In Black America; Opera Star Ms. Barbara Conrad
Thank you very much. In Black America, reflections of the Black experience in American society. Growing up in a family of five children in Pittsburgh, Texas, opera was the furthest thing from Barbara Conrad's mind. She had no formal musical training until moving from Pittsburgh and attending college at the University of Texas at Austin.
Miss Conrad, now a rising star with the Metropolitan Opera, was discovered by singer Harry Belafonte. Today, Barbara Conrad is one of this country's most distinguished medsu sopranos. I'm John Hansen and this week our focus is on opera singer Barbara Conrad in Black America. I was really moved and somewhat surprised that the response to my operatic singing was as great as that of the spirituals in the gospel. Because people, although they may not speak the language, I maintain if they expose to it and if you give it to them from your heart, which is where it all starts, they'll get it. Most people will get it. They really will. Opera singer Barbara Conrad, the medsu soprano whose acting talents, beauty and broad range has brought her international attention. Miss Conrad has recently signed contracts at both the Metropolitan Opera in New York
City and the Vienna State Opera. She's a graduate of the University of Texas Music Department. Miss Conrad initially won a claim in the role of Carmen, first performed with the Houston Opera and later at the New York City Opera. These two performances helped to establish her as one of the most exciting young medsos in recent years. Barbara, how did a young lady from Pittsburgh Texas become interested in opera singing? I knew that was the first question. Oh, John, I haven't seen it. Well, the interest starts with singing. I mean, being very fortunate in a born into a family of really prodigiously gifted people. With a brother, a few years older than I, who is was and is a wonderful pianist who loves the lyric art of singing, who loves singing. And then having just so many members, particularly the maternal side of my family, voices and
voices and voices, wonderful, wonderful voices, and so there was a kind of tradition. And the family, the Smith family, and the Floyd's and the Caches, all those people who are my ancestors and my relatives all sang in the church, and they sang for their own pleasure. And they've been doing that for as long as I can remember and for all those decades before. And so when I came along with a voice, my brother, DeNard Smith, I recognized it and because my sister had already gone on, he didn't have her to, to hound. So he taught me wonderful, wonderful things. And as a matter of fact, the first piece I learned by wrote was the big soprato solo from Beethoven's Mount Olives.
I mean, I didn't know how difficult it was. But I also realized that I loved it too. I mean, he couldn't have persuaded me with my temperament to do anything I didn't want to do. And so it was a sort of natural progression. The classic story of being brought up in the rule of Northeast Texas, Baptist Church, singing and choir, but with the added support and encouragement of a family that really loved to make music and directly a brother who was very gifted and passed on a lot of his love and passion for it. Why did you particularly focus in on opera instead of gospel or music? I didn't have the gift for, well, it's all souls for music. Let's make that distinction right now. Believe me, when Bizei wrote his Carmen, it was his soul. We call it, the spaniards call it duende, we call it soul. It's one of the things that we've got to get out of being in a sort of capsule in this
part of the world. Its soul really exists all over the world. The Africans have it, the Indians have it, the Chinese have it, the Japanese have it, the French have it, the Italians have it. It's a version of soul. When I ask me really, I can't answer those questions because all I can tell you is, I never, I mean, I sang some gospel, but never really sang. I was never a gospel singer in the tradition that you and I are talking about, which is not to say I don't love it and no singing once in a while. But those were not my, as they say, in Johnston or Conor terms. Those were not my aptitudes particularly. I went to where I was to go. I mean, the things don't happen by accident. So it was an interest born out of my predisposition to what the Italians call the Lyric Art of Singing, which is a more studied form.
But it was just my response to composers like Gustaf Mahler and to Giuseppe Verde and to Richard Wagner, all those people. And it came out of my own background of rich, rich, rich, rich, soul of singing, which was a spiritual, which was gospel, which was a hymn, which I still sing. But for me, it went another direction. How did you happen to choose the University of Texas to major in music over other institutions? Well, at the time, you see, I started off at Peruvianum College and then the fact of the matter was, I had a wonderful counselor at that school, with whom I taught quite frequently. And at that time, at Prairie View, the music school was not as strong as it is now. And I wanted to, in general, be more exposed to a greater, to a broader world of music.
