Portia White. Photo courtesy of Sheila White.

Great Moments In Canadian Music (Track 14): “A Gift from Heaven.” Portia White’s Rise from Toronto Debut to International Fame

Born in Truro, Nova Scotia and raised in Halifax, Portia White’s remarkable vocal talents took her to concert stages across Canada, through the United States and South America, and over to Europe, making her the first Black Canadian singer to achieve international fame.

Although her performing career was cut short and her recordings are almost non-existent, her fame continues to grow. There are scholarships in her name and a special issue of postage stamps in her honour. White was declared a person of national historic significance by the Government of Canada, with exhibitions and permanent collections in museums, a feature documentary, books, poetry, and plays based on her life.

White’s relatives continue to keep her legacy alive. Her niece, Sheila White, organized a major exhibit on Portia White that is now housed at the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia. Her nephew, Chris White, produced a CD of some of her concert recordings. They both spent lots of time with her growing up and eventually came to realize her lasting importance as a singer.

“She oozed charisma, she was a beautiful person to be around, you just felt special if she smiled,” says Sheila.

“It wasn’t just Portia’s voice,” adds Chris. “Portia’s voice was unbelievably resonant, whether speaking or singing. It was her entire bearing. She was regal. She was a presence.”

They say their aunt was born to sing, and she knew it.

“Portia knew what she wanted to do by the age of six,” says Sheila. “She always knew she wanted to be a singer. She said if she’d never learned a language, she would have been quite content communicating purely by singing.”

“She had a dream. She saw herself on the stage with lots of people,” says Chris.

Portia White (right) with her mother, Izie Dora. Photo courtesy of Sheila White.

After learning to sing from her mother, White felt she needed more advanced vocal training. Her parents agreed to expensive private lessons where she learned opera, classical performance, and sacred music, but there was really no way for her to advance as a professional singer at the time. The family didn’t have the money, she was a young Black woman, and Halifax was too remote.

Instead, she went to Dalhousie University and became a teacher. In her 20s, she taught at Black schools in Nova Scotia, including in Africville and Lucasville.

She kept singing, too.

White studied at the Halifax Conservatory of Music and entered music festivals. She won the Helen Kennedy Silver Cup for the best performer at the Halifax Music Festival so many times, they simply told her to keep it.

Then, in 1938, fate stepped in.

“The huge, big fluky thing that happened was the appearance of Ernesto Vinci on the Halifax scene,” says Chris.

Vinci was an opera singer from Italy, a voice teacher, a medical doctor, and Jewish. He had arrived after fleeing the rise of fascism in Europe.

“He wasn’t even trying to go to Canada in the first place. He was trying to go to the States. He ended up in Halifax because they wouldn’t let him into the States. He was an unbelievable vocal coach. When they connected, he really developed her talent and promoted her.”

“His quote was something like, ‘Canada has its own Marion Anderson,’ says Sheila. “He immediately recognized her talents. When Vinci arrived on the scene and took over the vocal music department at the conservatory, he realized she probably couldn’t afford to pay for lessons. He arranged to set up a trust fund to support her.”

Vinci realized that White was not singing in her best range, and convinced her to become a contralto to take advantage of her lower tones. He trained her in the Italian Bel Canto style, and soon, her full talents were realized. Vinci was eager to see her advance further, even though she was now 30 years old.

“The Halifax Ladies Musical Club took a keen interest in Portia, and they started sponsoring what we’d call house concerts today,” says Sheila. “A Haligonian named Edith Read, who was the principal of Branksome Hall girls’ school in Toronto, came back to Halifax for a vacation, and happened to attend a recital. Read had tremendous business acumen, and she was determined that this cultural marvel ought to be heard in Toronto. She had the connections and strings to make that possible, with her debut at the Eaton Auditorium.”

White’s debut at Toronto’s Eaton Auditorium was in 1941, and the concert was an immediate success. It was reviewed glowingly in the major newspapers, and White was soon fielding offers for more concerts and tours. One critic wrote, “It is a natural voice, a gift from heaven.” White was soon performing around the country.

Despite her success, she encountered plenty of racism.

