Opera about Black Canadian contralto is ‘poetic justice in an art form that rejected her’

By Neil Armstrong

The Canadian Opera Company’s upcoming opera, “Aportia Chryptych: A Black Opera for Portia White,” sets out to reclaim the Black Canadian contralto’s story and evokes memories of the past as a form of political resistance.

L-R Neema Bickersteth, Adrienne Danrich and Portia Spirit Photo credit Librettist Director HAUI

Haui, the director and librettist, describes it as a “love letter to Black women” and said it is poetic justice to share White’s work in an art form that rejected her. 

White, who was born in Truro, Nova Scotia, on June 24, 1911, was the first Black Canadian concert performer to achieve international fame in the mid-20th century, touring North America and performing in Europe while being hailed as the best classical voice of her generation. Yet despite such artistic accomplishments, her story has been erased from Canadians’ collective memory. She died of cancer on February 13, 1968, in Toronto.

It is a recovery of what she did in her lifetime as someone who walked the streets of Toronto and Halifax and tells her story not just as an icon, but also an individual who faced struggles and battled breast cancer, said Haui, who also describes White as Black royalty.

Spoken word, rap, folk songs, hip-hop, R&B, and classic opera repertoire collide in an explosive score that seeks to break down musical silos and unite artistic and cultural communities.

Sean Mayes, composer, said it was important to include the various genres of music to showcase the Black culture from which White came. Evidence of that creativity was showcased on February 20, at “A Musical Scripture,” a preview of the Black opera, at the Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre in the Canadian Opera Company’s opera house, Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

The sneak peek included sopranos Neema Bickersteth as Portia Body, SATE as Portia Soul and Jonelle Sills (standing in for Adrienne Danrich who is based in New York City) as Portia Spirit accompanied by pianist Joy Brown, percussionist Matthew Machanda, and assistant director/assistant producer Sheree Spencer.

“It is February 13th, 1968, the night of Portia White’s death. Portia lifts the veil, stepping over into the spirit realm, where she is fractured into her Body, Soul, and Spirit. Within the Bardo (the crossroads between life and death), memories compound as Portia revisits pivotal moments in her past. A figure from her former life begets a maelstrom of memories, fragments of her family, and echoes of her earthly existence, which Portia must decode and decipher. As Portia contends with letting go, she must learn to reconcile in the hopes of ascension. Is it better to be remembered; or is it how we live that truly matters?” That synopsis captures the quandary in which White finds herself as she contemplates her mortality.

The three sopranos in the production on June 14, 15 and 16 at the Canadian Opera Company Theatre are Neema Bickersteth as Portia Body, Adrienne Danrich as Portia Spirit, and SATE as Portia Soul.

At the media tour held just before the preview of the opera, Al Ramsay, a director of the COC’s Board and chair of the COC’s Community Partnership &Programming Team; Mackenzie Morgan, director, Community Partnerships & Programs; and Avril Sequeira, director of public relations spoke of opera company’s initiatives to be more representative and inclusive of Canada.

In the Winter 2024 Program, Perryn Leech, COC general director, noted that for the month of February the lineup for its Showcase Series focused on performances and programming from African and Caribbean artists. He described the world premiere of Aportia Chryptych: A Black Opera for Portia White” as “a major milestone in this project’s journey.”

The COC’s Showcase Series features artists and creatives from the Asian, African and Caribbean, and Latin American diasporas, to celebrate and amplify voices of colour through creative expression, storytelling, and cultural participation. Performances are free but require registration.