By Joseph Trivers
Throughout the 20th century, great operatic singers have populated Canada’s cultural landscape—from Raoul Jobin, Maureen Forrester and Jon Vickers to Gerald Finley and Measha Brueggergosman. Their lives are often as dramatic and inspiring as the roles they play on stage in an opera. The life of Portia White, Nova Scotian contralto, was no exception. Praised for her radiantly beautiful and consistently even tone as well as her regal and dignified stage presence, White was the first African-Canadian concert singer to win international acclaim. November 7, 2016, marks the 75th anniversary of her triumphant national debut in Toronto and gives us a welcome opportunity to reflect on her life, accomplishments and career.
“I really made my debut here [in Toronto] when I sang in November, 1941. It was my fourth professional engagement, but it was my first big city. The next day I received a contract. I always feel it was Toronto which discovered me.” – Portia White
White’s remarks about her debut in Toronto might give the impression that her success came quickly. However, the path to that 1941 concert, and the contract that followed, was marked by years of hard work, some good fortune, and plenty of support from her family and the people and governments of Halifax and Nova Scotia.
Early life and education
It seemed as if Portia was destined for a career in the performing arts and to have a strong and determined character. She was given the name Portia after the heroine of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice by a family friend. In the play, the character Portia achieves her goal of marrying the suitor of her choice through intelligence, grace and quiet determination. Whether or not such a name foreshadowed these same traits in Portia White, her upbringing certainly encouraged them.
Her parents were themselves remarkable people. Her father, the Reverend William A. White, was the son of freed slaves from Virginia, only the second African-Canadian admitted to Acadia University and the first to receive a doctorate in Divinity from Acadia. He also served as the only black chaplain in the British Army in World War I. Portia’s mother, who was descended from Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia, gave Portia her first music lessons. The family moved from Truro, Nova Scotia, to Halifax after Portia’s father returned from the First World War and became the pastor of the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church.
The family’s life was centred around the church, so it is no surprise that much of Portia’s early musical life and education began there. She began singing in the church choir under her mother’s direction. She later took teacher training at Dalhousie and became a teacher in black Nova Scotia communities such as Africville and Lucasville. The work helped to pay for her music lessons. Throughout the 1930s, she took lessons from Bertha Cruikshanks at the Halifax Conservatory of Music. A scholarship enabled White to study with the Italian teacher Ernesto Vinci at the Conservatory in 1939. It was Vinci who began to have her train and sing as a contralto.
Toronto and beyond
Portia White first gained recognition and acclaim in Nova Scotia by performing in local festivals and benefit concerts and by singing on her father’s weekly radio program. She won the Helen Kennedy Silver cup at the Halifax Music Festival in 1935, 1937 and 1938. Further opportunities beckoned when Edith Read, principal at Branksome Hall, a private girls’ school in Toronto, heard her singing. Read was originally from Nova Scotia and was on vacation from Toronto at the time. It was through the support of the Branksome Ladies Club that White came to sing at Eaton Hall in Toronto on November 7, 1941.
The Toronto concert was such a success that White was immediately offered a contract by a branch of Oxford University Press for concerts and a touring career. She resigned from her teaching job to devote more time to her music. In 1942 and 1943 she toured across Canada, which helped boost her Canadian reputation, eventually giving a command performance for the Governor General. White eventually gave her first performance in the United States at New York City’s The Town Hall, in March 1944, to wide acclaim. She moved to New York to be closer to her managers, and was supported financially by the governments of Halifax and Nova Scotia through the Nova Scotia Talent Trust. It marked the first time two different levels of government came together to support an artist’s career. White signed with Columbia Concerts Incorporated and went on to tour Canada, parts of the United States, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.
Later career and legacy
Concert life was hectic, and White eventually began to feel she didn’t rest enough between concerts and travelling. She started experiencing difficulties with her voice, and some critics began complaining of flaws in her voice. This, and disagreements with her managers, led White to retire from public performance. She settled in Toronto, where she took further singing lessons at the Royal Conservatory with the soprano Gina Cigna. She also taught singing privately and at Branksome Hall. White did perform again, throughout the 1950s and 60s, but not very often. One such notable concert was for Queen Elizabeth on October 6, 1964, at the Charlottetown Confederation Centre of the Arts in Prince Edward Island. Less than four years later, in February 1968, White passed away in Toronto after a battle with cancer.
As an artist, Portia White was renowned for her versatility and varied repertoire. She was equally at home singing spirituals as she was singing arias from Italian operas, German Lied or French mélodies. No commercial recordings of White were made during her lifetime; however, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) acquired audio recordings, from the White family, of concerts she gave in Moncton, New Brunswick, and New York City. Some commercial recordings were released posthumously, including the album Think on Me from 1968, two songs on the Analekta label’s Great Voices of Canada (Volume 5), and the album First You Dream (1999), all of which are in LAC’s collection. A documentary, Portia White: Think on Me, was directed by Sylvia Hamilton and released in 1999. White’s legacy continues to live on in the trust fund that was created in her name. Each year the Nova Scotia Talent Trust presents the Portia White Scholarship to a young person showing “exceptional potential as a vocalist.” The Government of Canada named Portia White a person of historical significance 1995 and honoured her with a millennial stamp issued in 1999.
Joseph Trivers is Music Acquisitions Librarian in the Published Heritage Branch at Library and Archives Canada.