Tonight I had the good fortune to attend the Canadian premiere of When I Rise, screened here as part of Hot Docs, the documentary film festival held annually here in Toronto. It chronicles the ascent of African-American mezzo Barbara Smith Conrad after a particularly ugly racist incident at the very beginning of her career.
The film tells the story of how, after being cast as Dido (opposite a white Aeneas) in a student production of Dido and Aeneas, she inadvertently became a target for racist, segregationist anger in 50′s-era Texas. The interracial casting drew the ire of the Texas state legislature, who threatened to withdraw funding from the university if the performance went ahead as planned. Conrad was pulled and a white singer was cast in her place, but when the incident drew the attention of The New York Times and other national media, famous calypso singer Harry Belafonte took her under his wing and ultimately helped her establish her illustrious operatic career. Conrad went on to perform at the NYCO, the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna, Hamburg, and other major houses.
The filmmakers understandably chose to focus on the narrative of civil rights, injustice and forgiveness rather than the specifics of Conrad’s artistry and exploits in the opera world. However, there’s plenty for the opera lover to enjoy, including clips from Don Carlos, glimpses of Conrad’s vocal workshops, and a montage featuring some spectacular headdresses. It’s also a slice of operatic history that is often neglected – an interesting depiction of the way African-American singers formed their own operatic tradition, going back to Marian Anderson, within the confines of what is typically a very Eurocentric art form.
Those of you in Toronto have one more chance to see the film this weekend at Hot Docs, on Sunday at 4:00 PM at the Cumberland. Until then (or if you can’t make it), enjoy this interview of Barbara Smith Conrad from SXSW 2010: