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Barbara Smith Conrad, singer who overcame discrimination in celebrated operatic career, dies at 79

Ms. Conrad grew up in northeastern Texas and after training her voice at her family’s Baptist church, she enrolled in the music program at the University of Texas-Austin in 1956. (Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin)

Barbara Smith Conrad, an acclaimed mezzo soprano who died May 22 at 79, sang on the most illustrious stages of the world, from New York’s Metropolitan Opera to the Vienna State Opera. But it was the stage upon which she did not perform — as a 19-year-old student at the University of Texas at Austin in 1957 — that propelled her to national attention as a musical talent and unexpected figure in the civil rights movement.

Ms. Conrad had grown up in the northeastern Texas town of Center Point, a “rural black community,” as she described it, with “rich-red soil, beautiful fields of cotton, corn, potatoes.” After training her voice at her family’s Baptist church, she enrolled in the music program at UT-Austin in 1956. It was the first year black students were accepted as undergraduates.

During her first year on campus, Ms. Conrad was chosen to play Dido, the queen of Carthage, opposite a white student as her lover in a production of the Baroque composer Henry Purcell's opera "Dido and Aeneas." The interracial pairing was a controversial, even shocking choice for a university in the throes of desegregation. Marian Anderson, the celebrated African American contralto, had broken the color barrier at the Met only two years earlier.

Ms. Conrad’s casting drew the ire of white UT students, who menaced her in phone calls, and segregationists in the Texas state legislature, who agitated about withdrawing funds for the university if she was not replaced in the production. When university officials submitted to the legislature’s demands, Ms. Conrad was publicly gracious, allowing that administrators were “trying to achieve the most harmonious fulfillment of integration at the university.”

Privately, she would later reveal, she was devastated.

"I felt such pain," she told a University of Texas alumni magazine in 1998. "Inside I cried for years. You rarely saw a tear. And it was swallowing those tears that I think was the most costly for me. It would have been better if I would have screamed and ranted and raved."

Harry Belafonte, the singer, actor and civil rights activist, offered to pay for Ms. Conrad’s education at another university if she wished to transfer. But Ms. Conrad remained at UT-Austin until her graduation in 1959.

"After the first shock and hurt had passed," the Austin American-Statesman quoted her as saying, "I began to realize that the ultimate success of integration at the university was much more important than my appearance in the opera."

Belafonte later invited Ms. Conrad to audition in New York. The trip was financed by Eleanor Roosevelt, who as first lady in 1939 had arranged for Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution turned her away from Constitution Hall because of her race.

By 1965, Ms. Conrad was appearing with the New York City Opera in the lead female role of George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," an opera to which she would return throughout her career. At the Met's company premiere of "Porgy and Bess" in 1985, she appeared as Maria.

Also at the Met, where she performed from 1982 to 1989, she played roles including Preziosilla in “La Forza del Destino” and Maddalena in “Rigoletto,” both by Verdi. Elsewhere, including with the City Opera, she sang the title role of Bizet’s “Carmen.”

"She was a believable Carmen, earthy and proud by turns, and that is rare enough nowadays," New York Times music reviewer Raymond Ericson wrote in 1976.

Ms. Conrad also sang with leading symphonies around the world, as well as at the White House and, in 1995, before Pope John Paul II when he visited New York City. Among her recording work was a collection of spirituals, inspired by the music of her youth.

Barbara Louise Smith was born in Atlanta, Tex., near the Arkansas and Louisiana borders, on Aug. 11, 1937. Both her father, an Army veteran, and her mother, were schoolteachers. She would later take her father’s first name — Conrad — as her stage name.

Ms. Conrad’s mother came from a family of singers, and her brother was a piano prodigy. In her youth she attended a performance by Anderson, whom she would portray in the 1977 TV movie “Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years.” In addition to her performing career, Ms. Conrad was a vocal teacher.

April Haines, a veteran member of the Metropolitan Opera chorus who described herself as a protegee and friend of Ms. Conrad’s, said that she died at a nursing home in Edison, N.J., and that the cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease. Survivors include a brother.

After graduating from UT-Austin, Ms. Conrad kept her distance from the university for a quarter century before she accepted an invitation by administrators to return.

She eventually received recognitions from the state legislature as well as the school and donated her personal archive to the university's Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. Don Carleton, the center's director, was the executive producer of a documentary about Ms. Conrad's life, "When I Rise."

"Music is a great healer and a great bonder," Ms. Conrad said in 1998. "It just transcends everything. When I first discovered Bach preludes and fugues, I had to think about who I was talking to. You had to be reminded in those moments who was white, who was black, who was Asian, who was whatever. It was somebody who was struggling with the same issues you were struggling with, who was so passionately in love with the art form."

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