By RON FANFAIR
Watching a beautiful Black woman receive a standing ovation for gracefully walking on stage was Othalie Graham’s inspiration to become an opera singer.
She was in her early teens when her late Jamaican-born father, Gifford Graham, took his daughter to a Leontyne Price recital.
Now 89, the African-American soprano was the first Black singer to perform on stage at La Scala, one of the world’s most famous opera venues.
Following in Price’s footsteps, Graham has received rave reviews for her interpretations of the title roles in Turandot and Aida and her Wagnerian repertoire commitment.
Preparing for her Canadian debut with the Edmonton Opera in the title role of Turandot, Brampton-born Graham took some time out of her busy schedule to return to the city where she was born and raised to be inducted into its Arts Walk of Fame last Saturday.
“No matter where I sing across the world, it means so much to be honoured, not only by my country, but more importantly by my city,” the Etobicoke School for the Arts graduate told Share.
Graham, whose role models also include Grammy award-winning opera singer and recitalist, Jessye Mae Norman; operatic light lyric soprano, Kathleen Battle who is known for her distinctive vocal range and tone and late celebrated Swedish dramatic soprano, Birgit Nilsson, has fond memories growing up in Brampton.
“I sat outside Starbucks with my friends talking about what we wanted to do when we got older, I spent a lot of time at the bus station waiting for transportation to get to my part-time job in downtown Toronto and also to my voice training lessons and I worked at a store in Bramalea City Centre mall,” she said.
In her acceptance speech, Graham thanked several people for their encouragement and support.
They included her late father, Gifford Graham who succumbed to cancer at age 48 in 1998 shortly before his daughter enrolled in the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, her mom for her unconditional love, her husband of a decade and voice teacher, Lois MacDonald.
“I had an incredible voice teacher who was the only person to truly believe in my talent when no one else knew what to do with this enormous voice,” said Graham who lives in Philadelphia. “The things that she taught me were things that I thought I never needed to know like how to use all the different forks and knives for eight course meals, how to greet heads of state, how to elegantly get out of limousines when you are being greeted by photographers and more importantly, how to sing.”
MacDonald said Graham was enthusiastic, anxious and determined when they met just over two decades ago.
“Her only plan then was to make it,” said MacDonald. “She was very willing to work and grow a step at a time realizing that you can’t do it overnight. Getting to the top also depends on some luck. She had to be heard by the right people and I tried to steer her in that direction.”
Next February, the talented singer will appear with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra in Massachusetts to celebrate Price’s 90th birthday.
Award-winning playwright, Trey Anthony and four-time Juno award winner, Exco Levi, were also inducted.
The first Black Canadian woman to write and produce a television show – Da Kink in My Hair – for a major prime time Canadian station, Anthony – who splits time between Toronto and Atlanta – was unable to attend the event.
The show, which made its Calgary debut on September 9, ends on October 3.
Anthony moved from Rexdale to Brampton in Grade 10.
“I spent my high school years there and was the student council president the first two years at Notre Dame Catholic Secondary School,” she said. “That was a stepping stone to me becoming comfortable in public speaking, public performance and just being on stage in front of people. In Grade 12, I met an amazing teacher, Francine Horvath-Gassenbeck who encouraged me to pursue acting and gave me the wings to fly. The city holds a dear and special place in my heart.”
A former Women’s Television Network producer and Comedy Network and CTV writer, Anthony was recently named a Bell Media Fellow that recognizes emerging television producers and their contributions to Canadian media.
The only reggae artist to capture four straight Juno Awards, Levi – who migrated from Jamaica in 2005 – made Brampton his home seven years ago.
“It’s quiet and not as fast-paced as Toronto where I resided before coming here,” said the artist who released his debut album last March. “The people are friendly and I have received much support from the politicians here over the years.”
Last year, Levi performed in Zimbabwe and Malawi with Jamaican dancehall performer, Busy Signal and in Finland and Norway.