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Willard White Biography

Selected works


Bass-baritone opera singer, actor

Widely considered one of the greatest singers of his generation, Jamaican-born bass-baritone Willard White made his professional operatic debut with New York City Opera, where he played the character of Colline in La Bohème in 1974. His European debut was with Welsh National Opera in Cardiff, Wales, where he played Osmin in Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio in 1974. He has since gone on to perform in the world's major opera houses and his powerful voice and commanding stage presence have made him a popular and admired singer across a wide range of musical styles. White is best known for performing as Mephistopheles in The Damnation of Faust, a role he has played many times. Besides the traditional classical repertoire he is celebrated for his performances as Porgy in Porgy and Bess. White was honored as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1995 and received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in 2004.

Willard White was born on October 10, 1946, in St. Catherine, Jamaica, the son of a dockworker, Egbert, and Gertrude White. His supportive but non-musical family recognized his talent and White attended the Jamaican School of Music before moving to New York and the Juiliard School, where he studied with Maria Callas. He married Gillian Jackson in 1974 and they have three sons and a daughter; he also has three children from his second marriage. White made his first professional appearances in 1974 when he performed with the New York City Opera in La Bohème, and with Welsh National Opera, playing Osmin on Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio. In 1976 he performed for the first time with English National Opera and also made his first appearance at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1978 as the Speaker in The Magic Flute; he returned to Glyndebourne in 1986 as Porgy in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

White's reputation as a singer rests on his warm, powerful voice and his stage presence, but his career is also remarkable for the range of music he has performed successfully. He has become world famous for his menacing Mephistopheles in Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust, as well as other major roles from the classical operatic repertoire. But he is also celebrated for his stage performances and his recording as Porgy in Porgy and Bess, and for solo performances in 1999 and 2000 at the BBC's "The Last Night of the Proms" concert in London, the biggest event of the British classical music calendar, and one that reaches a global audience of many millions. He has also performed in numerous concert performances of operatic arias, and songs, including singing at the opening of the Millennium Dome as part of London's celebrations at the start of the twenty-first century.

White's career as an opera singer has taken him to the great opera houses of the world, including those in London, New York, Salzburg, San Francisco, Sydney, and Milan. He has sung with the world's most celebrated orchestras, such as the London Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and performed most of the major operatic roles for bass-baritone. White's versatility extends beyond music into stage acting and he has appeared as Othello with the Royal Shakespeare Company to considerable acclaim; after Paul Robeson he is reputedly only the second singer to play Shakespeare's most famous black character. In fact White has often been compared with Robeson and has paid tribute to him with a series of concerts based on his repertoire, entitled "An Evening with Willard White—A Tribute to Paul Robeson." In particular the song "Ol' Man River," which Robeson made famous, has become one of White's trademarks.

White is a popular performer with a reputation for bringing emotional and intellectual intensity to the projects in which he is involved. He has been married twice and has seven children; he lives in London.

Selected works

Opera Performances

La Bohème, New York City Opera, 1974.

The Abduction from the Seraglio, Welsh National Opera, Cardiff, England, 1974.

L'incoronazione di Poppea, English National Opera, London, 1976.

The Magic Flute, Glyndebourne Festival, 1978.

L'africaine, Covent Garden, London, 1978.

Orfeo, Salzburg Festival, 1980.

Porgy & Bess, Glyndebourne Festival, 1986.

Pelleas et Melisande, toured United States, 1995-2000.

Semele, Aix-en-Provence, France, 1996.

Nabucco, Cardiff, Wales, 1996.

La damnation de Faust, Empire Theatre, London, 1997.

Flying Dutchman, Coliseum, London, 1997.


Othello, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1989.


Paul McCartney's Liverpool Oratorio, Great Performances, PBS, 1991.

Porgy and Bess, American Playhouse, PBS, 1993.

King Balthazar, Amahl and the Night Visitors, NBC, 1978.

The Love for Three Oranges, 1982.

Porgy and Bess: An American Voice, 1998.

At a Glance …

Born Willard Wentworth White on October 10, 1946, in St Catherine, Jamaica; married Gillian Jackson, 1974 (marriage ended); married second wife; children: (first marriage) three sons and one daughter, (second marriage) three children. Education: Jamaican School of Music, Jamaica; Juilliard School, New York, New York.

Career: Opera singer, 1974-; actor, 1980s-.

Awards: Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), 1995; Knighthood, 2004, for services to music.

Addresses: Office—c/o 10 Montague Ave., London SE4 1YP, England.



Ebony, November 1991, p. 24.

Jamaican Observer, June 14, 2004.

Opera News, April 2000, p. 28; September 2003, p. 88.

Time, February 20, 1995, p. 73.


"Knighthood of Opera Star White," BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/arts/3798349.stm (May 6, 2005).

"Opera Star Performs at Opening Concert," BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/2716283.stm (May 6, 2005).

"Willard White," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (accessed May 5, 2005).

"Willard White," Jamaica's Classical Musicians, www.joyousjam.com/jamaicasclassicalmusicians/id3.html (May 6, 2005).

—Chris Routledge

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