“She was denied entry into the Granite Club in Toronto,” says Sheila, although that was later resolved. “She lived in Yorkville for a time, and after a concert, friends were trying to drive her back home, and the police didn’t care who she was, they had to re-route, she was denied entry into her neighbourhood.”

Chris adds, “In Regina, she was denied entrance to the hotel and ended up staying at the home of the mayor.”

There was more of that to come in the next major step of her career. After auditioning for the director of the Metropolitan Opera, she was invited to give a recital at New York’s prestigious Town Hall. She was the first Canadian to perform at that important venue.

“In the States, she was really shocked at the racial divide and the treatment accorded to Blacks,” says Sheila. “She wasn’t able to take the train to New York for that Town Hall performance. She had to get friends to drive her. She couldn’t stay in the hotels, she had to have her meals brought out to the car. While the people who drove could stay at the hotel, Portia stayed with friends in Harlem.”

Fortunately, that didn’t affect her performance, which again was reviewed triumphantly as a major coup. The New York Times called her “remarkable.”

“She plays Town Hall, and the applause after the song would be a minute long, after just one song,” says Sheila. She would be invited back twice more in the next year.

White was also signed to the Columbia Concerts agency, the largest in the U.S. They put her on the road in 1945, and she toured incessantly. She performed throughout the U.S. and Canada, then the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Europe, all in the period from 1945 to 1948. Everywhere she went, she was hailed. In Panama, they struck a medal in honour of her role promoting the aspirations of young Black people everywhere.

Sheila heard her sing in concert several times in the 1960s and describes the experience.

“Thrilling the person to the marrow, just the sheer quality and excellence of this Bel Canto method of singing. She was an expert technician, she never stopped studying, she never stopped perfecting her craft. When you heard her, you would hear the brilliance of the sound and the emotion, and the technique perfected.”

Her specialty was spirituals, and she also sang folk songs, opera, and traditional European classical fare, in several languages. But there is precious little to hear of her now. White never entered the studio to record, and all that is available are a few concert songs and a one-off private recording made in Moncton.

Sheila thinks the lack of recordings could be due to a problem with the oversight of her career.

“The one letter that we have on the subject of her career that Portia wrote was complaining about bad management. Another letter from her friend suggested that she was exploited. Portia would get her back up if that was ever suggested to her, she never bore a grudge about the way her career was handled. But the fact is, bookings would fail, efforts weren’t made to promote, expectations would be set and then not delivered.”

Touring took a big toll on her as well. She was expected to make most of the arrangements herself, performing in one town, paying for accommodations and meals up front, and then driving to the next town with her accompanist. This continued for weeks at a time, sometimes hopping from country to country.

In 1948, she developed vocal problems requiring surgery, likely due to her abrupt leap to fame and the rigours of nightly singing. In 1952, she had surgery for cancer as well, and at that point, she stopped touring.

She didn’t quit music altogether though. She became a vocal teacher, giving lessons to many of the best and brightest Canadian singers from Robert Goulet to Lorne Greene, and the CBC would hire her to work with performers appearing on their broadcasts. Many of her students regarded her as the most important teacher in their careers.

White continued her own training and felt that at some point, she might return to touring. She did give occasional concerts, in Toronto and back in Halifax, and she even gave a command performance for Queen Elizabeth II at the opening of the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown.

But her cancer returned, and Portia White died in 1968.

Chris and Sheila grew up knowing their aunt was an important singer, but it didn’t really strike home until later. They always admired the regal woman who liked to sing with them at family gatherings, and over time, they realized just how important she had become.

“It’s very interesting the extent to which I’ve been influenced by Portia in recent years,” says Chris. “It’s not just me. She never had any recordings circulated or sold until much later, and she was not played on the radio, and yet she impacted so many people to this day who are doing so many things in tribute to her. She had a major impact as a role model. For me, my mom always spoke in a different voice when she talked about Portia because she realized how special she was.”

White’s powerful voice sparked international recognition that was rekindled years after she was gone.

“It kept growing and growing, my awareness,” says Chris. “There’s a film, and then a book, and a stamp, and then she’s declared a person of national historic significance with plays about her. We’re always getting messages from people who were profoundly influenced by just hearing her once. All of that adds up to me.”

Portia White. Photo courtesy of Sheila White.