Film honors career, life of civil rights era opera star from UT

William James

In 1957, UT alumna Barbara Smith Conrad thought she secured a lead role in a University opera production. Conrad was one of the first black students to attend UT in 1956 and possessed a natural talent for opera, music and theater.

As a music major, Conrad was encouraged to audition for the leading role in the University’s 1957 production of “Dido and Aeneas.” But then she learned of conservative lawmakers’ threat to cut UT’s funding for allowing a black woman to perform a romantic role opposite a white man.

With few options, UT’s then-president Logan Wilson caved under pressure and had Conrad removed from the production. The controversy immediately gained national attention, and Conrad was offered the opportunity to transfer to a number of other schools around the country. She decided to stay and finish her degree.

That moment and her struggles to graduate from the University and become an internationally recognized mezzo-soprano have spawned a new PBS documentary.

“Getting a good education was a dream, and I was not about to have my dream destroyed,” Conrad said in the documentary.

She graduated with a music degree in 1958. The documentary that profiles Conrad’s life, “When I Rise,” premiered on PBS on Tuesday. It will air again on Thursday and Feb. 13. The documentary originally debuted during the annual film, music and interactive festival South By Southwest last year at the Paramount Theatre, where Conrad would have performed “Dido and Aeneas” in 1957.

“Because of the initial response at SXSW, the documentary was accepted into 12 other film festivals and received Best Social Justice Documentary this past month,” said executive producer Don Carleton.

Carleton said it was marvelous working with Conrad, and they have all been thrilled with the documentary’s tremendous success.

UT history professor Robert Abzug helped fact-check the documentary during its final stages and said it is a terrific movie.

“[Conrad] came to the University at a time when the campus was tightly bound by the state Legislature.” Abzug said. “Despite the amount of liberalism at the University, the conservative tension of the state overruled and because of this incident, we were able to see the vulnerabilities of the University at that time.”

Conrad, who now lives in New York City, has performed with the Metropolitan Opera. Her career as a mezzo-soprano opera singer has earned her numerous accolades and international fame among opera critics and fans alike.

Math senior Ariel Taylor, president of UT black women’s organization Umoja, congratulated Conrad for her powerful story being broadcast around the nation.

“Her endurance, motivation and hard work have qualified her to be an icon among the University, and her strength and determination have qualified her to be an icon among African-American women around the world,” Taylor said.