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He was born into a poor but supportive Jamaican family in Kingston. His father was a dockworker, his mother a housewife. White first began to learn music by listening to the radio and singing Nat King Cole songs. He was also inspired by the American singer and civil rights activist, Paul Robeson. He was a founding member of the Jamaica Folk Singers, sang with the Jamaica Amateur Operatic Society and trained at the Jamaican School of Music.
In a passing visit to Jamaica, Evelyn Rothwell, the wife of conductor Sir John Barbirolli, heard him sing and suggested that he go to study in London. Instead, his father bought him a one-way ticket to New York City, because "the flight was cheaper". He won a scholarship and continued his studies with celebrated bass Giorgio Tozzi at the Juilliard School. While at Juilliard, he was selected by Maria Callas to participate in the master classes she gave there from 1971–72.
In May 1971, White made his debut as the runaway slave Jim in the Juilliard American Opera production of Hall Overton's opera, Huckleberry Finn. He next appeared with New York City Opera in 1974 as Colline in La bohème. In 1976, he made his London opera debut with English National Opera as Seneca in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, having starred with Leona Mitchell that year in the first truly complete recording of Porgy and Bess. He has since sung at the Met, Covent Garden, Paris Bastille, the opera houses of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the major European cities as well as the Festivals at Glyndebourne, Aix-en-Provence and Salzburg.
In addition to covering a wide range of the bass-baritone roles in the standard repertoire by Mozart, Handel, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini and Wagner, White has also explored less traditional territory by appearing as Bluebeard in Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle, Golaud in Debussy's Pelléas and Mélisande, Tchélio in Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges, the title role in Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise, Nekrotzar in Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, Claggart in Britten's Billy Budd, John Adams' El Niño, Nick Shadow in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, Creon in Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, the title role in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov and Ivan in Khovanshchina.
In 2005 he sang Michael Tippett's A Child of our Time at the First Night of the Proms. His latest CD, entitled My Way, is on the Sony label. His voice was heard as one of the operatic soloists in the Academy Award-winning motion picture Amadeus. Among his most memorable roles are Mephistopheles in Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust and Porgy in Porgy and Bess. He has starred in non-singing roles, such as a RSC production of Othello (1989), with Ian McKellen as Iago and Imogen Stubbs as Desdemona, and the Glyndebourne production (1993) of the opera Porgy and Bess. Both productions were directed by Trevor Nunn and both were videotaped for television. White appeared with Cantamus Girls Choir in Harrogate in 2004.
Awards and personal life
In 1977, the first stereo recording of Porgy and Bess, conducted by Lorin Maazel, in which White sang the role of Porgy, received a Grammy Award. White himself received the Gold Musgrave Medal of The Institute of Jamaica. In 1995 he was awarded the CBE and he was made a Knight Bachelor in the Queen's Birthday Honours in 2004. In 2000, White was awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit (OM), the third highest honour in the Jamaican honours system, for eminent international distinction in the performing arts. This entitles him to the prenominal style "The Hon".
- Wagner: Die Walküre as Wotan with Eva Johansson, Robert Gambill, Lilli Paasikivi, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle, Festival Aix-en-Provence, DVD
- Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust as Mephistopheles with Veselina Kasarova, Paul Groves, Salzburg Festival, Sylvain Cambreling, DVD
- Porgy and Bess with Leona Mitchell, Barbara Hendricks, Florence Quivar, and others, the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Lorin Maazel. This is the first truly complete recording of Porgy and Bess ever made. Decca (London Records in the US)
- The Paul Robeson Legacy, (2002) a collection of spirituals and ballads made famous by Paul Robeson, arranged specially for Willard White. Linn Records AKD 190, (with Guy Barker, trumpet)
- Willard White – A Gala Celebration: Carl Davis: Three Spirituals, On The Beach (Whitman), Copland: Old American Songs, opera arias by Mozart & Gounod, Bizet's Pearl Fishers Duet, & Broadway numbers including Some Enchanted Evening and Ol' Man River. With Bonaventura Bottone, tenor, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Carl Davis, conductor. RLCD 204
- Porgy and Bess with Cynthia Haymon, Harolyn Blackwell, The Glyndebourne Chorus and London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Simon Rattle. Another complete recording of the opera, and the basis for the 1993 television production. EMI.
- Mozart: Requiem with Barbara Bonney, Anne Sofie von Otter, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
- Handel: Messiah with Yvonne Kenny, Jean Rigby and Thomas Randle, with the Royal Choral Society and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Owain Arwel Hughes
- Knighthood for opera star White, bbc.co.uk, 12 June 2004
- Deon P. Green, Willard White the new voice of Royal Northern College of Music, Jamaica Gleaner, 5 November 2008
- Michael White, "The devil and the deep dark voice", Daily Telegraph, 28 February 2002
- Willard White at the Internet Movie Database
- Will Hodgkinson (15 July 2005). "Redemption songs". The Guardian. Retrieved 16 July 2013.
- An interview with Willard White, recorded in 1992, British Library sound recording