All of the reasons, oh, I don't think they are going into at this point in my life. But when the University integrated on an undergraduate level, it seemed a one of the opportunity for people who were concerned about my education, including myself. And it was a school right here at home that was also quasi-affordable. I mean, my, I think my dream school was, of course, I think for most black kids, certainly my generation, and maybe still, to just go to Fisk, you know, you grew up with a Fisk, Jubilee Singers, and that was where music was happening. And my soul is always vibrated to that, wherever music making was, I wanted to be an active part of it.
Why, you at the University of Texas, you were denied the opportunity to perform in your first opera. Do you still have any ill feelings about being denied the opportunity to perform in that first opera? Oh, for having things known. I mean, you know, 25 years later, no. You fitted, you were put in a position in which you were there here at the University, trying to obtain an education, and other powers were denying you that particular opportunity at that time. Well, for certain, for certain, um, rephrase your question a bit, would you? It seems like several questions in one. Well, the first, you said no ill feelings about, no, about being denied that first opportunity. That's, that's kind of a, and it's a little vague, ill feelings, no, to say directly to that question, no ill feelings. I think this, this perhaps, um, you see, part of this trip for me is the opportunity to get acquainted again.
I think the only way, it's like, like with any relationship, and mine was a huge relationship, there was me, and then there was me, and that was the University of Texas. The only way to bridge gaps, the only way to, to get rid of any, any little gray areas, is to have another dialogue and to, um, and not kiss and make up, because that's not my temperament, but to have an honest dialogue. Okay. Out of the University of Texas, you had an opportunity to get in contact with Harry Belafonte. How did he affect your life change? Well, that didn't happen quite that way. The story ran, was sent over the APUP system, and Belafonte read about it in the New York Times. He at the time called me to say, he was in my corner, and there were other prominent blacks who were, like the late Mahalya Jackson in Sikin Pwati and Semedators, Jr., and that was,
that was how we first made contact, it was, it made you feel, absolutely marvelous. The day he called me, the day, well, imprinted on my heart and mind forever, um, although I was exhausted at that stage, as I am this morning, um, having had no sleep, no rest from, from the, from the emotional people of it, and the press was hard on my heels. I was, in fact, on my way out the door with my house mother to escape, to just get some sleep, and there he was on the phone, and everyone knew Belafonte was on the phone before I did, and there was this squeal throughout the dormitory, Belafonte, Harry Belafonte is on the phone, and, uh, I reacted like any young girl would. I was thrilled, and had I been a little more rested, I would have squealed too. Once you left the University of Texas at Austin, did you go up to New York in audition for
any operas? What happened was, um, oh gosh, I had one, some competition, the Omega, the Omega, the Omega talent search, and it was flown to, uh, Cleveland, and, um, Belafonte, um, decided it was time we met after he, he'd been involved with me for a while at this stage. Now, we were talking a few years later, and, um, invited me to come and set up an audition with prominent people in the, in the opera world, and, um, that included Maestro Faust took clav'a, and Bidu Sayahu was a great busy in soprano, et cetera, et cetera. And I went and had the time of my life, thanks to Mr. Belafonte, who set up all sorts of wonderful things.
First time to the opera, first time to my first Broadway show, Radio City Music Hall, and the whole thing, amidst that, I did sing for these people, and it was determined that I had the basic stuff, as it were. I remember, Maestro Danese saying, well, it's, um, it is, uh, 75% hard work, and the rest is talent. Do you still consider yourself a, a small time woman, a small time or a small town? A small town woman. Yeah, there you go. A small time I've never been, haha, my father and my mother's side of that. I grew up in a family that did not know the meaning of small time, but small town, town, I would say, I would classify myself much more as down home. There is a part of me that will always, always be that way, for which I'm grateful, because I think there is a quality about becoming, quote, successful and getting into a, into
a tremendous, international part, that if you're not very well grounded, it can lift you off some strange places, I've never had that, I really have never had that inclination. How has life changed for Barbara being a world traveler? Oh, it's just gotten richer and richer and more, it, it's blended by the, by the year. Um, I didn't know that I had such a facility, although I was told that at the University of Texas, for languages which I enjoy immensely. And so learning, just learning other languages, Italian, French, German, and getting acquainted with cultures which we've all been influenced by, certainly, in the music world, in the art world, um, but just getting to know folks, all of the world, to discover that they're just folks, really.
