Camp County diva Conrad honored by documentary
Mar 18, 2010 | 2784 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Mirror Photo / Mary Laschinger Kirby<br>
ARRIVING FOR the world premiere of a film about her life, Barbara Smith Conrad is flanked by Dr. Don Carleton, left, executive director of the Briscoe Center for American History at UT-Austin, and Mat Hames, director of When I Rise, the documentary biography of the opera singer who grew up in the Center Point Community near Pittsburg. The premiere was part of the current South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival in Austin.
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AUSTIN — When I Rise, a documentary film about Barbara Smith Conrad, Camp County native who overcame racial discrimination to achieve international stardom as an opera singer, had its world premiere in Austin Sunday afternoon.

An official selection of the 10-day South by Southwest Film Festival, which ends March 20, it was shown at the downtown Paramount Theater. The capacity audience was made up of both invited guests and ticket buyers.

Ms. Conrad made her entrance on a red carpet. Her entourage included her cousin, former Gilmer resident Barbara Fluellen, whose comments play an important role in the feature-length film.

Another local connection is Ms. Conrad’s relationship with the late Bruce School Principal Curtis Smith, her uncle.

The diva, now a resident of New York City, has performed three times at the Gilmer Civic Center in the last 15 years, singing both solo and with a choir of local singers.

The film told the story of how Ms. Conrad grew up in the rural commuity of Center Point, attended a segregated high school and entered the University of Texas at Austin on a music scholarship.

When she was cast in 1957 as the lead female performer in a student production of the opera Dido and Aeneaus opposite a white male, an uproar ensued. Under pressure from the Texas Legislature, led by State Rep. Joe Chapman representing Camp County, the president of the University had Ms. Conrad removed.

Singing star Harry Belafonte offered to finance her transfer to any college in the country, but she chose to stay at UT and finish her degree. His support was helpful when she moved to New York City to begin her professional life.

Ms. Conrad is now recognized as a UT Distinguished Alumna. As a mezzo-soprano she has sung lead roles in the Metropolitan Opera and other major companies here and overseas. She was ultimately reconciled with the Legislature, which honored her in 2009 by declaring Barbara Conrad Day.

In depicting the subject as one whose voice and spirit stem from her roots in East Texas, the film began with scenes from around Center Point, with attractive shots of rolling, pine-covered hills.

Appearing on stage after the film ended to a rising ovation from the enthusiastic adience, Ms. Conrad was wearing a fitted long gown of palest pink. After receiving an arm bouquet she said she was “thrilled beyond words” by the film, which touched her greatly. She said she was overwhelmed by the filmmakers’ love and appreciation for her efforts, and added that “they really wanted to tell the story right.”

She said that music has always been her solace, and though she enjoys many of its forms, it is spirituals that are closest to her heart.

When I Rise was produced by the Briscoe Center for American History at UT and Austin’s Alpheus Media, in association with Allentown Productions. The film was directed by Austin filmmaker Mat Hames, who joined Ms. Conrad on stage and spoke briefly.

Dr. Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center, also spoke. He said It had been a privilege to work with Barbara Conrad to make the project a reality, and he looked forward to distributing it to the rest of the nation. He called the documentary an important part of Texas and American history.

In an earlier statement, UT-Austin President William Powers Jr. had said that Ms. Conrad’s story of struggle, and eventual triumph, over racism is one that echoes the university’s own commitment to diversity and inclusion.

“In creating this documentary, the university takes a hard look at its own history,” he said. “When I Rise is more than just the journey of one of our most distinguished alumni. It embodies the messages of tolerance, justice and diversity that are central to the university’s mission.”

Writing on the website, Reviewer Jeanne Claire vanRyan called the film “intelligent, poignant and ultimately liberating.”

In the spirit of Barbara Fluellen’s comments in the film, the reviewer wrote, “we’re reminded that [the diva’s] mettle comes directly from an inner strength and pride instilled when she was a child. And that mettle sees her through to the present day: Conrad’s remarkably capacity to forgive is the ultimate star of When I Rise.”
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