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."
Wednesday, February 6, 2013
The Balance of Marriage/Home, Parenting, Teaching and Career
By Janice C. Eteme, B.A., M.M
My life, as a wife and mother, has taken the first position on my list of daily priorities. The challenges that come along with parenting effectively, are particularly difficult in a fast paced, technological, information obsessed society.
Teaching here at Morgan has also been a challenge, but I have grown personally and professionally each year that I have had the opportunity to be a part of such a wonderful team of professionals, while tutoring such bright and gifted students. My personal preparation as an artist has become a juggling act between parenting and teaching, and quite frankly, sometimes it is neglected because of failed implementation or just plain fatigue.
In preparing this conversational presentation, I felt I wanted to talk first about
The reality of my life now, my life as a professional before I became a wife and mother, and the knowledge that organization is the key to successfully managing any hectic schedule.
A One Day Example:
On Mondays I am up by 7am, preparing breakfast for my two girls, helping them
To remember all of their personal hygiene before dressing, packing lunches and getting them out the door to go to school. I then get on the treadmill, or do floor exercises for 30 to 45 minutes , vocalize for 15 minutes, before getting ready to head out the door to teach my first student at Morgan. I generally leave around 2 or 2:15pm, get my girls from school, take them to piano and violin lessons respectively, before heading home around 5:30 pm. I then monitor homework assignments, prepare dinner, prep the girls for bed and prep for my Lyric Diction class, and my applied voice students, before retiring to bed. I will spare you my daily schedule as each day has a different set of day and afterschool activities. This schedule is probably similar to the schedules of those of you who are also parents.
As a young unmarried professional, my time was completely my own. All of my personal time off the road, was spent listening to, studying, and learning scores of music. I practiced incessantly, usually two to three hours a day. Spending my free time shopping , and going out with friends. Sometimes I was lonely when travelling on the road, but because I was singing, and still do sing mostly concert repertoire, my stays on the road were then, and are now, only about 5 to 7 days. I enjoyed my freedom as a young professional and I always did my very best, and still do.
Organization is now the only way to maintain all the different spokes in my everyday “ wheel of life”. Carving out time to take care of my family, myself, and to practice each day while teaching and preparing for my classes and upcoming performances is what I live for now, this is my life. This is he life that I have loved and chosen. It is a wonderful life, a challenging life and because of all those challenges and successes, it is a good life.
Organization takes on several parts:
1. The organization of your schedule, knowing and accounting for every hour of your day is most helpful, especially when you have a family. This will ensure that daily time is not wasted.
2. The organization of your mind is essential. What do I mean by the organization of your mind? Often people become bogged down mentally because they are not actively focused on what is most important, presently, and what their ultimate life goals are. Ask yourself the following questions: Where do I want to be living in 5 years or 10 years? What do I want to be doing professionally? Do I want to get married and have a family? Would I be happier if I remained single and childless? How much money will I need to live comfortably in my life? What kind of house do I want to live in? Will I be active in my community or church? Do I want to travel abroad? Do I want to live abroad? How much money will I need to retire? These are just a few of the questions you should ask yourself and answer, so that you can sweep out any clutter in your thought process or get rid of anything that would cause your thinking to be fuzzy or cloudy as you move forward.
3. The organization of your finances is also essential. Spending your time wisely and well in school, making the best use of monies being spent on your education, counting the cost of every decision you make, thinking of not only the short term consequences but long term consequences of all of your choices concerning your money. Being mindful of how much you are spending on what, and why. Remembering to get in the habit of saving money and staying out of debt as much as possible. If you are already in debt, be as responsible as you can in paying off those debts. This is very important.
4. The Organization of your Life Purpose is also important. I already mentioned some of the questions you might ask yourself. After asking yourself those questions, and writing down the responses, construct a Life Purpose Report.
I was born: 12/28/1965
I went to school: Dupont Park SDA Church school
I was taught to be honest, committed, hard working, kind, forgiving etc.
I went to College and Graduate School: Oakwood and Indiana University
I have sung for twenty years all over the world, recorded, given recitals, sung operas etc.
My Purpose in Life, as a mature adult is to:
Evolve spiritually by listening to, and following God
Properly rear my children
Be fearless as an artist/educator
Be unselfish and heal with my voice and words
Be responsible for my gift of good health
Become more scholarly, so that I can be a part
Of a fundamental transformation of the educational system
Leave the people I have known and loved more encouraged
to carry on and take the road less traveled.
What is your Purpose Report going to say?
What are some other areas of essential organization that you can think of?
THIS IS THE KIND OF NURTURING OFFERED BY FACULTY MEMBERS AT "MORGAN STATE UNIVERSITY"