Portrait of White, taken ca. 1945 by Yousuf Karsh.
June 24, 1911|
Truro, Nova Scotia, Canada
February 13, 1968 (aged 56)|
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 13 children born to Izie Dora (White) and William Andrew White. Her mother was a descendant of Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia, while her father was the son of former slaves from Virginia; he moved to Canada independently. In 1903 he was the first black graduate from Acadia University in Nova Scotia. He later became the minister of Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in Halifax, serving for more than 17 years there. Izie Dora White was the musical director of the church. Portia White began her musical career there as a choir member at the age of six.
Many members of White's family achieved distinction 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. Portia White was the aunt of politician Sheila White, folk musician Chris White, Senator Donald Oliver  and great-aunt to playwright George Elliott Clarke.
Portia White entered Dalhousie University in 1929. From the early 1930s taught in Africville, a small seaside community in Halifax that was predominately Black Nova Scotian. She won a scholarship in 1939 to continue her musical training at the Halifax Conservatory of Music 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 African-American 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 Edward Wodson writing in the Toronto Evening Telegram 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. There White taught some of Canada's foremost singers of the day. 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 one of her last major concerts.
She died in Toronto on February 13, 1968, at the age of 56, following a long battle with cancer.
Legacy and honours
- White has been declared "a person of national historic significance" by the Government of Canada.
- 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.
- In Halifax she is the namesake of Portia White Court, a street, as well as the Portia White Atrium in Citadel High School.
- Lance Woolaver wrote a play about her life, Portia White - First You Dream' it has been presented several times, most recently in Petrolia, Ontario.
- 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 April 1944
- Geller, Vincent. "I, too, am Nova Scotia," Performing Arts in Canada, vol 23, September 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. Historica Canada. Retrieved 30 September 2015.
- "Senator Donald Oliver". Virtual Museum of Canada. Retrieved 19 January 2018.
- "Portia White profile at". 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. Archived from the original on 2009-03-18.
- "Portia White Prize", Arts Nova Scotia Awards.
- "Portia". Victoria Playhouse - Petrolia. Victoria Playhouse. Retrieved 3 July 2017.