Canadian filmmaker and writer Sylvia D. Hamilton reflects on the subject of her 2000 documentary Portia White: Think On Me.
Portia White, Contralto (June 24, 1911- February 13, 1968)
Portia White was a Nova Scotian classical concert performer who was born in Truro, N.S. and raised with her siblings in Halifax by her parents, Rev. William and Izzie White. A former schoolteacher who taught in segregated schools, Portia catapulted to international stardom after triumphant debuts in Toronto (1941) and New York (Town Hall, 1944). She was widely known at the time as “Canada’s Marian Anderson.” White’s bel canto technique, mastery of languages and three-octave range drew accolades from audiences and critics alike. She performed memorably throughout Canada, the US, the Caribbean and South America. Named by reviewers as the “new star of the concert stage,” White’s achievement was rare in a period when race and gender defined women’s place in society. Poor health and management problems sidelined her brief, though unprecedented, career. Based in Toronto in the 1950s, she was the voice teacher of choice for aspiring Canadian theatre and television performers. She has been recognized as a Person of National Historic Significance by the Canadian government and was commemorated on a Canadian postage stamp. The Portia White Prize, one of Nova Scotia’s significant arts awards, was created by the provincial government in her memory.
Remembering Portia White
Nobody ever told me to sing, I was born singing. I think that if nobody had ever talked to me, I wouldn’t be able to communicate in any other way but by singing. I was always bowing in my dreams and singing before people and parading across the stage as a very little girl. [i]
I never heard her sing. I never saw her perform. I never met her. How could I know her life as an artist would later strongly influence me as I tracked my own artistic path? Portia White died two months before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, four months before I graduated from high school. The year was 1968. Her life spanned two world wars, the great depression and the civil rights movement. When Portia was 14, Josephine Baker was in Paris turning heads, stirring up controversy as she performed at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in 1925 dressed only in feathers. When Billie Holliday recorded the arresting, uncompromising song “Strange Fruit” in 1939, on the cusp of another war, Portia was 24. She was a school teacher living a split life: teaching Black children by day in a segregated school in Halifax’s Africville and rushing to voice lessons after school; and, whenever she could, singing in concerts and local music festivals.[ii]
That same year, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) prevented Black contralto Marian Anderson, who would later figure in Portia’s life, from performing a concert at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a member of the DAR, resigned in protest. The concert went ahead: Anderson performed outside on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, Easter Sunday. Years later, Portia would meet Marian Anderson after one of Anderson’s concerts and Eleanor Roosevelt would invite Portia to sing on a radio broadcast she hosted. 1939 was quite a year: Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, leading to World War II. The crisis brought a special person into Portia’s life: Ernesto Vinci came to Halifax to head the voice department of the Halifax Conservatory of Music. He became her voice teacher and one of the key architects of her career—at 28 years old, she was somewhat late to embark on a performance career.
Nobody ever told me to sing, I was born singing. I think that if nobody had ever talked to me, I wouldn’t be able to communicate in any other way but by singing. I was always bowing in my dreams and singing before people and parading across the stage as a very little girl. – Portia White
I have been thinking a lot about how one remembers someone they never met. And how it is that one can spend so much time thinking in detail about this someone they never knew. How did she organize her day? What was her favourite breakfast? What did she like to read? What made her laugh? What excited her? What caused her to be sad? What was it like to be in a room with her? What it was like for her to step onto the stage at New York’s Town Hall at a time when so few others like her had done so? How did it feel to be refused a room at a hotel in her hometown and then to experience the wonder and acclaim of a three-month concert tour to South America and the Caribbean?
Portia’s Early Years: Music Everywhere
Named after Portia from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, she was born on a Saturday in June, “a child who works hard for a living,”[iii] the third of 13 children. She and her siblings received a very early start in music. Their mother Izzie, an accomplished singer who also played the mandolin and harpsichord, gave the children piano and singing lessons. Portia began learning to play the piano when she was five years old. There were so many children in the family, they took up most seats in the choirs at Rev. William Andrew’s African Baptist churches in Truro and Halifax. Their Belle Aire Terrace home in Halifax’s north end was always alive with music: when the children tired of attempting to outdo each other’s singing, they could always rely on church choir members who stopped by after Sunday service to join the merriment.
Carolyn Heilbrun, author of Writing a Woman’s Life, writes that when she was young in the 1930s and early 1940s she was “caught up in biography” because
[I]t allowed me, as a young girl to enter the world of daring and achievement. But I had to make myself a boy to enter that world; I could find no comparable biographies of women, indeed, almost no biographies at all.[iv]
Portia White was born in 1911 and, according to her mother, was an avid reader. Like Heilbrun, she would have had few, if any, biographies of women to read, and certainly none of Black female classical concert performers. So how was it that she latched onto the idea of becoming a concert singer? This question was one of the main ones propelling me into her story, and one that I’m still trying to answer.
Canada’s Singing Sensation
Between 1941, when she was introduced to Toronto audiences at Eaton Auditorium, and 1944, when she astonished gratified the New York audience gathered for her Town Hall debut, Portia captured the full attention of arts critics and music lovers alike. Reviewers fell over themselves trying to find superlatives to describe her performance. Paul Bowles, in his New York Herald Tribune review of her Town Hall Concert, wrote that she “not only has a magnificent vocal instrument, but that she also has sufficient musicianship and intelligence to do what she wishes with it.”[v] Critic and musician Nora Holt told her New York New Amsterdam News readers: “Without question Miss White possesses a warm, rich voice with power, beauty and a smooth, even range of at least three octaves.”[vi]
Portia and the Sorrow Songs
I have been thinking a lot about how one remembers someone they never met.
