Portrait of White, taken ca. 1945 by Yousuf Karsh.
June 24, 1911|
Truro, Nova Scotia, Canada
|Died||February 13, 1968
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
|Genres||Opera, Classical, Gospel|
Early Life and Family
Portia May White was born in 1911 in Truro, Nova Scotia, the third of thirteen children born to Izie Dora and William Andrew White. Her mother was a descendant of Black Loyalists, while her father was the son of former slaves from Virginia, and on his graduation from Acadia University in Nova Scotia in 1903, he became the university's first black graduate. He later became the minister of Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in Halifax, where Izie Dora White was the musical director. White began her musical career there as a choir member at the age of six.
Many members of White's family achieved fame in Canadian cultural and political life. Her brother Bill was the first Canadian of African heritage to run for political office in Canada, standing as a candidate for the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in the 1949 election, and her brother Jack was a noted Canadian labour union leader. In addition to Bill's children, politician Sheila White and folk musician Chris White, Portia White was also the aunt of Senator Donald Oliver and playwright George Elliott Clarke.
White entered Dalhousie University in 1929, and from the early 1930s taught in Africville, a small, sea-side community, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, largely populated by Black Nova Scotians. She won a scholarship to continue her musical training at the Halifax Conservatory in 1939 with noted Italian baritone Ernesto Vinci.
Singing Career and Later Life
White made her national debut as a singer in Toronto in 1941, and her international debut in New York City in 1944. A three-month tour of Central and South America followed in 1946, and she sang in France and Switzerland in 1948. White sang both classical European music and Negro spirituals. Critics responded favourably to her voice. Hector Charlesworth's review in the Toronto Globe and Mail observed, "she sings Negro spirituals with pungent expression and beauty of utterance", while writing in the Toronto Evening Telegram, Edward Wodson said White had a "coloured and beautifully shaded contralto all the way. . . . It is a natural voice, a gift from heaven."
Vocal problems later forced her to retire from singing in 1952, and she settled in Toronto where she taught some of Canada's foremost singers of the day. Her students included Dinah Christie, Robert Goulet and Lorne Greene. She also taught at Branksome Hall, a private girls’ school in Toronto.
Portia White briefly left retirement to perform for Queen Elizabeth II, at the opening of the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, in 1964. This was to be one of her last major concerts.
She died in Toronto in 1968, following a long battle with cancer.
Portia White has been declared "a person of national historic significance" by the Government of Canada, and she was featured in a special issue of Millennium postage stamps celebrating Canadian achievement. The Nova Scotia Talent Trust was created in her honour, as was the Portia White Prize.
- Think on Me. 1968. White House Records WH-6901
- Great Voices of Canada, Vol 5. White et al. Analekta AN 2 7806
- First You Dream. 1999. C. White W001-2
- Library and Archives Canada also holds audio recordings of White's live performances.
- Aitken, Margaret. "Portia White, the new Canadian star of the concert stage," Saturday Night, 8 Apr 1944
- Geller, Vincent. "I, too, am Nova Scotia," Performing Arts in Canada, vol 23, Sep 1986
- White, Jay. "Portia White's spiritual winter", Collections of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society, vol 44, 1995
- Nurse, Donna Bailey. "Portia White, 1911-1968", Opera Canada, vol 39, Fall 1998
- "Portia White 1911-1968". BlackPast.org Remembered & Reclaimed.
- Merna Forster. 100 Canadian heroines: famous and forgotten faces. p. 274. ISBN 1550025147.
- "Portia White". The Canadian Encyclopedia.
- Women Musicians in Canada "on the record the Music Division of the National Library of Canada by C. Gillard." Ottawa : NLC, (1995) ISBN 0775905178
- "Portia White 1911-1968". The Centre for Canadian Studies.
- African Canadian Online article about White
- CBC News Report on White, which includes clips of her singing