Following A Dream
In her later years, Portia May White offered this explanation for her life: "First you dream, then you put on your walking shoes."
In the era in which Portia grew up, few would have imagined that the sixth child of Izie and Rev. William White would end up as a classically trained contralto on concert stages — before adoring audiences, including one with a head of state. Portia sang around the house as a child in Truro and later in the choir of the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in Halifax when her father became its minister. There was never any doubt about her talent. The question was, how could she with her family's modest means obtain the training she would need to sing the classical repertoire? Portia dreamed there might be a way, yet her teaching job in Africville did not pay enough for the lessons she would need.
In the 1930s, others stepped in to make her dream a reality. The Halifax Ladies Musical Club paid for Portia's classes at the Conservatory of Music, where renowned Italian baritone Ernesto Vinci mentored her. Vinci later said she was the most talented pupil he worked with in North America. Next, the provincial government created a Nova Scotia Talent Trust — which still exists — specifically to assist Portia with her touring costs. By the 1940s, Portia was touring and singing across Canada and internationally. One Toronto critic wrote that hers was "a natural voice, a gift from heaven." In the 1950s she settled in Toronto and took on students, including Maureen Forrester and Robert Goulet. In 1964, Portia came out of retirement to sing for Queen Elizabeth II at the opening of Charlottetown's Confederation Centre for the Arts. The Portia White Prize, established in 1998, recognizes cultural and artistic excellence in Nova Scotia.