And if you speak that language, there's nothing more folksy. I remember singing in a festival, San Remo, which is the Italian Riviera, singing in a surrounding, which would be like a very pastoral one, we'd like out in the pasture for us, you know, in East Texas. And being singing Italian areas only, and having everybody practically singing along with me, which had the effect from me of being very little different from my grandmother, my uncle, Bob, starting up a hymn and everybody joining in. I mean, it's, it's, it's been very enriching. Have you been back home recently and is there a renewed interest for opera singing in Pittsburgh, Texas? There is an interest in people, which is where all artistic sensibilities begin. You cannot say that Pittsburgh Texas is your, is ever going to be, uh, center for the,
for the opera. But I come from the, but no appreciation for the art thing, I think we've gotten some converts. I think we've gotten people who still will never be maybe opera buffs, but have much more open ear. I was very surprised, um, two years ago, my brother and I did a memorial recital in honor of my father. And the community turned out from miles around, it was very gratifying. And I was really, um, moved and somewhat surprised that the response to my operatic singing was as great as that of the spirituals and the gospel. Because people, although they may not speak the language, I maintain if they expose to it and if you're giving it to them from your heart, which is where it all starts, they'll
get it. Most people will get it. They really will. What does the mean to you being a part of the Metropolitan Opera now? Well, it means wonderful. That means it's changed. The meaning is changed over the years. As a young singer, it meant everything. As a singer as I developed, it meant, uh, being recognized in the big world of music. At this stage, it is like any other institution in that it has, uh, the wonderful aspects of it and the difficult ones, which is, it's hard work. That's the bottom line to do anything, isn't it? Do you foresee yourself as a role model for aspiring opera singers, particularly black opera singers? Well, see myself? No.
I don't see myself that way, but certainly other young singers whom I meet do, particularly blacks and I've, and just young singers in general, um, because it is the dream of every inspiring young singer to, if not the Metropolitan, something on that level, to taint with that absolutely. We hear about Barbara. We hear about Lynn team price, but other black opera singers. Hmm. Could you tell us some of them? You want to know the names of some of them? Oh, my goodness. Who would you agree with? You admire. Well, you've named, uh, you've named two of my favorite black opera singers. Oh, God. Well, you know, I, again, you have to start being with, with Mary Nandison and Paul Robeson, because those are the voices I grew up loving. And then, of course, you had, um, Todd Duncan, who, I mean, these are recordings for me, granted. Yeah.
But still, you know, I, the, the represents so much. We now have an absolute, um, I mean, the Metropolitan has a number, very exciting, like, singers on it, on its roster. Uh, let's start with some of the male singers. We have Simon Estes, who is just an absolutely gorgeous bass baritone, who is, uh, internationally recognized and acclaimed singer. Um, of course, we have Shirley Verrett and Grace Bambri and, um, Leona Mitchell and, uh, Philip Creech and, I mean, the name, the list goes on, Kathleen Battle and we are, um, Marvis Martin, who's a young black singer, who I'm very fond of, um, you name it. What particular operas you enjoy performing in? Um, I have some favorites now.
I used to, it used to be difficult to say, certainly, you would have to say that one of the great vehicles for Metso Soprano is Carmen, Samson and Delilah. Carmen was one of your first ones. That's right. Houston, Houston Grand Opera, that's right. Um, oh, Il Trovatore, the role of Azucena, uh, the role of Amneris in Aida, it's one of my most favorite roles. The role of, uh, the whole ring cycle of Wagner, I do the frickers in Rangold and Valkyrie and the Valtrauta in Gertedemarone, a love singing or a feo of glook. I mean, those are some of my most favorite roles. Do you ever get nervous performing? Every single performance. Is that a sign that you're still learning or this is all still exciting every day? Well, the nerves have, I would say, changed quality a bit.
