and setbacks, but Conrad's were unique to a young black girl growing up in a racist South. "I was 10 when an adult friend was murdered," she says. "I saw them jack the body out of the creek. I saw people lynched and dragged behind pickup trucks, so I had a real respect about how cruel the world could be. You knew you had to obey those implied boundaries, you knew better than to go to certain places."
Her experience with those boundaries came to a head in 1957 as a sophomore student at the University of Texas, when she was known by her birth name Barbara Smith. (She later added her father's first name, Conrad, as a tribute to him.) After auditioning for and winning the lead role of Dido in the English opera "Dido and Aeneas" by Henry Purcell, Conrad was informed by the dean that she could not perform.
"The incident became a national scandal after the story appeared in the Houston Post," she says. "I was threatened and harassed on a daily basis. It was awful. But I tell you, people rallied around us.
"Once the story broke, a friend named Inez Jeffrey took me home, saying, 'Girl, you are going to get yourself killed.'"
Jeffrey wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt on the young singer's behalf, Conrad says, and the former First Lady responded with a check for $5,000 and an introduction to the National Urban League, which stood behind the soprano. Conrad's black female classmates also shielded their friend by calling themselves "Barbara Smith" on campus in order to confuse antagonists.
Word of the incident reached singer Harry Belafonte in New York, then at the pinnacle of international stardom in the wake of his album "Calypso," which had spent 31 weeks at No.1 on the charts a year earlier.
"Mr. Belafonte called and offered to send me to a school of my choice," Conrad says.
Belafonte, reached by telephone, well remembers the emotions that the soprano's plight stirred in him. "I called Barbara to tell her the world had heard her story," he says. "I'd read about it in the Herald Tribune in New York, and I was just incensed." Conrad says, "I became a star for a few days because of Harry Belafonte, people wanting to touch me. The whole dorm was buzzing. He called me 'Tex Nightingale.'"
While her newfound attention contrasted sharply with the antagonism she received at her school, the young singer declined Belafonte's tuition offer, preferring to remain at the University of Texas.
"I was just that stubborn," she says. "I wasn't going anyplace. It was agin' my nature!"
At the same time, she adds, "I also have to say that having all those famous people behind you is what gives you a certain strength of character, and you can keep your dignity and your pride and your sense of humor."
The incident wasn't the end of Conrad's experience with racism, but the same fortitude and sense of humor carried her through other challenges.
"I had to do a school report on the movie 'The Bad Seed,' and the [theater] where it was showing was segregated," she says. "I called ahead and got permission to attend, but when they saw me coming, they freaked out and said, 'No, you can't come in.' So my friend took me to the school's costume department, put a dot on my forehead and a veil over my face and waltzed me in."
Belafonte stayed in touch with Conrad and arranged for her to come to New York City after her graduation. "[I] told her I would handle all expenses, and we'd see where we went from there," he says. "She came, she sang, and it was absolutely stunning."
The star used Conrad whenever he needed a choir on his records. "Part of her early livelihood was assured by the amount of record work I got her, backup singing for me and other artists as well," he says. "But I knew she would get to the Met and achieve success on her own level."
Conrad did go on to wide success, touring South America and Europe with assorted opera groups in the 1970s, and signing contracts with both the Met and the Vienna State Opera companies in 1981. In 1984, the then-president of the University of Texas invited her back, and she appeared in Earl Stewart's opera "Al-Inkishafi" there. She was also named Distinguished Alumnus, and she returns to the university almost every year. She sang for Pope John Paul II at a Mass in New Jersey in 1995, and has several CDs in print.
At 65, Conrad looks as vibrant as she did in the decades-old photos hanging from the walls of the apartment, and she says she's going on dates. She shrugs off compliments, though, assigning her looks to "good cheekbones" as well as genetics. With a wink, she says, "Black don't crack."