Celebrating Past AIT Adjudicators: Shirley Verett and Barbara Smith Conrad

Ms. Shirley Verett (1931-2010) was an African-American mezzo-soprano who transitioned into several soprano roles, overcoming racial discrimination to develop a flourishing stage and concert career across the United States and Europe.

Ms. Verett was born in New Orleans, one of five children in a religiously conservative family. Although they encouraged her talent, her parents did not approve of opera and encouraged young Shirley to pursue a concert career like that of Marian Anderson. In 1955, Ms. Verett began to study voice with Ms. Anna Fitziu, as well as studying spirituals and German lieder with the celebrated choral conductor, Hall Johnson. While auditioning in New York for a television broadcast, Ms. Verett also auditioned for the Julliard School. Although initially resistant to an opera career, Shirley Verett saw Maria Callas in a moving performance of Bellini’s Norma and began to change her mind. By 1959, Ms. Verett was engaged by Leopold Stowkowski to sing with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. The offer was withdrawn by the symphony board who refused to engage black soloists. Ashamed of their response, Stowkowski took Ms. Verett to perform with the more successful Philadelphia Orchestra in a performance that launched her career to a national level.

Ms. Verett Congratulates AIT Singers at 2006 Adjudication

Ms. Verett won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 1961. She made her Met debut as “Carmen” in 1968 and returned to perform more than 120 times. In 1973, Ms. Verett was at the height of her career, and made opera history, singing both the Act I soprano role of “Cassandra” and Act II mezzo-soprano role of “Didon” in a single performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens.  Ms. Verett became well known for singing the works of Verdi, Donizetti, and Bellini, including the title role of Norma – the same role which she had seen Maria Callas perform, and which became one of her most beloved roles to perform.

By the 1990s, Ms. Verett drew her operatic career to a close, though she did continue with Broadway and concert performances. Instead, she turned her attention towards teaching, accepting a professorship at the University of Michigan where she was endowed as the James Earl Jones Distinguished Professor of Voice. Ms. Varett adjudicated the spring 2006 Artists-in-Training recital.

Barbara Smith Conrad (1937-2017) was an acclaimed mezzo-soprano who graced the worlds most esteemed stages from New York’s Metropolitan Opera to the Vienna Staatsoper.

At age 19, Ms. Conrad was propelled to national attention while training at the University of Texas-Austin. Originally, from the rural Texas town of Center Point, she enrolled in the music program at UT-Austin in 1956 – the first year black students were accepted as undergraduates. During her first year on campus, Ms. Conrad was encouraged to audition for the school’s production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Her audition earned her the role of Dido, the queen of Carthage, cast opposite a white student portraying Aeneas. While interracial pairing was still controversial across the nation with Marian Anderson having broken the color barrier at the Met only two years earlier, the casting was particularly shocking at a university in the throes of desegregation.

Her casting drew so much attention and fury that segregationalists in the Texas state legislature threatened the withdrawal of university funds if her role was not recast. The university submitted to this political pressure, removing Ms. Conrad from the title role. Although privately devastated, Ms. Conrad was gracious. Others were irate on her behalf, including the singer, actor, and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte who offered to pay for Ms. Conrad’s education at any other university. However, Ms. Conrad remained at UT-Austin until her graduation in 1959 citing that “the ultimate success of integration at the university was much more important than my appearance in the opera. (Austin American-Statesman)”

Barbara Smith Conrad at Spring 2012 AIT Adjudication

Encouraged by early supporters, including Belafonte, Sidney Pointier and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Ms. Conrad went on to a prolific performing career, singing with premiere opera houses and symphonies around the world. Her performances including the premiere of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at the Met, the title role of Bizet’s Carmen with City Opera, and private performances at the White House and before Pope John Paul II during his New York City visit in 1995.

Ms. Conrad received a public apology from UT-Austin and the Texas state legislature, where she performed a stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace” in the capital rotunda. In a 1998 interview with Texas Alcade Magazine, Ms. Conrad remarked, “Music is a great healer and a great bonder. It just transcends everything. When I first discovered Bach preludes and fugues, I had to think about who I was talking to. You had to be reminded in those moments who was white, who was black, who was Asian, who was whatever. It was somebody who was struggling with the same issues you were struggling with, who was so passionately in love with the art form.”

A great advocate for young singers, Ms. Conrad joined Artists-in-Training as adjudicator of the 2012 Spring Recital.

Hear Ms. Verett perform Lady Macbeth with La Scala Opera at the Kennedy Center (1976)

View the trailer for the documentary on Ms. Conrad’s life, Now I Rise