When I Rise: Film Screening & Performance


Barbara Smith Conrad delights audience at film screening and performance

As a student at the newly desegregated University of Texas, Barbara Smith Conrad found herself at the center of a racial controversy when she was cast opposite a white male lead in an opera to be performed on campus.  Segregationist representatives in the Texas legislature applied pressure on the university, forcing it to remove Ms. Conrad from the show.

But was clear to all who attended the Feb. 3 film screening, performance and panel discussion about When I Rise that one controversy would not hold back Barbara Smith Conrad.  A woman of grace and style, Ms. Conrad shone brightly on the stage of the LBJ Auditorium.

The documentary tells the story of Conrad’s experience at the university and subsequent rise to International stardom through a lens of healing and forgiveness.  Throughout the evening, Ms. Conrad shared her feelings about the past, saying that she had not faced her true feelings about the events in 1957 until she agreed to the documentary project.

Following a screening of the film, Icy Simpson, (M.M., 2009) and Ms. Conrad each performed for the audience and then sang together before Ms. Conrad delighted the audience with a special performance for Millie Graves, the mother of Conrad’s college classmate and friend, Carolyn Good, for her 99th birthday.  Conrad came down off the stage to serenade Good with “Lord, Make Me An Instrument of Peace.”

A panel including Barbara Smith Conrad, Icy Simpson and Mat Ham, Director of the film addressed questions from the audience.  During the panel, Ms. Conrad encouraged everyone to follow their passion and make music a part of their lives.

A feature-length documentary about Barbara Smith Conrad, a gifted University of Texas music student and her rise to international opera.

When I Rise is the uplifting story of Barbara Smith Conrad, a gifted University of Texas music student who finds herself at the epicenter of racial controversy, struggling against the odds and ultimately ascending to the heights of international opera. The film is a production of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History and was directed by Mat Hames, produced by James Moll and Michael Rosen, executive produced by Don Carleton, and made possible in part by AT&T.

In 1957, Barbara Smith Conrad, who was part of the first racially integrated undergraduate class at The University of Texas, became the central figure in a civil rights storm that changed her life forever.  Cast in an opera as the romantic lead opposite a white male student, Conrad became embroiled in a bitter controversy that made its way to the halls of the Texas legislature, where segregationist representatives applied pressure on the university. When Conrad was expelled from the opera the incident escalated to the national stage, prompting singer Harry Belafonte — then at the height of his fame — to offer to underwrite her studies at the institution of her choice.

Rather than flee, Conrad chose to stay at The University of Texas and complete her degree, graduating in 1959.  This small-town girl, whose voice and spirit stem from her roots in East Texas, emerged from the incident to become an internationally celebrated mezzo-soprano and headliner on stages around the world.

This video is a screen clip of Barbara Smith Conrad in When I Rise


The film screening on February 3 was followed by a performance by Barbara Smith Conrad, mezzo-soprano, and Icy Simpson (M.Mus., 2009). Ms. Simpson, soprano, is currently completing an Artist Diploma in Opera Performance at UT Austin. They were accompanied by pianist, Richard Masters.


MODERATOR | Don Carleton

Mat Hames, Director, When I Rise
Barbara Smith Conrad, mezzo-soprano
Icy Simpson, soprano


Barbara Smith Conrad is a mezzo-soprano whose distinguished career has touched the lives of audiences around the world. She is an artist whose musical breadth encompasses a span as great as the distance between the Baptist church of her youth and opera houses around the world.Barbara Smith Conrad

Barbara earned her Bachelor of Music degree from The University of Texas in 1959.  She was one of the early pioneers in the movement to create a more open and diverse university community, and her accomplishments and fortitude as a student represent an important chapter in UT’s history. The Texas Ex-Students Association named her a Distinguished Alumnus in 1985, and the university honored her with the founding of the Barbara Smith Conrad Endowed Presidential Scholarship in Fine Arts.

Visit the official When I Rise Web site.

Photo by Rick Patrick, courtesy of Alpheus Media, Inc.


Thursday, February 3, 2011 | 6:30 p.m.

LBJ Auditorium
2313 Red River, Austin, Texas (map)

Email Cathy White or (512) 232-3617

When I Rise DVD on PBS
The DVD is now available for purchase from the Shop PBS Web site

Barbara Conrad When I Rise Photo courtesy of Dolph Briscoe Center for American History apply for grad school share and connect
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