Mezzo-soprano Barbara Smith Conrad will be the speaker for the College of Fine Arts spring commencement ceremony at The University of Texas at Austin on May 18 at 3 p.m. in Bass Concert Hall.
“Barbara Conrad embodies everything the university could want in a graduate,” said Bill Powers, president of The University of Texas at Austin. “Through hard work and perseverance, she parlayed her gift into a world-class career and in the process broke down societal barriers for many who would follow. I’m so glad she’ll be sharing her wisdom with our newest graduates.”
Conrad graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor of music degree in 1959. She enrolled at the university in 1956, the first year that African-American students were admitted to the university. In 1957, Conrad was cast as Dido in the opera “Dido and Aeneas” opposite a white classmate. Controversy about an interracial leading couple quickly escalated, and the university president bowed to pressure to take away Conrad’s role. The story made national headlines, and Harry Belafonte offered to pay for Conrad’s studies at the institution of her choice. Conrad decided to remain at the university, where she became active in creating a more diverse university community.
“I am honored to be invited to speak to these artists of the future graduating from the College of Fine Arts” Conrad said. “When I came to The University of Texas at Austin, my passion for my art and education and the community that found and helped me allowed me to survive and grow. I am proud that the university has grown as well over these many years and prouder still that artistic excellence is still as important here as it ever was.”
This spring, Conrad returned to The University of Texas at Austin to serve as a visiting faculty member.
“Having Barbara Smith Conrad return to The University of Texas at Austin as a visiting faculty member and as commencement speaker for the College of Fine Arts is our great honor and a tribute to her enduring talent,” said College of Fine Arts Dean Douglas Dempster.
Conrad performed with the Metropolitan Opera for eight years, from 1982 to 1989, and has performed leading operatic roles with the Vienna State Opera, Teatro Nacional in Venezuela, the Houston Grand Opera, New York City Opera, Pittsburgh Opera and many other international opera houses throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and South America. Under the direction of some of the world’s leading conductors, 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.
Conrad played renowned contralto Marian Anderson in the ABC movie “Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years,” was invited by President Ronald Reagan to sing at the White House in honor of Lady Bird Johnson’s 75th birthday, and was invited to perform for Pope John Paul II in 1995 when he visited New York City.
Conrad continues to complement her performing activities with artist residencies and master classes, establishing herself as one of the foremost builders of voice both in the United States and abroad. She is the co-director and co-founder of the American Center for Musical Arts and its subsidiary, the Wagner Theater Program. She maintains a private vocal studio in Manhattan.