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All-Black opera pays tribute to Canadian singing legend Portia White | CBC News



All-Black opera pays tribute to Canadian singing legend Portia White | CBC News

An all-Black opera is exploring the life of Nova Scotia singer Portia White, who is known as the first Black Canadian concert singer to become internationally famous, but whose legacy some say has been erased from the country’s collective memory.

The Canadian Opera Company Theatre is debuting Aportia Chryptych: A Black Opera for Portia White in Toronto this weekend, with performances Friday, Saturday and Sunday, including a Saturday live-stream presentation for viewers outside of the city at 2 p.m. ET. 

WATCH | Portia White performs on CBC program Tabloid in 1958:

Portia White performs on the CBC-TV program Tabloid in 1958

Portia White performs with Ron Collier and his band on Nov. 12, 1958 on the CBC show Tabloid. She was performing with him on stage in Toronto the next night.

“She’s arguably one of the most important figures we have, as far as a Black classical artist in Canada,” said Sean Mayes, the opera’s composer and conductor.

“It’s something that we should really be proud of. She was a remarkable figure.”

The opera’s producers say Aportia Chryptych will evoke memories of the past as a form of political resistance. They encouraged the audience to wear white for opening night to honour the singer’s name, life and legacy.

Mayes hopes the show plays a small part in ensuring White’s legacy becomes common knowledge for Canadians today.

A mural of a woman's face on a wall outside.
A mural of Truro-born opera singer, Portia White, done in Paint the Park 2019. The Canadian Opera Company Theatre debuts Aportia Chryptych: A Black Opera for Portia White in Toronto this weekend. (Emma Davie/CBC)

Born in Truro, N.S., and raised in Halifax, White wowed audiences in the 1940s, making her concert debut at Toronto’s Eaton Auditorium in 1941 and going on to perform classical European music and African American spirituals on tours around the world.

Her performances were critically acclaimed, with The New York Times calling her voice “remarkable” and a Toronto Evening Telegram critic writing that her singing was “a gift from heaven.”

She won numerous awards and also acted in CBC TV series The Crucible. One of her final public appearances was a special command performance for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1964.

WATCH | Portia White’s family history:

Portia White’s family history

Portia White is a descendant of William and Isabella White of Williamsburg, Virginia, U.S.A. Members of the family got together to talk about their history in this July 1999 CBC report.

In 1995, the Canadian government declared White a person of national historic significance.

Aportia Chryptych honours her contributions and, Mayes said, also tries “to illuminate all of the different ways in which Black artistry has contributed to music.”

To that end, the opera has elements of romanticism and baroque, and expands further beyond the classical world with elements of R&B, rap, spoken word, gospel and neo-soul.

A woman sitting on a couch holds a framed portrait.
Sheila White holds a charcoal drawing of her aunt, Portia. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Portia White’s niece, Sheila White, says she is “exceptionally proud” of her aunt’s continuing legacy, and remembers the late singer always having a huge smile and bringing small gifts when she came to visit.

While White received numerous honours both within her lifetime and posthumously, Sheila says this weekend’s production is special. 

“There have been books and films and stamps and statues, but this is like having her blazing star emblazoned on the heavens,” she said.

“This is a wonderful thing that Portia would be over the moon about.”

WATCH | A movie explores the life of Portia White:

New film explores life of Portia White

As Colleen Jones reports, the new film is hoping to teach the younger generation about the legendary Nova Scotia singer. White died in 1968, but she was back in the spotlight last night during the premiere of a film called Portia White – A Vibrant Presence.

The opera tells the story of White’s life by way of her death, starting on Feb. 13, 1968, the night she died. When the singer steps into the spirit realm, she is fractured into the three women inside of her — Body, Soul and Spirit. 

A figure from her former life takes her back through pivotal moments of her life, to help her reconcile and contend with letting go of her struggles and uncertainties. Her exploration takes her back to grapple with grief, illness and the racism she faces in her travels, particularly while performing in the U.S. 

The opera world never truly accepted White, which is part of what makes this production to special to Haui, the show’s lead creator, stage director and librettist.

“It’s so deserved, and the sad irony of it all is it didn’t happen in her lifetime,” he said.

The opera is billed as a fictitious work inspired by real events — Haui said it’s not a biopic by any stretch of the imagination.

“It’s truly someone at the end of their life entering the spirit realm, and through these fractured memories, replaying moments, disrupting some moments, trying to make sense of a life … in the hopes of ascension.”

A singing woman pictured on a Canadian stamp.
White was featured on a 1999 stamp issued to honour extraordinary entertainers in a millennium collection. (Canada Post)

Rock singer SATE, who plays Portia’s Soul character, said there is a lot of mythology around White’s life because of how little of it was recorded, placing a big responsibility on the singers to fill in some of those gaps.

“I think it will open up [the audience’s] minds. It’ll bring a little curiosity, just about who she is,” she said.

“If they don’t really understand the magnitude of her or why this whole opera is about her, I hope that they do a deep dive now.”

WATCH | Truro, N.S. high school dedicates auditorium to Portia White:

Truro high school dedicates auditorium to Portia White

There was a special tribute on Tuesday for famed Nova Scotia singer, Portia White. Students and staff at the Cobequid Educational Centre in Truro dedicated the school auditorium in her name. Preston Mulligan has the story.

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