When I was young, attending my home church in Beechville, Nova Scotia, a village established by free Black Refugees from the War of 1812, a single voice would rise with the first few lines of a spiritual—within seconds, everyone from children to elders added their voices. As young children we were unaware of the origin and meaning behind these songs; we knew nothing about slavery, its relationship to us or its story echoed in these powerful lyrics. But our little bodies felt their importance as we sang and swayed in ring shouts circling the inside of the church. None of us knew of the African-American scholar Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois and his description of these spiritual songs as “sorrow songs.” The role of the spiritual in the concert artist’s program is summed up by writer and music scholar Rosalyn Story:
A recital by a black artist without the inclusion of at least one spiritual, either in the body of the program or as an encore, is rare. Some artists find the omission of the spiritual unthinkable.[vii]
Portia White’s adoption of the spiritual as an integral part of her repertoire followed the path first established in 1917 by Georgia-born tenor Roland Hayes, and her contemporaries Dorothy Maynor, Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson. All performed arrangements by African-American composers such as Harry T. Burleigh, James Elmo Dorsey, Edward Boatner and Hall Johnson. Portia sang these “sorrow songs” wherever she performed, from her earliest recitals in Halifax to large concert stages.
Over the course of her short but intense performance career, Portia performed in close to one hundred concerts across Canada, the US, the Caribbean and South America. The field of artist management was just developing in the 1940s; sadly, the company Portia chose ultimately did not serve her well.
Another Singing Daughter of Nova Scotia
Reeny Smith, a young Nova Scotian singer/songwriter, is making her mark as a talented performer. While her path is not classical music but rather contemporary R&B flecked with hip hop, her musical roots are like Portia’s: she was born into a musical family and at a young age began playing piano and singing in choirs in her community church in North Preston, N.S. Along with a scholarship to support her studies, Smith won the Nova Scotia Talent Trust 2011 Portia White Award for Excellence in Vocal Performance. The Nova Scotia Talent Trust was originally the “Portia White Trust,” established to support and foster Portia’s career; it eventually became the Nova Scotia Talent Trust, a permanent organization dedicated to helping all Nova Scotian artists.
Reeny Smith performs in a galaxy far away from Portia’s—in addition to live concerts, her fans can keep abreast of her artistic development through any number of online platforms—yet she benefits from the brilliantly lit path that is her predecessor’s legacy.
Portia White: Think On Me
While I was making my first documentary Black Mother Black Daughter (1989), which focused on the lives, experiences and contributions of Black women in Nova Scotia, I wrestled with the amount of material I had and the variety of women whose stories were lining up—waiting, needing to be told. In the film, historian Pearleen Oliver says, “we only have a few minutes, so we can’t do the impossible.” Wise words indeed. Portia White was one of the women whose story I longed to tell. This was 1987. My film Portia White: Think On Me, which I began to actively work on in 1990, was released in 2000. Think On Me, the English art song that Portia performed as a concert encore, seemed a fitting title for my documentary.[vii]
My research began more than 20 years after Portia’s death in 1968. Given how much time had passed, I wondered if I would find people, beyond her family, who could speak to different aspects of her story: Portia’s musical talent and training, her performances, personality and teaching ability. I needed musical experts who could help me understand the challenges she faced and her contributions as one of Canada’s first widely known classical singers. I created a multi-layered, detailed research map with a birth-to-death chronology to guide me, filled plenty of Clairefontaine notebooks, index cards and file folders, and wrote applications for funding.
Portia’s family gave unqualified support and offered photographs, stories and suggestions of people with whom I could speak. Two of her brothers, her sister and two of her sisters-in-law agreed to be interviewed on camera. Their spirit of cooperation and their desire to have her story told motivated me to keep pressing on to make the film regardless of how long it would take.
As producer, I dealt with more than 20 individuals in eight funding agencies during the documentary’s development and production. We filmed interviews in various locations in Nova Scotia, Ontario and Detroit, Michigan. What impressed me most was the palpable imprint Portia left on anyone who saw her perform, who worked with her or who studied voice with her. Even after 40 or 50 years, they remembered her with such clarity: how and what she sang, what she wore on stage, how she taught and encouraged. She touched many hearts. The film was widely broadcast on VISIONTV, BRAVO, the Knowledge Network and CBC; invariably, after telecasts, people sent letters and cards to me with their warm memories of seeing her in concert. Others, who had never heard of Portia, were grateful for being introduced to this pioneering Canadian woman artist.
She has been recognized as a Person of National Historic Significance by the Canadian government and was commemorated on a Canadian postage stamp. The Portia White Prize, one of Nova Scotia’s significant arts awards, was created by the provincial government in her memory.
Still Researching After All These Years
Even now, it’s the details of Portia’s life—its nuances, complexities and meaning—that I continue to explore in my research as I prepare a manuscript for her biography. I remember my mother saying that Portia White had taught in our one-room segregated school in Beechville just before she had. She remembered that music played a big role in Portia’s classroom teaching. This was before I was born. My uncle Reggie, when he was 86, told me this: when he was about 16, he had a crush on Portia, though she never knew it. Portia boarded with my great aunt Emma, whose home was a regular stop for anyone coming into the community. Aunt Emma saw a lot of my eager uncle because he wanted to see Portia. So, she was in my life without my knowing it. And they—great aunt Emma, my mother Marie, uncle Reggie and Portia—are gone, yet still with me.
After many years of research, I still have lots of questions, both about her and about me and my need—and I call it a “need”—to tell her story. How much of my own story is bound up in this need, and does this have any place in Portia White’s biography? All I can do is to keep writing to find out.[ix]