Obituary: Barbara Smith Conrad, Beloved Opera Trailblazer, Dies at 79

By Katharine Baran

Barbra Smith Conrad, the world-renowned opera singer, passed away on May 22 at the age of 79.

The cause still unknown, but a cousin of Conrad declared that she had advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Conrad, an acclaimed mezzo-soprano, sang at the most esteemed stages across the globe, from New York’s Metropolitan Opera to the Vienna State Opera.

At the age of 19, and as part of the first group of black students accepted to the University of Texas, she was supposed to play the role of Dido in Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas.” However, three days before the performance was to debut, she was cut from the role.

This caused more controversy than when she was cast in the role alongside a white male leading part. Because of this, Eleanor Roosevelt spoke out in support of Conrad and Harry Belafonte, singer, actor, and civil rights activist, offered to pay for her tuition at any college of her choice.  She remained at UT.

By 1965, Conrad was appearing with the New York City Opera in the lead female role of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and in 1985 she appeared at the Met’s company premiere of “Porgy and Bess” and returned to that opera house often in her career.

Between 1982 and 1989 she played the roles of Preziosilla in “La Forza del Destino” and Maddalena in “Rigoletto.” Conrad sang the title role of Bizet’s “Carmen” at the City Opera.

Throughout her career, she performed and sang in symphonies around the world, in the White House and in 1995 before Pope John Paul II when he visited NYC. In 2009 the Texas Legislature offered a resolution trying to make up for her past there, honoring her as she gave a performance beneath the Capitol done after the resolution passed.

Then in 2011, she was granted the Texas Medal of Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement and the History-Making Texan Award. And in 2012 she was appointed to the Butler School of Music as visiting professor and artist-in residence.

“Music is a great healer and a great bonder,” said Conrad in 1998, “It just transcends everything.”