Magazine article Opera Canada

Grand Tradition: Great Canadian Musical Figures: Portia White 1911-1968

Magazine article Opera Canada

Grand Tradition: Great Canadian Musical Figures: Portia White 1911-1968

Article excerpt

ON MARCH 13, 1944, A CANADIAN CONTRALTO named Portia White made her American debut at the Town Hall in New York City. Ever since her appearance in Toronto in 1941, the Halifax singer had been a significant force in Canadian classical music, performing in virtually every major Canadian city and winning the admiration of critics and audiences alike.

In the U.S., White had been a virtual unknown, but the Town Hall changed all that. New York critics were profuse with their praise. The New York Times described her voice as "wonderfully rich, well-placed and natural." The evening would remain a highlight of White's dramatic, short-lived career.

Portia May White was one of 13 children born to William Andrew White, a Baptist minister, and his wife Izie Dora. William was a native of Virginia who had come to Nova Scotia in 1899 to attend Acadia University, graduating in 1905 with a divinity degree. His wife, Izie Dora, hailed from Mill Village near Liverpool, England.

Reverend White was pastor of Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in Halifax, where music formed an integral part of church life. Izie Dora was the music director, and as Portia and her siblings came of age, they were expected to join the choir.

In her teens, Portia and her younger sister June entered a local competition. They sang an aria from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and were astonished to win first prize. In fact, Portia had sometimes allowed herself to dream of a concert career. Those who heard her sing often suggested she travel to Europe or New York to study. But she had never even been able to afford voice lessons in Halifax, so how could she finance the cost of studying abroad?

Finally, in the late 1920s, White was indeed able to begin voice lessons. She had finished high school and had taken on a teaching job in Lucasville. The pay at the colored schools was paltry, but she could at least afford to pay for vocal coaching. By the late 1930s, she had won the Halifax musical festival several times; she won so often, in fact, that the organizers finally gave her the Helen Kennedy Silver Cup for keeps.

In the late '30s, White was still teaching, but thanks to her vocal talents, she had become something of a local celebrity. As always, wherever she performed, admirers suggested she attempt to study abroad. This remained financially unfeasible, but a remarkable stroke of good luck brought a European instructor to her. Ernesto Vinci was an accomplished baritone who had performed with Toscanini at Milan's La Scala. He assumed the directorship of the Conservatory's vocal department, White auditioned for him soon afterward and he eagerly accepted her as a student. …

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