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Movie Documents Life Of Black Texas Opera Singer Once Expelled At UT

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FORT WORTH (CBS 11 NEWS) - Long before she became an international opera star, a Texas woman made national headlines during segregation.

Barbara Smith Conrad didn’t protest for the right to sit in the front of a bus — she only wanted to sing.

Conrad’s story was made into an award winning PBS documentary called “When I Rise,” slated for screening at the Modern Museum of Art in Forth Worth on Thursday.

Wednesday, Conrad was in the museum auditorium. She’ll sing just before the screening Thursday.

Barbara Smith Conrad knows it takes practice to get to Carnegie Hall. She’s performed there and the Metropolitan Opera, the London Symphony and all throughout Europe.

She believes opera was her destiny.

“Because there’s no way you can do this unless you really want to do it,” she said.

Conrad could have left it all behind when she was a student at the University of Texas in Austin. The year was 1957 and a huge controversy erupted when she was cast opposite a white male for an opera production at the university.

In the documentary about her life, Barbara Smith Conrad said, “I felt so betrayed by the people I so trusted. I just did what I always do, to keep singing.”

Alison Beck is the film’s co-producer.

“It’s a first person, powerful story. So, we wanted to capture it on film,” she explained.

When I Rise took three years to make and somewhere along the line Conrad gave Beck the nickname ‘pit bull’.

“She counts on me to get things done,” Beck said.

When asked what Beck calls Conrad, Beck said, “I call her The Diva.”

Conrad has a healthy sense of humor for a “diva.” Her humble roots run clay deep — in Center Point, Texas.

“I loved the farm, loved the clay dirt that we used to dig out of the sides of the road,” she remembered fondly.

Though Conrad has been an opera singer all her life, she still sings the old spirituals. Those are the songs she’ll lift up in voice just prior to the screening of the documentary Thursday night.

Now 73 years old Barbara Smith Conrad is still using the gift she was given to give back.

On Thursday, the Modern Museum of Art will hold a public reception at 6:30 p.m. The screening starts at 7 p.m.

Tickets are free, but seating is on a first-come, first-serve basis.

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