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Portia May White: the Legendary Contralto

For the week of Monday February 7, 2011

On February 13, 1968, concert singer Portia May White died. With a rich voice and engaging stage presence, White won international acclaim in the 1940s. She lived in a time when it was difficult for any Canadian singer to gain such high levels of recognition, and, as an African-Canadian woman, she overcame many barriers on her way to an illustrious career.

A professional portrait of Portia May White
© Yousuf Karsh / Library and Archives Canada / PA-192783
Born into a musical family in Nova Scotia, White was working as a schoolteacher and competing in local music festivals when her great musical talent was discovered. In 1939, the Halifax Ladies’ Musical Club graciously provided her funds to study with the renowned baritone Ernesto Vinci. Under Vinci, she honed her skills and began singing as a contralto, the deepest female classical singing voice. Her career quickly took off. She wowed national audiences in 1941 with a superb performance at the Eaton Auditorium in Toronto. Following her successful American debut in 1944, the New York Times described her voice as “deep and impressive in the low registers, full and clear in the middle and strong and vibrant in the top tones. The whole range of the voice seemed to be produced with consummate ease and freedom.” Although some live recordings of her performances exist, their poor quality does not do justice to the fullness and grandeur of her voice.

A commemorative stamp depicting Portia May White
© Canada Post
Her successful performances thrust her into the limelight, in Canada, the United States and Latin America, but it was difficult to finance her expensive travel budget. In 1944, the Nova Scotia Talent Trust was founded by such notables as the Mayor of Halifax and the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia in order to provide her with the necessary funds to perform in front of audiences worldwide.

Eventually White’s magnificent voice broke under the strain of her powerful breath and, after 1948, she performed only periodically. While her amazing career came to an untimely end, the Nova Scotia Talent Trust continues to provide scholarships to artistic young Nova Scotians to allow them to study in various fields of the arts in the major cultural centres of the world.

February is Black history Month and 2011 will mark the centennial year of White's birth. Portia May White was designated a National Historic Person in 1995 and continues to be celebrated as an enduring cultural symbol of great achievement.

For more information on the life of Portia May White, please read: Breaking Down Racial Barriers Through Music.

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