Okay. Used to be nerves to the point where I didn't know where my name was practically. Now there is a, there's an excitement, I would say. It is, uh, it is the hype, the hyper, uh, sensitivity that you, I feel that artists must get into, uh, let's put it this way. I'll speak very personally. This artist does and I've developed, I've developed, um, my yoga breathing and things of that sort to balance it so that it's just excitement and not nerves that take away for the performance because I am by nature very high stront. That's nothing new. What does Barbara like to do to get away from the showbeer's aspect of your career? Oh, Barbara likes to hang out with her family. My husband and I have, uh, brother and two nieces and sister and her husband who live in New York and close friends and go up to visit my friends, the poets, uh, best poet
who is my personal representative. Her family, we sit around and just shoot the breeze and eat. Well, there was a time I used to eat soul food and it, I would still eat it if I could, but I don't do that anymore because it doesn't agree. I love, I love the ocean. One of the great things about moving to the east coast was being able to enjoy the thing. I discovered a little bit what I would live to here was by going to the beach in Galveston. I love the ocean. I absolutely love it and love to mountain climb to don't do very much, but I do hike a lot. I read, I've always been a vociferous reader, I guess. Read a great deal. Uh, listen to music. I play the piano a lot. Um, I go to concerts occasionally myself. I love the theater, occasionally go there, love dancing, occasionally get to dance concert. A lot of things I would do a lot more of if there were time.
Those are some of the things I enjoy very much, but a quiet evening at home, either alone with my husband or with my family just sitting in the kitchen is some of my most favorite time. Who is your favorite contemporary artist today? No way are you going to hook me into saying that you're talking about, you mean, performing artists? Great. No, John. That's, first of all, I don't have such a thing. Okay. Then that's, that's honest. Okay. I have a number of people who I have great admiration for. Any possibilities of recording album? Uh, yes, there already is the pouring in best with the Cleveland Orchestra, Lauren Mazzell conducting of pouring in best and being released very shortly will be a recording of Hamlet on London Decker by Toma with John Sutherland and Cheryl Mills with Maestro Bunning connecting
to the very exciting project. Continuous success. Thank you. It's, it's very, it's a very exciting time in my life. Metropolitan opera star Barbara Conrad. If you have a comment, I'd like to purchase a cassette copy of this program, write us your dress is in Black America, Longhorn Radio Network, UT Austin, Austin, Texas, 78712. For in Black America's technical producers David Elvarez and Cliff Hargrove, I'm John Hansen. Join us next week. You've been listening to in Black America, Reflections of the Black Experience in American Society. In Black America is produced and distributed by the Center for Telecommunication Services at UT Austin and does not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Texas at Austin or the station. This is the Longhorn Radio Network.
- In Black America
- Opera Star Ms. Barbara Conrad
- Producing Organization
- KUT Radio
- Contributing Organization
- KUT Radio (Austin, Texas)
- AAPB ID
- Episode Description
- on her career with the Metropolitan.
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- This record is part of the Music section of the Soul of Black Identity special collection.
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- University of Texas at Austin
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Copyright Holder: KUT
Guest: Barbara Conrad
Host: John L. Hanson
Producing Organization: KUT Radio
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Identifier: IBA33-84 (KUT Radio)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- Chicago: “In Black America; Opera Star Ms. Barbara Conrad,” 1992-05-25, KUT Radio, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 28, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-529-m32n58dv46.
- MLA: “In Black America; Opera Star Ms. Barbara Conrad.” 1992-05-25. KUT Radio, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. September 28, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-529-m32n58dv46>.
- APA: In Black America; Opera Star Ms. Barbara Conrad. Boston, MA: KUT Radio, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-529-m32n58dv46